Balancing it All: Time Management and Prioritization

Chances are the reason you clicked on this article is because your workload is overwhelming and you are trying to figure out how to balance it all AND be more productive…am I right?  The bad news – there isn’t a magical fix.  The good news – you aren’t alone!  According to a recent Gallup poll, “Four in 10 U.S. adults (41%) say they lack the time to do all they want.”  Additionally, about 79% say they fell stress sometimes or frequently throughout the day.  Yikes!  Oh, and some more good news – there ARE ways you can help manage your workload and increase your productivity.  It really takes focus, effort, being consistent and deliberate with your actions. 

Where to start: Setting Aside Time to Plan

Like most professionals at work, you have a running “to-do” list.  Sometimes, that list is just a few items and other times it is multiple pages.  The fear most people have is getting to all the items on that list and not letting things fall through the cracks.  But when you have competing priorities or deadlines mixed with distractions, it is difficult to determine where to start.  So, first things first: you need to set aside some time to make a plan.  If you are trying to make a plan while in the midst of it all, you are not able to give this your full attention.  Now, do not confuse this dedicated time that you are putting aside with starting to tackle the items on your list.  Nope – this valuable chunk of time is going to be used to help you figure out how to change your ways. 

Track Your Work Flow

Great, you have set aside some time to make a plan.  Resist the urge to look at your running list or check your email or your phone.  In order to help re-frame or re-focus your efforts, you need to write down what your work flow is; a time study.  Taking the time to write down what you do on a daily basis will allow you to be able to see where and what you spend your time on.  In turn, this will help you be able to identify wasted time, as well as productive time.  You are probably thinking “seriously, you want me to write everything down?”  Ideally, yes.  But think of this exercise as an outcome study. You need to track your efforts so you can see where to adjust.  Are your efforts paying off?  Figure out a template that works for you: spreadsheet, calendar, etc.  Then be diligent about filling it out. 

Existing Workload vs. New Workload

Remember that to-do list I told you to resist looking at?  Well, now it is time to take it out.  You want to be able to get a comprehensive feel of what it is you are looking at.  What is currently on your plate?  Be sure to include those things that you have been putting off because you felt there have been some competing priorities.  Once you have your list, you are going to put a time estimate next to each item.  How much time will it realistically take for you to complete that task?  Is this something that can be knocked out in 15 minutes if you didn’t have any distractions and you can see it through from start to finish?  Or is this something that is going to take you several hours or days to complete.  Associating time with each task is going to help give you a visual of what you are looking at.

Once you have associated a timeframe to each task, you will now need to prioritize the list.  You want to make three categories: A, B, C.  A priorities are items that have an impending deadline or may be past due, but are critical.  These are items that require immediate attention.  Next are your B’s – these are important, but not mission critical.  These can be done AFTER you have taken care of the A’s.  Finally the C’s.  I typically equate the C’s with running your car through the carwash.  Yeah, it needs to be done, but not before you address the “check engine” light that has been on for weeks. 

Now create three charts (or lists): an A, a B, and a C chart.  Put all your corresponding priorities on each of the list.  This will help you visually see what you are looking at. 

This is how you will also tackle new work that comes your way.  When something come up, is assigned, or a deadline is approaching, you will do the same thing.  Assign an estimated timeframe to it and a priority.  Unfortunately, the show must go on, so you will not only have to address your current to-do list, but add to it. 

Reduce Distractions

Things come up.  That is just life.  And depending on your work setting, you may be interrupted on a regular basis throughout the day, or you may be able to just shut your door.  There are also other types of distractions: compulsively checking our phones, reading every email as it comes in, phone calls that need to be taken, etc.  While some of these may be unavoidable, some of them we can avoid. 

Setting aside some time each day will allow you to put focus and attention on your tasks at hand.  Does your employer have a tele-work/commute option? Can you shut your office door and request no interruptions for a period of time?  Can you relocate to a conference room for a couple of hours? Can you put your phone on “do not disturb?”  This is where you can reference your time study that we talked about in the first step.  When you look to see where your time is being spent, are there certain times of the day that are typically less busy where you can close your door and put attention to a priority task item?  Working to reduce distractions will allow you to increase dedicated time towards task items.

Schedule Your Tasks

Now it is time to tie everything together.  Remember that planning time we mentioned earlier?  This step is where you take everything we talked about – time study, priority charts, work flow, and schedule things out for completion.  This is where we recommend the use of a calendar.  Put down the essentials on the calendar.  These would be things like: weekly staff meeting, payroll deadlines, standing reporting deadlines, etc.; known entities.  Once you have that all plotted out, take a look at the priority lists you created (starting with A) and start plugging things in.  Try to block time that will allow you to complete a task from start to finish.  For example, if you have a two hour task, don’t schedule it where you have an hour of work, then a staff meeting, and then the second hour.  Try to schedule the two consecutive hours. 

You are going to want to do this for all your existing items on your priority lists.  One thing to keep in mind – the show must go on.  Chances are you are going to get additional, routine work that will come your way.  Be sure to allow some flexibility in your scheduling, or block off time each day that will allow you to address those items when they come up.  Don’t be super rigid and schedule everything without any room to take on additional tasks; otherwise you will end up right back where you are.

Finally, if you have the ability, share your calendar with your team.  Let them know what you are working on.  This will help them better understand your workload and help reduce distractions or interruptions throughout the day.  In outlook, there are handy options you can use for tasks: busy, tentative, out of the office, do not disturb, etc. 

The more work you put in the front-end with regards to planning, the more focused you will be with staying on track.  If this does not come naturally to you, it’s okay; for most people this is a learned behavior.  It takes dedication and focus to stay on track and hopefully one day, it will become part of your routine. 

Feel like you need someone to help you out with time management or prioritization techniques? Contact Harpeth Consultant Advisory Group to discuss your needs and how we can help.