The topic of how to prioritize is something that we all focus on throughout our careers.  It is the core of how we are successful at work while finding our work-life balance.

What you will learn…

  1. The importance of prioritizing
  2. How to separate the urgent from the important
  3. A great tool to ensure you remain focused on the right things

Spend Your Time Wisely, Prioritize Everything

Your time is the most important asset that you have. You will never get everything done. But to be successful, you must focus on the right things. This requires that you to optimizing what you work on, what you delegate, what you do not work on, and your own personal productivity. Below are the important aspects of this.

You can’t do everything.

So don’t try.  Be brutal in your prioritizing.  Consider three important aspects.

  1. Is it required to achieve your goals?
  2. What if you don’t do it?
  3. Who cares?

If it is absolutely required to achieve your goals, then it has to get done.  Now you can ask the follow-on question – is it something that I can delegate?  If it is, delegate it.  If not, then this is one that you will have to prioritize and complete.

There are lots of things that we need to do that are not directly tied to our goals.  This is why the next question is important.  In being brutal about prioritizing, you have to start from the perspective of not doing it, and then only allowing things onto your list if you have to.

I would prefer to leave the last question off the list, but it is a reality.  If your boss or someone else influential in the company really cares, you have to take this into account in your decision. These turn out to be important in the way you are perceived and can impact your career.

The last thing on this topic.  I have been in a number of situations where I was asked by my boss to take on an additional task.  To achieve it, and given the amount of time that I am willing to spend at work in order to achieve the right balance, I would have to trade off something else important. The approach that I have used is to go back to them and lay out my priorities and then ask what they would like me to drop in order to add to this new task. This is an incredibly valuable approach. Often times they do not understand the trade-off that would need to be made in order to complete this new task.  Once they understand this, they can actually help you to prioritize!

Separate the Urgent from the Important

A key aspect of prioritizing is to separate the urgent from the important.

Looking back on how we prioritize, the first item on the list is alignment with goals. To achieve your goals, you need to make sure that you spend time on the things that will allow you to achieve these goals.  I often see too much time being spent on what I call urgent – the unplanned hot issue of the day.  These can consume your time, not leaving enough time for the important.

First, you must recognize that there is a difference. Then you have to be even more brutal in prioritizing these.  Use the same steps described above. Next, you have to determine how to minimize the work that you spend.  It is not ok to simply delegate these as they will take time away from your team.  And lastly, you need to make sure that this kind of urgent item does not continue to hit you and your team. You as the manager must ensure that the majority of your and your team’s time is spent on what is important – those tasks that will allow you to achieve your goals.

My Favorite Tool, and it is Really Simple

Now that we have discussed how important time is, talked about prioritization and discussed that measurement is important in order to get better, we need a way to operationalize this.

The approach that I use has four steps.  I repeat these every 3 to 6 months.

  1. Determine your desired state
    • Define a reasonably small (on the order of 6-10) list of categories where you spend time.
      • Some work-related categories: Planning; Personal Development; Subordinate Development; and Operations.
      • Some home-related categories: Exercise; Watching TV; Volunteering; and Helping with Homework.
    • Assign a percentage of your time to each of these categories.
    • This is the hard part of this whole exercise!
    • The first time that you do this you will get it wrong.  You will not have the right or enough categories.  Don’t worry, it is not about perfection.  It is about improvement.
  2. Track actual time spent
    • Use a calendar to track EVERYTHING that you do.
      • This sounds daunting but it really isn’t. Your day likely starts out with some number of meetings scheduled.
      • All you need to do is fill in the open spots as the day goes on.
      • And you only need to do this for two weeks.
    • I like to use a granularity of 15 minutes.  Any more granular and it really feels like a burden.  Any less granular and I find that I am frequently working on more than one category.
  3. Compare actual to desired
    • Print out your calendar.
    • In each scheduled time slot, write down the category.
    • Sum the time spent for each category.
    • Turn the sum into a percentage of time for the category (divide the time for the category by the total time across all categories).
    • Compare the actual time spent to the desired state.
    • Write down on each block of time the associated category.
  4. Adjust
    • I have never had my actual match my desired.  Assuming yours does not either, it is time to determine how to change how you are spending your time.
    • Go through each category where you are overspending (spending more time than you desire).
      • Look at each time slot associated with the category.
      • Decide which you can stop doing, reduce time on, or delegate to someone else.
      • If possible, remove or shorten some of these activities on your calendar moving forward.
    • Now go to the categories where you are under-spending.
      • Think about what else you want to do to increase the time allocated.
      • If possible, add/block off time on your calendar moving forward for these activities.
    • You may find that your allocations were incorrect.  That is an ok outcome as well.  Write these down for the next time you go through this exercise.

See Also

Become Way More Productive

Make An Impact – How Goals Can Help


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