Time management can be a frustrating nut to crack. Balancing various projects and responsibilities at work, home, socially and for yourself can make even the best of us feel overwhelmed. Recently, I considered taking on a new side project. I needed to take a step back and consider how this project would fit into the 168 hours I have every week. This got me thinking and inspired me to share the approaches I use to prioritize and allocate my time.
Below are three different ways to think about how you manage your time and set your priorities.
1. WHAT ARE MY NEEDS, WANTS, AND WISHES
Sometimes there are things you want to do, but they’re not the same as the things you need to do. Take a look at your to do list (or make one if you don’t have one yet) and decide what you need to get done first. Then within this list of “needs” consider what you want to do, or what you’ll enjoy doing the most, and organize your list in a way that keeps you motivated. For some people, this means tackling the less desirable items first and then starting on the fun ones. Personally, I prefer to scatter the tasks which I find enjoyable (wants), between the less interesting ones (needs), while ensuring they are all completed on time. This gives me something to look forward to in between my more taxing items.
Don’t forget about the wishes list. These are the items that you’d love to do if only you had time. Many of them are also wants, but just not critical like the needs list. Add your wishes to a special list and whenever you get through your daily needs and wants, reward yourself. See if there is anything on your wishes list that you can start rather than going right into the next set of needs. I often have “pleasure reading” on my wish list which I call my “whenever” list. I love when I can grab an extra ten minutes to read just for fun.
2. WHAT ARE THE BIG ROCKS, LITTLE ROCKS, AND SAND
This is a common analogy for time management, but translating it from concept to action can be challenging. First, for those of you who are new to this idea, imagine you need to fill a jar with big rocks, little rocks and sand. The only way to make it all fit is to start with the big rocks first, then add the little rocks and give the jar as shake so the little rocks slide down between the big rocks. Then finally pour in the sand to take up any remaining space.
Think of your responsibilities in the same way. To put this in action, it’s helpful to apply this analogy in two ways: first, to your goals and responsibilities and second, to individual tasks. What are the big goals or areas in your life that need your primary attention? This could be work, family, volunteering, health, sleep, education or any number of other things. I have goals in each of these areas. For example, a few are: exercise at least 3 times per week, be home for dinner with my kids at least every third night, and secure 5 new clients in the next 6 weeks. Sometimes these goals conflict with each other. That is why it’s important to prioritize your goals as well. There will be times you will need to make intentional decisions about how to spend your time. When someone says, “I don’t have time to exercise” what they’re often really saying is, “I have chosen–intentionally or not–to prioritize something else.” Therefore, step one is deciding what you want your big rocks to be in your life and then making sure those happen with all the other responsibilities fitting in around them when you can.
Now on a micro scale, consider what tasks require large amounts of uninterrupted, focused time. I like to put these items on my calendar either as time blocks or a reminder of what I’d like to accomplish that day. This includes everything from going to the gym to writing a new blog post. Then, I fit in the lower priority tasks or less time intensive items – the medium rocks. This might be editing a blog article for a colleague or updating a presentation. I try to only check email, chat, etc. (the sand) in between my large and small rock items. I’ve found that without this intentional approach, it’s too easy to let the little things take up all my time.
3. WHAT SHOULD I DO, DELEGATE, DEFER AND DELETE
As your responsibilities expand, new projects launch, and that to do list grows, consider reframing your approach to task and priority management with this 4-D model:
What do I need to DO myself?
These are the high priority items that only you can do. They might be urgent or challenging, and you may even be tempted to procrastinate. However, often times they are the most critical things that require your full attention.
What can I DELEGATE to a colleague?
Sometimes a task is important, but you’re not going to get it done on time and therefore need some help. Or maybe it’s a task that is better suited to someone else’s role and you’ve been hanging onto it. There are even times when I’ve held onto a task because I enjoy it or get a thrill from the excitement of accomplishing it. Yet as a leader, it’s dangerous to think that it’s faster to do something on your own rather than delegating to a team member or assistant. By not delegating tasks to others, you can easily lose sight of the big rocks in your life or become overwhelmed by all the tasks you don’t have time or energy to accomplish. Better to delegate tasks, focus on your more important work, and achieve greater outcomes in the process.
What can be DEFERRED?
These are the lower priority items that can wait. They may become ‘dos’ down the road - tomorrow, next week or next month. These items still need to be completed so it’s important not to lose sight of them. I prefer to track them as an ongoing to do list that I regularly check. Every day, I plan my ‘do’ list by reviewing my deferred list.
What should be DELETED?
Consider what tasks you really don’t need to do at all. This could be cleaning up to-dos from your list that are completed or no longer relevant. It could also be taking a hard look at your work and considering if every piece is necessary. At my company, we recently decided to move to a new blog schedule where we post new content on our own blog every other week instead of every week. This frees up time for my team to work on other high leverage projects.
A version of the Eisenhower matrix is a helpful mental model for the 4D approach. Think of the “important” axis as important for you to do or important for accomplishing a goal. The “urgency” axis refers to when the task needs to be completed. Urgent tasks need to be prioritized for today or this week. Non-urgent tasks can be held for next week, next month or next year. For example, an urgent but not important task may be scheduling a haircut appointment. If you keep delaying, your hair might get a little out of control. It’s also not a task that only you can do, so delegating to an assistant makes sense.
REGARDLESS OF THE APPROACH, IT ALL STARTS WITH A TO-DO LIST
If you don’t have a single place where you keep a running list of everything you need to do, it’s hard to be highly efficient with your time and stay on top of your priorities. I follow the GTD (Getting Things Done) method which starts by pulling together all the tasks you’ve been storing in different places - email, sticky notes, notebook, task app, wherever they may be. Then do another brain dump to get all the tasks in your head out onto paper.
You might feel a little overwhelmed seeing everything on paper in front of you, but you’ll likely also feel a sense of relief. You can finally get your arms around everything on your plate. Plus, you’re ready to try the approaches mentioned above to get yourself focused.
Optimize your time. Cultivate your team. Achieve your goals.
What approaches do you use to keep yourself focused on the highest priorities? Have a question? Leave a comment below and share suggestions for practices that help you prioritize and manage your time, or tweet at me @mamieks.
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