This section is on prioritisation.
This is particularly important as the techniques set in in previous sections, such as no bad-multitasking, will only work if there is a clear prioritisation of workflow.
An excellent way of looking at things is called the Urgency/Importance Matrix (from Stephen Covey, A. Roger Merrill, Rebecca R. Merrill, First Things First: To Live, to Love, to Learn, to Leave a Legacy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994). My own version of it, including nuances added by various contributors over the years, is below.
- emergencies, complaints and crisis issues
- demands from superiors or customers
- planned tasks or project work now due
- meetings and appointments
- reports and other submissions
- staff issues or needs
- problem resolution, fixes
- planning, preparation, scheduling
- research, investigation, designing, testing
- networking relationship building
- thinking, creating, modelling, designing
- systems and process development
- anticipation and prevention
- developing change, direction, strategy
Reject and Explain
- trivial requests from others
- ad-hoc interruptions and distractions
- routine but time consuming administrative tasks
- misunderstandings appearing as complaints
- pointless routines or activities
- accumulated unresolved trivia
- boss’s whims or tantrums
Cease and Desist
- ‘comfort’ activities, computer games, Facebook, excessive cigarette breaks, celebrity gossip
- daydreaming, doodling, over-long breaks
- reading nonsense or irrelevant material
- unnecessary adjusting equipment etc.
- embellishment and over-production
Covey and the Merrills see traditional time management thinking as dominated by the clock of scheduling. To this needs adding the ‘compass’ to find true north of what is really important. Imagine filling in a timesheet with these categories!!
The key is to get as much work as possible in the top right, which also requires us to set aside time, and ridgidly ringfence that time, to plan to plan, to project plan.
The interruptions are one of the main causes of ‘bad multi tasking’ . You will note that I have added ‘routine’ administrative tasks to the list. Whether administration is an interruption or not depends on how important the time as is a resource of the individual, i.e. whether or not the time of that individual acts as a resource constraint which could become a bottleneck.
If administrative work costs an organisation costs £10 an hour there is no point in getting an £20 an hour person to do it, especially if it means the project taking longer and costing more in staff time.
This issue is at the heart of the often repeated in the deeply fallacious ‘doing your own admin’ concept. Nothing is more disruptive of productivity than having to stop what you are doing to spend half an hour checking attendee availability and checking meeting room availability for a meeting, especially if that organisation does not have automatic online tools for this.
What it means is professional staff spending most of their time doing process work and not planning work. If you find this in an organisation dont be surprised if the productivity of the planning work has fallen to the floor. Far from being a cost saving it has actually raised the cost of the project and reduced the productivity of the business process.
But what about the top left? Do we drop everything?
Not everything that is a priority is an emergency. Only emergencies need to be done today. Do emergencies today and priorities tommorrow.
This concept is at the heart of the ‘Do it tomorrow‘ doctrine. That paradoxically you can get work done quicker by doing it tomorrow instead of today.
The idea come from Marks Forster’s Book ‘Do it Tomorrow- Get Everything Done’
Forsters ideas starts from a simple obervation, time management problems come from having more on your to do list everyday than you can get done. You have an overflow from one day to the next. The simple answer is to bring these two into balance.
Forster say never prioritize tasks, since you should aim to accomplish all of them. Instead, prioritize commitments.The goal is to do everything that you’ve committed to, at which point it doesn’t matter too much what order you do it in (particularly if you use a short committment horizon of a day).
Forster suggests getting a short pocket book – I find a black and red flipbook is ideal. At the end of everyday make a list of all of the things you have committed to do, even to yourself, that day that would ideally be completed tomorrow. That list is your list of priority actions for the day, and draw a line under it. It works, if you try and get those commitments done as soon as possible in the day you have the rest of it left over for ‘plan for work’ activities.
As the day goes on cross off the commitments as they are delivered. if new commitments arise put them under the line. At the end of the day that is your new list for tomorrow. If a commitment is still hanging around after two or three days you need to ask if it should still be there, is it still a priority, can it be broken down, should part or all of it go to normal ‘plan for work’.
Rather than an ‘open’ to do list which grows and grows this is a closed list – a will-do list. As items get crossed off it gives you a real sense of accomplishment. Also because you arnt forever being thrown off course by doing panic measures ‘now’ you get a lot more done. People like me who have adopted it swear by it, it really does double your productivity and sense that the day was worthwhile.
As Forster admits it really is a clever application of the theory of constraints to levelling workflow
what I am suggesting is that..we impose a buffer on all the bits of work which arrive in a random way over the course of a day. That means we can deal with them in an orderly fashion instead of rushing from one thing to another.
Forster recommends we do the task on the list we least want to do first
Our natural way of working is to follow the path of least resistance. If we are given a list of tasks, we will tend to do the easy ones first. The problem with this is that when we get to a certain level of difficulty, there is a tendency to invent more easy tasks to avoid having to do the more difficult tasks. That is one of the reasons people get submerged in a sea of trivia. If we reverse this and do the tasks we least want to first, then our day will get progressively easier and there will be no need to invent any more “busy work”.
Forster also cautions against prioritising a task as important if it doesnt effect the end result.
For example, if you are building a car, which is more important – the engine or the rear windscreen wiper? Obviously the engine is, but customers are not going to be very pleased if you deliver cars without the rear windscreen wiper if that’s what they ordered. So it really doesn’t matter which is more important – you have to do the lot!
So the level at which you decide what you are going to do and what you are not going to do must be at the level of commitments. It’s no good identifying which tasks are important – that’s too late. You have to keep your commitments well audited.