Your time management system is busted. Bottom line, unless you actually make a living as a professional organizer — in which case I’m willing to bet you’ve never even needed to multi-task — you’re one of millions (millions!) of people that equates staying on top of your game with “not drowning in a sea of things that need to be done, half of which I couldn’t possibly remember without a reminder.” I’m with you, my friends. But I really, really don’t want to be.

First: here’s to everyone who’s ever been rendered distractible, incapable of saying no to more tasks, compelled to answer email after non-urgent email just to get an Inbox number down, gone way above and beyond their job description, worked until midnight, eaten at their desk, held a conference from a moving car, called themselves a catch-all, or had an anxiety attack over a deadline that was given two hours beforehand, only to have it turn out to be totally unnecessary.

Second: let’s fix this madness, shall we?

ASAP: The Most Ambiguous of Promises

“As soon as possible” is one of my favorite double-edged promises. I use it a lot, and I use it to be given credit for acknowledging that I read (opened) your email, and to buy myself time — because either (a) your message/ question is not nearly as urgent to me as it is to you; (b) you’ve sent me six emails in the last four minutes and I don’t understand what’s wrong with you; (c) I’d rather control when I get to whatever it is than have you do the ol’ pop-in at my desk; or (d) I’m buried, but I don’t want you to know about it.

But the fact of the matter is, ASAP doesn’t really mean anything. At all. As soon as possible could mean two minutes from now or never in a million years, and while it’s sweet that we all know how useless it is but still let it slide, it’s the business equivalent of telling someone you’re “sorry they feel that way.” It’s not a real apology any more than ‘soon’ is a concrete date, but you used the word the other person was after, so they don’t really get to ask any more questions.

So cut it out. First of all, try very hard not to consider every buzz and ding spilling from your devices important enough to pull you away from the task at hand. When you do decide to read and respond to messages, take the thirty seconds to check your schedule and reply with a real-time estimate of your future actions on the task. Breaking the news that this isn’t on today’s list of priorities is a lot more useful — and manageable — than categorizing your every to-do as TBD.

ABC > 123

The general idea behind creating a schedule or a to-do list is to get your ducks in a row and prioritize what needs to be done (duh). As a rule, we decide the fate of our projects chronologically, backing up from pending deadlines and splicing our days into increments of time that we can dedicate to taking action. But that’s a mistake, and in many cases, a pretty costly one.

Imagine that you’re planning for the arrival of a new baby. You know you have roughly nine months to do everything from childproofing your house to acquiring all the accoutrements and necessities — basically, a to-do list that’s miles long and includes huge, very important items interspersed with wee, could-be-left-out items. In this scenario, if you were to organize all of the tasks chronologically based on needs relative to the deadline, you could very easily end up on the business end of the pregnancy with child locks on your toilet, eighty pounds of diapers, and no car seat, because perhaps you considered that to be something you could do relatively quickly at any point in the nine months. But because you didn’t account for the importance of the task, you’re now looking at a very dangerous and highly illegal car ride home from the hospital.

The point? Prioritizing tasks based purely on a deadline and not on overall need and outcome is dangerous. Instead of 123, categorize by ABC — ‘A’s being the must-haves, ‘B’s the should-haves, and ‘C’s the nice-to-haves. In other words, the potential consequences of that task not being taken care of. You might have promised to get back to an email by EOD, but if you place it on your checklist above booking a hotel for your conference this weekend, you’re setting yourself up for a lot more than just facing an irritated co-worker.

It’s On You, Leaders

“You can’t change the rest of the business until the CEO changes,” says time-management guru Dave Crenshaw. He’s basically arguing an old standard — lead by example, and your teams will follow. In terms of a larger organization, change should begin at the top and trickle down, ensuring that things like delegation of tasks or project expectations are championed and demonstrated by high-value stakeholders.

Time-management is pretty personal, but it doesn’t have to consume you completely — in fact, the more effective the time-management system, the less you should even have to think about it at all. Besides, you’ve got to fit your life into your schedule at some point, you know?