In my previous article we looked at our “Assumptions of Time” and we analysed how much of our behaviour was contributing to our time management challenges. In this article we will explore our ability to plan and then prioritise tasks in order to achieve the plan.

We have explored tasks that are Urgent vs Important, tasks that make usEfficient vs Effective and all of this is supported by our goals and objectives.

So where do the goals/objectives come from? It all starts with the “Big Picture”: the Company Strategy/Goals. Your understanding of that strategy as well as how it is represented in your area of the organisation is vital. From that understanding it’s time for:

Analysis of opportunities

Spot what needs to be done.

 

Swot analysis 

This is a formal analysis of your strengths and weaknesses, and of the opportunities and threats that you face.

Or

Understanding pressures for change:

  • Clients may be pressing you to change the way you do things
  • Environment may be changing
  • Changes in the economy
  • New legislation
  • Competition
  • Changes in people’s attitudes
  • New technologies, or
  • Changes in government

Another way to look at it is through the word: PROJECT

This is often definedas a series of tasks which lead to the conclusion of a bigger piece of work. This means that you need to take care to do all of the smaller tasks as well as possible, and planning them is a big part of this.

Exploring options

The next thing to do is to work out how you are going to complete the smaller tasks. It is best to spend some time generating as many options as possible, even though it is tempting just to grasp the first idea that comes to mind. By taking a little time to generate as many ideas as possible you may come up with less obvious but better solutions. Just as likely, you may improve your best ideas with parts of other ideas.

Detailed planning

Detailed planning is the process of working out the most efficient and effective way of achieving the aim that you have defined. It is the process of determining who will do what, when, where, how and why, and at what cost.

Plan ahead

How far ahead you need to plan probably depends on how complex the project is and how pushed you are for time. In terms of detailed planning look a week ahead. The feeling is that if you try and plan further ahead than this you will need to build in a lot of contingency as unexpected situations are sure to arise in the meantime.

Identify problems

One of the most important aspects of good planning is that you can find out what problems you could possiblyface in the future. This means taking a bit of time to think about the tasks and anticipate what problems it could entail. Doing this means that you can work out more accurately how long it might take you to resolve each problem.

 

Once you have completed all of this you will now break your plan down into tasks that need to be completed on a day-to-day basis in order to achieve the goal.

1 Look at your schedule for tomorrow and note your available or non-scheduled time.

2 Think about yourpriorities for tomorrow. Is there a project you’ve been meaning to complete or a pile of paperwork to sort through or a proposal that needs to be written? Write down your priorities.

  1. Schedule time blocks in your day. Do similar activities together where possible. Return phone calls together. Check and respond to emails only at two or three specific times during the day. Run all errands during one trip out of the office

4 Plan for tomorrow at the end of today’s work day. You will know your schedule and your priorities, and your “to do”s are fresh in your mind.

5 Schedule loosely. Leave yourself enough free time to deal with interruptions and emergencies. Leaving 15 minutes between tasks/appointments is a good guideline.

6 Make a daily appointment with yourself for at least 30 minutes. Close your door. Work on whatever is most important.

7 Plan on spending five minutes on something you have been procrastinating. The most difficult step of any task you’ve been putting off is the first step. Generally, once you start, you will not stop after only five minutes.

Now we can look at urgent vs important in more detail. It is important to keep all your assumptions in mind as well as the information you learnt about yourself by doing the Five Day Analysis.

You now have tasks from your planning process, everyday tasks that take place, as well as being a member of a team. Therefore you may find yourself at some point doing tasks that have no value to you. So how do we handle the tasks?

Tasks can be divided into the four blocks below:

The Urgent/Important Matrix

Urgent:           Requires speedy action or attention

Important:      Of great significance, value or consequence

Important is determined by your goals and objectives.

  Urgent and Important (crises)

These obviously have to be dealt with, although by ensuring we keep on top of our important but not urgent tasks below, we can reduce the number of these we have to contend with.

We need to make sure that although dealing with a crisis, we deal with it sufficiently well to prevent it coming back for reworking.

 

Important but Not Urgent

Important tasks need to be sliced up into manageable chunks and time allocated to getting them done.

The important tasks are likely to be the core tasks of your job.

If time is not allocated to these tasks, they may not get done. Urgent ones will squeeze them out, until they become urgent themselves.

Urgent but Not Important

Urgent tasks need to be dealt with quickly.

We need to make sure we only deal with what is urgent about the problem.

These tasks should be delegated if possible.

Alternatively, we should tackle the tasks in a brisk and efficient way to allow time for the important tasks

Not urgent or Important

These tasks are potential time wasters, and we need to apply one of the four Ds here:

  • Do it
  • Delegate it
  • Dump it
  • Defer it

 

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So what tasks fit into the four categories and how do we managethem more effectively?

Time management activities examples and management methods

  Urgent Not urgent
Important 1 – Do now

  • real major emergencies and crises
  • significant demands for information from superiors or customers
  • project work with imminent deadline
  • meetings and appointments
  • reports and other submissions
  • staff issues or needs
  • problem resolution, fire-fighting, fixes
  • serious urgent complaints

Subject to confirming the importance and the urgency of these tasks, these tasks need doing now. Prioritise tasks that fall into this category according to their relative urgency. If two or more tasks appear equally urgent, discuss and probe the actual requirements and deadlines with the task originators or with the people dependent on the task outcomes. Help the originators of these demands to reassess the real urgency and priority of these tasks. These tasks should include activities that you’ll previously have planned in box 2, which move into box 1 when the time slot arrives. If helpful you should show your schedule to task originators in order to explain that you are prioritising in a logical way, and to be as productive and effective as possible. Look for ways to break a task into two stages if it’s an unplanned demand – often a suitable initial “holding” response or acknowledgment, with a commitment to resolve or complete at a later date, will enable you to resume other planned tasks.

2 – Plan to do

  • planning and preparation
  • project planning and scheduling
  • research and investigation
  • networking relationship building
  • thinking and creating
  • modeling, designing, testing
  • systems and process development
  • anticipative, preventative activities or communication
  • identifying need for change and new direction
  • developing strategy

These tasks are most critical to success, and yet commonly are the most neglected. These activities include planning, strategic thinking, deciding direction and aims etc, all crucial for success and development. You must plan time slots for doing these tasks, and if necessary plan where you will do them free from interruptions, otherwise “urgent” matters from quadrant 1 and 3 will take precedence. Work from home if your normal place of work cannot provide you with a quiet situation and protection from interruption. Break big tasks down into separate logical stages and plan time slots for each stage. Use project management tools and methods (www.businessballs.com/project.htm). Inform other people of your planned time slots and schedules. Having a visible schedule is the key to being able to protect these vital time slots.

Not important 3 – Reject (diplomatically)

  • trivial and “off-loaded” requests from others
  • apparent emergencies
  • ad-hoc interruptions
  • misunderstandings appearing as complaints
  • irrelevant distractions
  • pointless routines or activities
  • dealing with accumulated unresolved trivia
  • duplicated effort
  • unnecessary double-checking
  • boss’s whims or tantrums

Scrutinise these demands ruthlessly, and help originators – even your boss and your senior managers – to re-assess the real importance of these tasks. Practice and develop your ability to explain and justify to task originators why you cannot do these tasks.

Where possible reject and avoid these tasks immediately, informing and managing people’s expectations and sensitivities accordingly; explain why you cannot do these tasks and help the originator find another way of achieving what they need, which might involve delegation to another person, or re-shaping the demand to be more strategic, with a more sustainable solution.

Look for causes of repeating demands in this area and seek to prevent reoccurrence. Educate and train others, including customers, suppliers, fellow staff and superiors, to identify long-term remedies, not just quick fixes. For significant repeating demands in this area, create a project to resolve cause, which will be a quadrant 2 task. Challenge habitual systems, processes, procedures and expectations, eg “we’ve always done it this way” (www.businessballs.com/stories.htm). Help others to manage their own time and priorities, so they don’t bounce their pressures onto you. Question “old policies and assumptions” to see if they are still appropriate (www.businessballs.com/stories.htm).

4 – Resist and cease

  • unnecessary and unchallenged routines
  • “comfort” activities, computer games, net surfing, excessive cigarette breaks
  • chat and gossip face-to-face and phone
  • social and domestic communications
  • silly emails and text messages
  • daydreaming and doodling
  • interrupting others
  • reading nonsense or irrelevant material
  • unnecessary adjusting, tidying, updating equipment, systems, screensavers, etc.
  • over-long breaks, canteen, kitchen visits
  • embellishment and over-production
  • passive world-watching, TV
  • drink and drug abuse
  • aimless travel and driving
  • shopping or buying for no purpose

These activities are not tasks, they are habitual comforters which provide a refuge from the effort of discipline and proactivity. These activities affirm the same “comfort-seeking” tendencies in other people; a group or whole department all doing a lot of this quadrant 4 activity creates a non-productive and ineffective organizational culture.

These activities have no positive outcomes, and are therefore demotivating. Often they may be stress related(www.businessballs.com/stressmanagement.htm), so consider why you do these things. If there’s a deeper root cause, address it.

The best method for ceasing these activities and for removing temptation to gravitate back to them, is to have a clear structure or schedule of tasks for each day, which you should create in quadrant 2.

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The purpose of the model above is to allow you, at any point in your day, to re-prioritise. The key is not to set your “task list/to-do-list” by allocating times. Set the list in order of priority. That way you can stop at any time in your day, assess where you are, what you have done, and what still needs to be done before you go home, in order to make your day moreeffective.

Exercise

Using the model above look at your tasks and place them into the four areas. You can then reprioritise your tasks so that you can focus on being more effective at work and as a team member.

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Joanne Barnfather is the Managing Member of MindLeap, a training company in South Africa. She works in the private and public sector, focusing on skills that inspire people and organisations to want to be better.

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