Putting the Important Tasks First

How often do you find yourself at work or school wondering where all your time went? The list of work and school tasks seems to be never ending and there never seems to be enough time to keep up with those tasks. That being said, let us look at the basic principles of managing your personal time to better accomplish a large volume of work that usually includes various size tasks with varying priorities. Keep an eye on what is really important by putting first things first. Tasks that are of little or no importance should not be the first thing on your daily list of things to do. Accomplish more, increase personal productivity while reducing stress by determining the real priorities, identifying time traps, to make better use of your time.

PTM-1Credit: cory stophlet, 2014

This article will discuss what is meant by Personal Time Management and cover: factors impacting personal time management; what are “Time Robbers”; tools for effective personal time management; prioritization methods; personal “action plan”; impact of procrastination; finally, a personal project manager’s daily routine checklist.

Food for thought:  The Pareto Principle, also called the 80/20 rule, states that typically 80% of unfocused effort generates only 20% of results and that the remaining 80% of results are achieved with only 20% of the effort. 

Why does managing time seem to be a challenge?

In the first place, you can’t really manage time. The use of the word “managing” of time is a bit of a misnomer. The minutes and hours pass by without you being able to slow or speed them up. You can’t choose to slow the earth’s rotation in order to extend the day. But what you CAN DO is manage or control the activities you do during the day and week. You manage activities and tasks, not time. Still, we measure our days and weeks in time and it seems that it’s time that disappears all too quickly.

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Time Robbers

It should not be too hard for you to identify what robs you time during each day. Think about your day and week:

  • Where do you spend your time?
  • How often does a crisis occur or does it seem like everything is being treated like a crises?
  • Telephone calls will happen, but how often does your phone ring and how much time do you average on each call?

Emailing has been the standard for most business and in some cases student communication with other students and with faculty.

  • How many emails do you average a day and of those how many are legitimate work related or school related important, urgent, not important and or not urgent?

Another robber is drop-in visitors. Of course there are many important people that need to visit your desk or study room; however, take a few minutes to think about the number of unimportant and unnecessary visits that serve to be nothing more than distractors to the tasks and studies at hand.

Our own actions or lack of appropriate actions can rob us of time. The list includes poor planning, being personally disorganization, lacking self-discipline, attempting to do too much, procrastinating, poor delegation skills and the inability to say “no.”

PTM-3Credit: Cory Stophlet, 2014

How do you spend your day now?

To start learning and identifying how and where you are spending your time you should record all your daily activities in a journal. Keep track of the start and stop time and the generally number of minutes and hours of the day you spend doing what task. Extend the journal out for at least a week so that you get a better idea of the average amount of time per day that is getting chewed up on what activities. Don’t forget about those break-times, chit-chat times, lunch times and other non-productive time eaters. It doesn’t mean you’re going to wipe them all off the schedule, but you do need to know how much of your day is spent in non-productive situations – you just might find that an eight-hour work day may only have six hours or less of practical work time. Also notate your energy levels. Everyone has times of day when they feel more energetic and times when energy feels a bit low. This is important when scheduling complex or difficult tasks.

Review and analyze your journal

Analyze your journal and you should start noticing chunks of time that have been routinely wasted or at the least mishandled. You should start seeing time slots where you are more energetic during the work day. You should also start to notice opportunities to better schedule your day in some resemblance of a routine for more productive use of the time available. It’s very important to point out that you need to identify the time robbers, poor habits as well as strengths you have in managing your time (tasks and activities).

Rules to Effective Time Management

So what can we do to starting getting better control and be more productive on completing the important stuff? Start with setting priorities, don’t procrastinate, avoid distractions, handle each piece of paper and email only once (if practical), consider the 80-20 dilemma, adjust the schedule to your energy levels, and don’t be afraid to delegate.

PTM-4Credit: COry Stophlet, 2014

Setting Priorities

Is everything important and urgent? Sometimes it seems like everything is. Everyone seems to say “I need it now or please help me.” Plus, you have “the boss wanted it yesterday,” the phone rings or someone knocks on the door, and of course, everyone’s phone call, visit, want, and is the most important thing on your plate.

Here’s a little planning tool from Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.[1] Covey presents a chart that basically divides work priorities into four quadrants.

Quadrant 1 = Urgent and Important consisting of legitimate crises, pressing problems, deadline-driven tasks, important meetings and task and work preparations.

Quadrant 2 = Not Urgent but still Important consisting of preparation, prevention, planning, and business/work relationship building.

Quadrant 3 = Urgent but not Important made up of unscheduled interruptions, some phone calls, mail, some meetings, and many office or school activities.

Quadrant 4 = Things that are Neither Important Nor Urgent; such as, busy work, junk mail the trivial unproductive activities, some phone calls and what can be called “time robbers.”

So we know we need to spend time in quadrant-1 performing those things that have to be done. But its quadrant-2 that provides the most efficient usage or quality time. This is where we need to focus most of our time. That's where the quality in our work comes from. When we fail to spend the appropriate effort in quadrant-2, quadrant-2 tasks will surely become quadrant-1 tasks. How do you make the changes?   You can start by spending less time in quadrant-3 and quadrant-4.

There is an old story that Covey used often to demonstrate how we try to fit a lot of conflicting priorities into a limited day and often resulting in a failure to account for the really important and urgent tasks. I call it the “Big Rocks, Little Rocks, Sand and Water.”

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It goes like this:  Take a large clear container of water, another container almost as large of large rocks; take another container of small rocks or pebbles, then another container of sand; and then another container of water. If the big rocks represent the important and urgent items in your day; the small rocks and pebbles represent the important but not urgent; the sand is the not important but urgent and finally the water represents those tasks that are neither important nor urgent; how do you combine them into the one empty container that represents the actual amount of time you have in any given day to accomplish as much as possible effectively and efficiently?

The answer is simple. First fill the empty container with the big rocks (urgent important); then pour in the small rocks and pebbles (important put not urgent) letting them fill-in the empty spaces between the big rocks; then poor in the sand (urgent but not important); and finally pour in the water (not important and not urgent). By the time you get to the end you may not have enough space in the container to hold some of the sand and water, but that is the point, isn’t it? Some of the urgent but not important and the not important and not urgent items will not fit in the time you have available to you.

PTM-6Credit: Cory Stophlet, 2014

What this means to you: Schedule within your allotted time those things that will have the biggest impact on your work or school. Then schedule the second priorities next, the third and so on. If anything is left unscheduled and you have no more available time – you need to decide whether it is really worth doing those tasks at all. When I managed people in the past and this subject of fitting things into the daily schedule came up, I used to tell my team: if the tasks were rocks and they were to be thrown at you, which ones would hurt the worst? In other words, the tasks or requirements that will have the biggest impact on the job or school, good or bad, must be the bigger rocks and as such, they are the most important, urgent or not.

Energy Levels: Most people have peak energy levels between 9:30am and 11:30am, and again between 3:00pm and 4:30pm. From your log determine your most productive times. Try to handle tough mental challenges during your peak energy periods.

Overcoming Procrastination, it is a little monster that will creep up and steel your time. Think positively about the project, job or class and keep the outcome and the end in mind. Do the difficult tasks first. Set time for the task time as if it were a meeting. Don’t be a perfectionist. It’s easy to over think, over plan and overdo a task. Make completion an iterative process.

Delegation: Learn to let go of the need to “do it myself.” Pass tasks that can be handled by someone else to subordinates or co-workers. Give some level authority to the delegates. Remember to follow-up on those delegated tasks to be sure they were done and not about to boomerang back at you.

Avoid Distractions: Block out private time in your day. Take phone calls during a given period of the day. Return phone calls during an appropriate time of the day. Get into a daily and weekly pattern or routine. Limit the amount of time you spend on casual visitors. As nice as it is to have a non-work related casual conversation during the work or study day, they are distractions and time robbers.

Manage and Organize Your Personal Work/Study Area

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To Do List: The old fashion to-do list is still number one. The sticky notes are fine to a point but they usually don’t have a resemblance of any organization and are more or less just disorganized notes. At the end of the day they should all be incorporated into the to-do lists and week/monthly planner.  This “to-do” list will usually be a daily list but don’t forget to use a monthly or quarterly calendar to forecast out future tasks and suspense.

Priority and Status System: Set-up a priority system: whether you use a priority 1-2-3-4 or A-B-C-D or even Covey’s quadrants Q-1, Q-2, Q-3, Q-4, they all work as long as you know what they mean and they can truly be used to keep the most important-urgent or “big-rocks” planned into the day and week first. Since a task cannot be accomplished at first touch, you need to use a status indicator such as priority, started, in-process, and completed.

Software: Use automated tools for planning, scheduling and for auto-reminders that programs like Microsoft Outlook and Microsoft Project can perform.

Contact List: This may seem to be a no-brainer but often what is not included in the contact list are notations as to what this contacts can do for you such as subject matter experts in particular fields and managers or leaders with influence in the organization and how they can be helpful to you.

Paper Handling: Decide what to do with each piece of paper. File it - Sign it - Revise it – or Throw it out. The key is to take action right away.

Getting Rid of Unnecessary Tasks and Activities

What can be legitimately removed from the list and what can be delegated to someone else? Be critical, we have already covered this area in respect to categories and prioritizing what is what (Big Rocks and Quadrants). Let’s not forget that sometimes the boss(s) will levy new requirements on you out of the blue. A good technique to use when these NEW unplanned tasks hit the desk is to ask the boss how he or she wants them prioritized in respect to the other things that you are required. Sometimes, out of no ill will, fellow employees or students will ask you to take on tasks not usually in your area or function and these extra tasks will surely eat away at your limited time. Learn to say no to too many favors. Be polite of course.

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Tomorrow’s daily planning starts the today

Avoid procrastination through proper planning ahead of time. Before the end of the work or study day do these things routinely:  Review today and the prior day’s list and carry forward on tomorrow’s list any items that did not get completed; add any new suspense items; estimate amount of time needed; although it can be difficult to accurately estimate the amount of time needed to perform each task you can “guestimate” based on past experience or from input by others employees or students; remember to factor flexibility in the schedule due to the probability of unscheduled and unplanned distractions that will rob your schedule of time; organize and sequence tasks and activities by the priorities such that the important and urgent items are scheduled first on the list. Update your calendars and any automated tools like Outlook or MS Project. Update and file folders, binders, and status reports. Review and respond to any hold over emails.

Personal time management simply requires self-discipline, analytical thinking, methodical planning and routine. Put what’s most important, what will have the biggest impact on the schedule first and fill in the next priority items, then the lessor important and finally learn to let go of the clearly unnecessary tasks and activities. Plan for tomorrow today – don’t wait for tomorrow to decide what and how you will try and complete the days requirements.