The ability to manage workload hinges on the ability to focus on what is important. The clearer a person’s understanding of their central purpose and how their role contributes to the furthering of the company’s goals, the more effectively they can identify priorities and allocate their time. A useful exercise is to run through this sequence of questions.
What are you trying to achieve? What is your central purpose at work, what other goals do you have professionally, what else is important to you?
• What standards are good enough?
• What action is relevant to achieve goals and standards?
• In light of the above, how should you be allocating your time, and how are you actually spending your time?
Priorities should be determined by two factors: what is urgent and what is important. Too often we are driven only by what is treated as urgent; or when someone with a pile of work asks what has priority, they are told that everything does. That merely creates a muddle.
Urgent matters are those with an imminent deadline attached to them, things that have to be done now or within a specified short time frame. An important discipline is to specify the time at which things are needed – ‘a.s.a.p.’ or ‘urgently’ mean nothing and only create a hassle. When we ask the actual time at which something is needed or enquire what it is needed for, we may discover that it is less urgent than other things on the schedule.
Important matters are those that are central to the person’s achievement of their purpose and standards of work, and that affects the quality of what they do.
Aspects in the important category are often those that make a difference over the long term, such as planning and devising better systems rather than just tackling each task ad hoc. One of the ways in which people can get overloaded is by being led to give importance to something that is central to another person’s role but not to their own.
To sort priorities, go through your list of things that ought to be done and rate each item high or low for both urgency and importance. You can position each item in a matrix diagram like the one shown in Figure 5.1. The example given here indicates the type of tasks that are likely to show up in each box of the matrix.
The number in each box indicates the level of priority that ought to be given to the contents. Clearly, anything in box 1 has to be dealt with. But after that, which box do you tend to go to? How much time do you spend in box 2? Many people find that they are drawn instead to box 3 because someone else is applying pressure to deal with these matters.
Not allocating enough time to box 2 concerns matters that are important, but do not have to be dealt with this minute is often the reason for items ending up in the urgent categories. Not putting time and thought into training staff who can be delegated to, so that staff are continually raising queries;
neglecting to file figures or make out reports before someone else is desperate for them; setting an unrealistic time frame for a project because the plan has not been thought through – habits like this lead to endless fire-fighting. Box 2 is about thinking, planning, developing about working efficiently, learning from experience and finding ways to do things better. Setting aside time for box 2 which contains the real concerns of management enables you to stand back and take control, reducing muddle and making a substantial difference to effectiveness.