The ability to prioritize tasks requires self-discipline, and good prioritization skills are essential to your achieving your goals. Mastering these skills will help you avoid distraction and become more efficient and self-reliant.
Some people are naturally self-disciplined and like structure in their lives. Self-discipline is a characteristic of conscientiousness one of what psychologists agree are the “big five” personality traits. If you are already self-disciplined and enjoy structure, order, and routines, it is unlikely that you will struggle with any of the suggestions that follow.
If, on the other hand, you prefer freedom and variety—are “open to experience”—you may feel constrained by structure and routines and find it more difficult to follow these steps. But persevere if you can; the benefits you reap will make you glad you did. A good idea might be to concentrate on the first step, so that you are at least clear about what you are trying to achieve with your efforts. Learning to prioritize frees up time for you to do the things you prefer to do. Use the pointers below as a framework—but schedule imaginatively so that you have the variety you need in your daily life.
Prioritizing means action. A fancy toolkit is no use at all unless you actually do something with it. Do not fool yourself into believing that having a diary and a to-do list means that you are organized. Even filling them in is not enough. It is the discipline of following the schedule in your diary and focusing on completing each task on your to-do list that will make you efficient and successful.
There is really no point in putting off unpleasant tasks. They will eventually have to be done, and a good time to tackle them is early in the day. That way, you will feel that you have accomplished something within just a short time of starting work and you can concentrate better on other tasks, because you can forget about the job you were dreading.
Be clear at the start about what you want to achieve, and chances are you will succeed brilliantly. Consider the following:
- What do you personally want out of any particular period of work (say a month, six months)?
- What do your boss/team/clients/company need you to achieve during this time?
- What specific goals do you want to have reached by the end of this month?
Write the answers to these questions on a sheet of paper and post them in a prominent place in your office.
You will probably have more than one answer for each question, because people tend to have more than one objective. If this is the case, you will need to rank your objectives in order of importance; it may help to organize your page into a simple chart with the most important first. Next to these, at the beginning of each workweek and each workday, answer the following questions:
- What do I need to achieve by the end of this week?
- What do I need to achieve today?
The answers to these questions will give structure to each day and week. When faced with requests or demands for your time and attention, ask yourself:
- Should I do this now or after I have met more important objectives?
- Do I need to deal with it today?
- Do I need to deal with it this week?
- Do I need to take care of it this month?
- Can I put it at the end of my list in case I have time?
- Should I bother with it at all?
- Can I delegate it to someone else?
By doing this you will enable yourself to handle these situations in a way that will help you achieve your objectives.
This is look back at how you have been spending your time. It is a useful tool for evaluating how well you are using your time to achieve your objectives.
Looking back through your diary and to-do list, estimate the amount of time you have spent working towards the objectives you set for yourself. Do the same for your time and objectives outside work. How does your allocation of time tally? What do you need to change: your objectives and priorities or your time management?
The process of working efficiently means managing the inputs as they happen and remaining focused on the output of the most important and urgent task.
First and most important: be clear which set of objectives you should be focused on right now—work or home. If you work from home, separate your workspace from your home space as far as you can. Separate work time from home time, work phone line from home phone line, and work e-mail from home e-mail. This way you cannot confuse your roles.
Here is a checklist of things to do when you begin work each day.
- Look up at your objectives on the wall to focus you on what you need to achieve.
- Look at your diary to see what you have scheduled and how much time you have spare.
- Look at your to-do list and pick out the most important and urgent tasks. You may choose to start a long task and finish it on another day or you may prefer to pick a single task that will fit within the time you have available.
Allow yourself time for interruptions, three or four 10-minute breaks, and a longer meal break. You will be more focused and effective if you stay fresh. Now write down your objectives for the day.
Make your days more efficient by allocating time slots to mail, e-mail, and incoming phone calls.
How you do this will depend on your role, but for most people the mail will only need attention once a day. Sort it out near the wastebasket, making three piles:
- junk, no pile for these! Put them straight into the wastebasket!
- items to file for later reference: put them away as soon as you have opened everything
- items to deal with immediately: respond to each one quickly and efficiently
- items requiring more attention: add to your to-do list or schedule a specific time in your diary, remembering to think about how important each item is to the achievement of your objectives.
Many e-mail correspondents expect their e-mails to be seen and dealt with immediately and if you leave them for too long, you may have more interruptions—a phone call from the sender, for example. On the other hand, very few roles require people to respond to each e-mail as soon as it arrives.
How you deal with phone calls depends on your role. You may be expected to answer immediately during office hours. Perhaps you enjoy the social contact throughout the day and prefer to take every call. Some calls may be quickly dealt with if answered immediately, saving yourself and others time.
If possible, let the answering machine take the calls and return them during allocated slots during the day, as you do with e-mails. Doing so will allow you uninterrupted time to focus on achieving your objectives for the day, making you more productive. This does require you to get into the habit of regularly checking and returning calls, however.
Although you do not want to clutter up your life even further, there are some tools that can help you keep to your priorities.
Diaries come in the traditional paper format, in software such as Microsoft Outlook for your PC or notebook, and in various forms on PDAs and other mobile devices. A diary helps you to plan ahead. With a diary you can schedule specific dates or times for tasks and actions. It helps you to structure your time to meet interim goals and to more easily monitor those goals to see that you are meeting them, always with your ultimate goal being to deliver the outcome you want on time.
A diary is especially useful if you have many short meetings or telephone calls or if you need long periods of time to focus on difficult, complex, or creative work. By communicating your need to colleagues and concentrating meetings and other work into one section of the day or week, you free yourself to work in a more effective manner.
Divide projects and objectives into constituent parts and place milestones in your diary by which to measure your progress. Be sure to include time to meet with people in your schedule, or you could risk isolating yourself.
In its simplest form, a to-do list is a record of the things you need to do, so that you can check them off as you finish them. Software that allows you to add priorities, due dates, and reminders is readily available, for PCs, notebooks, and for mobile devices of all kinds. Again, the extra features may be nice to have but a simple paper list is fine.
If you know that you take on too many tasks, a to-do list may help you to visualize your workload and manage tasks more effectively. The most important thing to remember when using a to-do list is your objectives.
Give each task on your to-do list a number to reflect its priority relative to your objectives and the other tasks on your list. You might even let your boss and colleagues have a copy of your list, so they can see the work already assigned and do some of the prioritizing for you.
If you manage projects, a project planning system can make it easy for you to break down a complex system into its components, identify milestones, assign tasks to others, and keep track of progress. You can do this on a PC (using one of the many software tools on the market), or if you prefer, on paper, a whiteboard, or flipcharts.
A flashing message icon is a surefire way of interrupting your train of thought. Turn off your message alert so it will not distract you each time you get a new message. Allocate no more than three slots in the day for responding to e-mail. Early morning mail may be urgent, so start the day with a quick check; check again around lunchtime; and do a final check as you finish work for the day. Use the same “three-piles-plus-the-trash” system as you do with your mail.
You owe it to yourself to put in a full and focused day toward meeting your objectives or it is unlikely that you will meet them. It may help to imagine your boss’s or colleague’s reaction to a piece of work you are finishing. Does it do you justice?
Mind Tools: www.mindtools.com/page5.html
My Organized Life: www.myorganizedlife.com/index.php