How to Manage Time and Prioritise

Time Management and Prioritising
You can always make more effective use of your time. The only person who can do this is you, so says standard wisdom on time management. The number one element in managing time effectively is the ability to prioritise properly.

Prioritising is all about habits and disciplines. Most of these are simple, and a good place to start is by using the 10:10 rule. During the first 10 minutes of the day set out the day's priorities. Use the last 10 minutes of the day to carry out a stocktake of how the day went. Do not expect perfection, as you cannot plan for everything. Some work is reactive.

How to Prioritise

Successful prioritising is all about balancing that which is urgent and that which is important. To do this we have to define these two words. If urgent work is not completed today there will be adverse consequences. Important work is work that contributes directly to your purpose.

In turn, therefore, we need to be clear about our purpose. To do this you need to answer the question 'Why am I here?' You should aim to answer this question and define your purpose in a single sentence. For example, "My purpose it to maintain the software systems within the organization".

Once you have done this you will find that all of your work will fall into one of four categories (see below). Categorising your work in this way is how to spend the first 10 minutes of the day.

Urgent and Important

Some work will be both urgent and important, in the way we have defined above. This is priority A work and nothing must be allowed to get in the way of this. This is work that contributes directly to your purpose and, if not done, will have consequences.

You need to set aside time where you can focus on this. Occasionally, it may be necessary to isolate yourself in a meeting room to ensure you cannot be interrupted. Nobody needs to know you are in a meeting with yourself!

Urgent but not Important

Aside from work that contributes directly to our purpose most of us will have other incidental tasks. Sometimes these can be urgent. If that is the case then these too, have to be done today. The discipline required here is to spend the minimum amount of time on the task to satisfy the need and no more. Do not allow these tasks to get in the way of your priority A work, even if they are more interesting and enjoyable.

Important but not Urgent

If you have work that contributes to your purpose but does not have to be done today, again, do not allow it to clutter up the day. Set aside a more suitable time in your diary for it to be done and return to it on that day, remembering to re-prioritise it at that point. Priorities change on a daily basis.

Neither Urgent nor Important

Don't do it. A percentage of this work will reappear at some point in the future and will fall into one of the other categories above. Some of it will never be seen again.

False Prioritising

We can all be guilty of false prioritising. Sometimes we assign greater importance to a task than it merits. Commonly, this is where a task is more interesting than some of the more mundane, yet still important jobs. Constantly refer back to that purpose statement established earlier. Keep asking yourself, 'Does this task contribute directly to my purpose?'

It is even more common to assign false urgency. Not everything has to be done today. Two ways to help assign urgency, rather than assume urgency, are as follows. When someone gives you a piece of work, ask the question, 'When is the latest you need this by?' Often, but not always, the reply might be, 'Middle of next week is fine.' Thus urgency has been established.

A variant on this is to tell people what you can do, not promising what you can't do. On being given a task, say something like, 'I can get that to you by Friday, will that be okay?' You will be surprised how often the answer will be, 'Yes.' If it isn't, then once again the true urgency has been determined.

Reactive Work

Not all work can be planned in advance. Some work will necessarily be reactive. Reactive work is defined as work that arrives today and you had no idea beforehand that it was going to turn up. A prearranged phone call is not reactive work, even though you have to respond to it when the call is made.

The only way you can allow for reactive work is on the basis of historical precedent. Over a given week make a log of all work that is reactive. There's no need for detail. Something like "10 minute discussion with colleague" will do. At the end of the week calculate the total time spent doing reactive work as a percentage of your normal hours. Let us say this comes to 10% (always deal in round figures). On that basis, on any given day, only plan for 90% of the day. You still don't know what the reactive work will be, but you have built in time for it when it does arrive.

Finally, throughout the day constantly question what you are doing, and ask yourself whether that is the best use of your time right now. As managers, remember it is also your job to help your team prioritise.

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