People who load up a plate of food and don’t finish it are often described as having ‘eyes bigger than their belly’s. The time management equivalent is the person who takes on more and more projects that look inviting and exciting, and don’t pay attention to existing commitments. The end result is overwhelm – dashing from one unfinished task to another, putting in short bursts of effort and hoping that things get done. Not only is this a really ineffective way of working, it is also a very stressful.
To regain control over your workload, you need a reality check. Prioritise everything on your things-to-do list and then estimate how long each task needs in order to be completed. Having allocated a time to each task, double it! Most people are really good at under-estimating how long a task really needs, which then impacts on other work.
And finally, apply a little discipline. If your current workload is scheduled with time estimates, it becomes easy for you to see when you will be able to take on the next project. Only if priorities on items in your current workload change significantly can you offer to fit in yet another project.
Prioritisation is the cornerstone of good time management. It ensures that the time available to you is being spent on the most essential activities. The mistake that is most commonly made is failing to differentiate between important and urgent tasks.
- Important Tasks – These tasks directly contribute to the achievement of your job objectives and the functioning of your organisation, in other words, the work that you are paid to do or the work you earn money from. This often takes the form of project work with short-, medium- and long-term deadlines for completion.
- Urgent Tasks – These, if not completed very soon, will have a negative impact. However, what often happens is that tasks assume a level of urgency that is inappropriate to the actual task. Because these tasks are frequently quick and easy in nature, they get allocated a higher priority than they warrant and are continually put ahead of tasks that are genuinely important but don’t yet have a close deadline. The end result is a potential crisis situation, with important tasks, crucial to the functioning of the business, now threatening to cause a major crisis if they are not dealt with immediately.
The first stage in learning how to use this effectively is to allocate your tasks to appropriate categories.
Quadrant 1 – important and urgent
These are tasks that are essential to the functioning of the organisation and must be done urgently to avoid a potential crisis. These top priority tasks must be actioned ahead of all the rest. For example, you are working at your desk and the fire bell starts ringing. It is not a scheduled fire drill; there is a real possibility that the building is on fire. This is important and urgent; whatever else you were doing, you must now interrupt it and evacuate the building.
Quadrant 2 – important but not urgent
These are the tasks which are defined in your job objectives and which you are employed to carry out. Often, these tasks are projects of medium- to long-term duration and therefore lack urgency. However, you should be assigning regular chunks of time to these activities in order to meet your objectives.
Quadrant 3 – urgent but not important
These tasks threaten to cause a negative impact or disruption if they are not actioned quickly. However, they may well be outside the scope of your job role and the extent to which they contribute to the functioning of the organisation may be questionable. Sometimes, the degree of urgency may have been defined by someone else, whose judgement may be inaccurate, or at least, different from yours.
Quadrant 4 – not important and not urgent
Tasks in this quadrant are not an essential part of your job objectives, neither will there be any noticeable impact to the business if they are not done at all. For example, reading trade journals and newsletters is a useful thing to do if you have time. However, if a pile of these has accumulated, all still waiting to be read, and some of them are now several months old, they could probably be discarded without causing any impact whatsoever.
By necessity, Quadrant 1 tasks get tackled first. However, instead of Quadrant 2 tasks being next, Quadrant 3 (urgent but not important) tasks consistently jump the queue ahead of the Important Quadrant 2 tasks. An ignored Quadrant 2 task has the potential to become a crisis and move into Quadrant 1, displacing everything else. If, however, the task had been addressed earlier, before it became urgent, the crisis would have been avoided.
If you find yourself firefighting on a regular basis, it may well be that you are not giving Quadrant 2 tasks sufficient importance in your daily work allocation.
The question to ask yourself in order to determine the importance of a task is: ‘Will doing this task move me towards achieving my goals and/or job objectives?’
To determine the urgency of a task, ask yourself: ‘What would be the impact of not doing this today/tomorrow/this week?’
And if all else fails and you feel confronted with and overwhelmed by a colossal workload, ask yourself, ‘What is the best use of my time right now?’ This question cuts through confusion and is a great way to cut through and see clearly what your priorities are.