– Hugh Ballou
Managing multiple priorities begins with setting priorities. That sounds like it’s obvious, however I work with many people who just show up each day and figure out what to do next all day long. Then they are frustrated continually that they have too much to do and are not getting enough done. Having too much to do and not being productive is usually a symptom of insufficient planning. Planning seems like a lot of work. Inversely, the better you plan your day and the better you can stick to your plan, the more time you will have for the important things in life, many of which are not related to work.
I am inspired by ideas and energized by activity. The risk is to have too much activity in my day and not enough results. Plan for results. Your daily tasks and deliverables should relate to your overall goals. The deliverables relate specifically to an action plan connected to a specific goal. Your other work should enhance your long-term plans. If your activity does not support where you want to lead your organization long-term, then maybe that activity should be eliminated.
Make a list for major tasks. Be specific. Write each task on a note card – one per card. Place all of your task cards on a clear table top (dining room table, board room table, etc.) and begin to move them around, sorting them into groups that are related. It is possible that all of these tasks will fit into a few groupings. Then you can move the cards into lists by priority or deadline or event date.
Once all the cards have been sorted, reflect on the results. The visual impact of these lists will help you clarify some things. You may be able to combine tasks, or work on parts of some tasks at the same time. It will be more obvious which tasks depend on the completion of other tasks. Once you have finalized the lists, commit them to goals sheets, your calendar, or other management device for planning and tracking.
The time spent in planning at this point will save you mountains of time later. If you can use this foundational piece when structuring each day’s activities, then you will not find yourself wondering what to do next or forgetting that there are steps to take each day that will save you time and agony later. You will also have a way to keep up so you don’t lose track of important tasks, and then stress over them when it’s almost too late – or even when it is too late!
Stephen Covey teaches that identifying important tasks for each day and taking action on these tasks will help prevent this tyranny of the urgent in your life. Put your tasks into categories of important and unimportant. Yes, I wonder why I am doing what I classify as “unimportant,” as well. There are things that we must do that we would rather not. So, let’s be honest. Do these in the most expedient fashion when these tasks do not interfere with important tasks, and before they become urgent.
Likewise, schedule important tasks when you can deal with them effectively, not when they are “on fire” with urgency. Dealing with tasks because you have to do them now might not be the best use of time and resources. If you know a task must be completed by a certain date, then schedule it when you are best able to complete the task – not when it must be done. Once it becomes urgent, you lose control and it (the task, the job, your supervisor, etc.) controls you! You must control you!
Use the Covey grid for sorting out your tasks and in evaluating your effectiveness. Where are you spending most of your time? The top line is where you want to spend your most productive time. It will not happen if you can’t plan ahead. So pay the upfront cost, which is far less than the delayed cost, and spend time planning your work.
- Important & Not Urgent
- Important & Urgent
- Not Important & Urgent
- Not Important & Not Urgent
We want to accomplish both important and the necessary unimportant tasks before they become urgent. Finish these tasks before they become urgent. All too often we put off the unimportant tasks because they are not very important, and then they become urgent. The most ineffective use of a leader’s time is dealing with low impact (unimportant) tasks in “prime time.” Use your most productive time for the most important tasks, and schedule the less important tasks for other times.
This all sounds like a piece of cake. What about the unforeseen that comes your way during the day? What about people who want your time and need you? Well, have a strategy for this, as well. Allow for “sliding priorities” that come into the workday. Do not plan your day so tightly that you cannot recover when the unforeseen happens.
On the other hand, if you have put something on your calendar, then give the event priority when you are asked to give time to a less important activity. Let the person know that you have plans for this time and make an appointment to meet with them later. You do not need to explain what you are doing or talk about your life. Stay focused, be sensitive to the person or issues at hand, evaluate the priorities, and make a decision that will continue to let you be an effective leader. Do not feel guilty for protecting your time. You have just so much time to do the things you have been called to do.
Keep a list of ongoing tasks that you can accomplish when you have some extra time such as on a flight, waiting at the airport or in a doctor’s office, or some other times when you can pull out your computer or iPad and read, write, send email, or accomplish some other important task. Make a list of those items and revise it regularly.
Thoughts to Ponder
- Plan your day (do it yesterday, not today) and work your plan.
- “Not urgent” becomes “urgent” when left unattended.
- “Not important” can be delegated or dealt with in slack times – if left unattended, then the “not important” becomes “urgent,” and you are spending productive time on unimportant things.
- Place your priority on important tasks and schedule them before they become urgent, in order to devote your best efforts to them.
- Practice effective leadership each day to strengthen your skills.
Hugh Ballou is a Transformational Leadership Strategist and the President of SynerVision International, Inc. After forty years of musical conducting experience, he now works as executive coach, process facilitator, trainer, and motivational speaker teaching leaders in many diverse fields the fine-tuned skills employed every day by orchestral conductors. Hugh is the author of eight books on Transformational Leadership and is a recognized expert in working with leaders in churches, religious organizations, and business and nonprofit communities.
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