We all appreciate a sense of completion with our work, and it’s preferable to drowning in a mess of your own making. Not ticking those ‘to do’ items usually leads to stress and anxiety that make you feel sick.
But how are we creating that all-important list of to dos that we then get to tick off? Effective prioritising is, thankfully, not always a matter of getting up at four in the morning, and multi-tasking while running marathons on your treadmill.
There are many ways to prioritise competing objectives. Sometimes it’s necessary for people to devise an individual approach that works best for them.
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Top priorities = big rocks
Try thinking of your tasks as rocks and stones, and they all have to go into a bowl which represents just one day. They may not all fit. Start with the big rocks, the things that must be done first, the biggest priorities, those items that are a ‘must do’, before sprinkling the little rocks (lesser priorities) among them. Focus on deadlines and goals. You will instinctively know what should be your top priorities.
Some prefer to do a little bit of each task and keep at it until everything gets done. But shifting focus from task to task can waste time, and sometimes this methodology means we are not getting rocks out of the basket!
What can we do to manage priorities and time better?
1. Clarify precise deadlines
In group situations, when everyone wants their things done and deadlines are looming – it is vital to communicate and negotiate, but above all, to know what exactly is required and by when and WHY. Time is elastic and operates for people in a range of different ways, so communicate so that you, your team and your suppliers and clients are aligned in your understanding.
2. Consider the big picture
Once a week take a good hard look at what ‘needs to be done’ – what’s urgent? What can wait a little longer? Remind yourself of key goals. Can two priorities actually be accomplished at the same time? The funny thing about priorities is that they often are paper dragons. Slay one and the rest simultaneously wither. That may be good, but it’s a reminder that something always has to give in demanding circumstances. Spend five minutes sharing your priorities with a colleague or manager. Articulating the big picture is a great reality and efficiency check and may help you negotiate some changes to plans.
3. Work as a team
There are colleagues who may be more proficient at certain tasks. Teamwork can be beautiful when there’s multiple deadlines. Take a few moments at the outset to draw up a list of what must be done, in what order, and the boxes the priorities must tick. Who is best to do what and when? Ensure everyone in the team knows the to-do list (don’t assume they mind-read) and more importantly understands the overriding goals. Model positive calm communication – rather than creating a feeling of panic.
4. Manage deadline pressure and adrenalin
You and your group may go into overdrive for some hours or days, and this may test relationships and office systems. Expect a few traffic snarls, but maintain a pinch of humour and empathy for mistakes if and when they occur. Reward yourself and your team with little breathers and nice (healthy) treats. Just make sure this is NOT the standard pace, but rather the special push to get to an urgent deadline.
As you (and your team) begin to fly and the boxes are progressively ticked, you’ll notice that time paradoxically slows down. That’s because you’ve entered a “zone” where you’re moving rapidly and the big “rocks” (priorities) have crumbled into pebbles.
By now, you are operating at virtually the speed of light. It’s exhilarating, and when everything is finalised, you’ll wonder why this can’t be the case all the time. Wow, you love it! Look what you’ve (all) accomplished. Jobs should always be like this!
5. Slow down but don’t procrastinate
This part is the real art of time management and prioritisation. You’re not slowing down to a snail’s pace, in order to give you more opportunity to procrastinate until the next bunch of priorities loom. You slow down in order to recoup your energies. A human blur who never stops hurling out “results” may abruptly find that they’re out of time. So, remember to take time and appreciate the value of the moment. You will also see how well priorities were managed and see where there’s room for improvement in the future.
The goal of prioritizing should be a combination of:
- Achieving results for me, my team and my business
- Balancing my work and personal needs
- Reducing stress and enjoying fun times
- Managing energy and wellbeing
Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.