Prioritising and time 


“Those who make the worst of their time most complain about its shortness.” – La Bruyere


There must be plenty of research into how our lives have changed, and the effects of the speed at which we live our lives in today’s world. Daily life is full of hassles, and stress has become the modern way of life; most of us even think it’s the normal way to get things done.

This is true in the workplace, where  in truth, most of us could get through any day of a working week purely responding and reacting to things that come our way, rather than being proactive and choosing what we do. One of my completely unscientific questions to individuals I work with is to ask them how many emails they receive a day; most answer that its in excess of 80, and for many its approaching 100 (even if in those, there are some that are “spam” and easy to delete). There are some people that we come across though, who seem to manage well, with a sense of calm, and not at the mercy of rushed agendas, and last minute crises.

The key question for us all is how much can we do about this? How much of it is the organisation or system in which we operate, and how much can we as individuals have a say? Can we slow things down in order to get what we need to get done, or at least buy ourselves time for some prioritising of what needs to happen. Some people I come across feel trapped within the team and wider organisation they are working in, and sense they have little freedom to flex. However stressed the team is though, I do feel we can all improve our own time management through better planning, prioritising, delegating, controlling our environment (rather than always the other way around), understanding ourselves and identifying what we will change about our habits, routines and attitude.

The key to successful time management is planning and then protecting the planned time. People say that they have no time do not plan, or fail to protect planned time. If you plan what to do and when, and then stick to it, then you will have time. This involves conditioning, or re-conditioning you and your environment.

An “imperfect example”

I am careful not to set myself up as an examplar here, but it provides one example of an approach to try and be proactive around how I work.

Running a 2 person business is a real challenge, as you inevitably have to be a salesman, deliverer, accountant, general dogsbody (photocopying packs for courses comes to mind!), administrator and strategic thinker all rolled into one….On a good day, its “vive la difference” and a love of the diversity of what the day could bring; on a bad day, its trying to work out why Outlook wont send emails out, trying to get to grips with the finer points of an Excel spreadsheet or a cash flow forecast; my least favourite activity, and a wistfulness about being able to concentrate on something I’m good at and feel happy doing. Its not rocket science, but after 12 years, the importance of having a system/approach of some kind is invaluable.

Over the years, I have brought a level of discipline to  working practice which involves for example:

  • Working to a clear Business plan which sets out annual targets and metrics, and which we review monthly in a detailed planning meeting (its effectively a 1 page “visual plan” which covers finance, delivery, sales and marketing, ongoing development, and administration (IT, web site etc.)
  •  Setting out weekly priorities on a white board above the desk, with a list of the main projects, with main activities and urgent ones highlighted with due dates
  • I pretty much keep Fridays clear of client sessions to give myself a day to catch up on administration, reports, papers, reading, and a 30-40 minute review of the week; what’s gone well, gone badly, and what I need to get set up for the next week
  • During the working week, I really try to step back from the day to day work on the projects (I often have 7-8 projects on the go at any one time) and reflect on how they are doing overall, and whether I need to be doing anything differently
  • I do set out brief project plans for each project co-authored with a client that involve overall objectives, key activities and timescales for completion, and come back to look at them frequently. I think the ability to step back from things and look at them overall is an important one, even if it doesn’t come naturally.

How am I currently managing?

We will each have our own approaches to prioritising, and its worth taking a few minutes out to think what yours are; what works for you in your current “system” and what doesn’t?

A first step to better managing your time is to find out how you’re currently spending your time. Keeping a time log is an effective way to do this, and after trying it for just one week, you’ll immediately gain tremendous insight into where your time is actually going. The very act of measuring is often enough to raise your unconscious habits into your consciousness, where you then have a chance to scrutinize and change them. The attached time log is a simple approach to this.

The urgent and important factors

You can always make more effective use of your time. The only person who can do this is you, 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.

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. Stephen Covey’s third habit in the 7 habits of highly effective people focuses on this area of urgent vs. important.

“Eat that frog” principles

There’s an old saying that if the first thing you do in the morning is to eat a live frog, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that it’s probably the worst thing you’ll do all day.

The book “Eat That Frog!” takes this saying as a metaphor for tackling the most challenging task of your day – the one you are most likely to procrastinate on, but also probably the one that will have the greatest positive impact on your life. The author Brian Tracy shows how successful people don’t try to do everything, but instead focus on the He works on the basis of  three vital rules of effective personal time management: decision, discipline and determination, and twenty-one practical and doable steps to help people stop procrastinating most important tasks.

1. Set the table – clear the decks.  Decide exactly what you want – begin with the end in mind – focus on clarity – ask “what are the aims & objectives”.

2.  Plan every day in advance.  Think on paper.  Every minute spent planning can save 5-10 minutes in execution.

3.  Apply the 80/20 Rule – Pareto’s rule – to everything.  20% of your activities will account for 80% of your results – so concentrate your efforts on that top 20%.

4.  Consider the consequences.  Your most important tasks & priorities are those that can have the most serious consequences, positive or negative, on your work.  Focus on these above all else.

5.  Practice the ABCDE Method consistently.  Before you begin work on a list of tasks, take a few moments to organise them by value (A-C) & priority (1-3) so you can be sure of working on your most important activities.

6.  Focus on key result areas.  Identify & determine those results that you absolutely, positively have to get to do your job well, & work on them all day long.

7.  Obey the Law of Forced Efficiency.  There is never enough time to do everything, but there is always enough time to do the most important things. What are they?

8.  Prepare thoroughly before you begin “clear the decks & set the table”. Proper prior preparation prevents poor performance.

9.  Do your homework.  The more knowledgeable & skilled you become at your key tasks, the faster you start them & the sooner you get them done.  What are your key tasks?  Why have you been hired?  What value do you bring to the organisation?

10.  Leverage your special talents.  Determine exactly what it is that you are very good at doing, or could be very good at, & throw your whole heart into doing those specific things very, very well.  Let all realise that when they see your work, they recognise the signature.

11.  Identify your key constraints (blockages, obstacles).  Determine the bottlenecks or choke points, internally or externally that set the speed at which you achieve your most important goals, & focus on alleviating them.

12.  Take it one barrel at a time – focused on your vision & aim.  You can accomplish the biggest & most complicated job if you just complete it one step at a time.

13.  Put the pressure on yourself.  Imagine that you have to leave town for a month & work as if you had to get all your major tasks (Big Rocks) completed before you left.

14.  Maximise your personal powers – exploit your magic 3 hours in your day.  Identify your periods of highest mental & physical energy each day & structure your most important & demanding tasks around these times. Get lots of rest so you can perform at your best.

15.  Motivate yourself into action.  Be your own cheerleader.  Look for the good in every situation.  Focus on the solution rather than the problem – “envision the end state”.  Always be optimistic & constructive.

16.  Practice creative procrastination.  Since you can’t do everything, learn to deliberately put off those tasks that are of low value so you have enough time to do the few things that really matter.

17.  Do the most difficult task first.  Begin each day with your most difficult task, the one task which complete will make the biggest difference to your life & work – stick with it until it is complete.

18.  Slice & dice the task – “Break no more than 3-5 big rocks per week into little ones”.  Break large, complex tasks down into bite-sized pieces & then just do one small part of the task to get started.

19.  Create large chunks of time.  Organise your days around large blocks of time – at the beginning of the day (for me, as I am at my best then) so you can concentrate for extended periods on your most important tasks.

20.  Develop a sense of urgency & direct it to completing your high value tasks.  Make a habit of moving fast on your key tasks.  Become known as a person who does things quickly & well.

21.  Single handle every task – handle each action once – do it, file it, or delete it.  Set clear priorities, start immediately on your most important tasks, & then work without stopping until the job is 100% complete.  This is the real key to high performance and maximum personal productivity.

“Be mindful of how you approach time. Watching the clock is not the same as watching the sun rise.” – Sophia Bedford-Pierce