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You’re Not Too Busy — Here’s Your No-Excuse Guide to Prioritizing Better

By Trina Griep, Strategic Analyst at City of Edmonton and Owner of Readviews

We all have to make decisions about priorities every moment. We ask ourselves questions all day long and make choices.

We prioritize even when we don’t realize it…

Netflix over washing the dishes? Priorities.

Calling a friend on her birthday over sending a text? Priorities.

Setting priorities is all about what, when, and how.

Setting priorities is all about what, when, and how. Click To Tweet
  • What are you going to do?
  • When are you going to do it?
  • How are you going to do it?

How do you decide what to prioritize and when? Does that last-minute briefing to the boss come before the client phone call that is incessantly replaying in your head (and one that you could solve in a few minutes)?

 

Deciding WHEN to Do It

Prioritizing your day actually begins at the end of the previous day.

Prioritizing your day actually begins at the end of the previous day. Click To Tweet

Before you leave work for the evening, take 30 minutes to schedule out your priorities for tomorrow.

This half hour is a good time to craft questions, ensure that you have agendas or other pre-reading material completed. What time is dedicated to meetings or conference calls? What research or notes will you need squared away? Being prepared turns you into a superstar. Showing up to a meeting or conference with well-thought-out questions and the pre-reading done makes you the organizer’s best friend. It’s a great way to build relationships quickly. You show that you value other people’s work.

Put this end-of-day prep time into your calendar. Mark it off as something, so it’s obvious you’re getting ready for the next day. For example:

  • Check calendar and tasks for tomorrow
  • Pre-reading and agenda review for tomorrow
  • Prioritizing for tomorrow

Treat this time as sacred. It is your chance to unwind from the day, get prepared for the next and to leave your work at work. If someone does book you right to the end of the day, simply move your review time up so you can give your full attention to the meeting that was called.

If you have free space in your calendar, now is the time to fill those holes with tasks that require your effort. Filling in these holes allows for you to understand where your time is going and can also answer the question as to whether you have enough to do — or if your time could be better spent on different tasks.

 

Deciding WHAT to Do

What Should Go in Your “Free Time”?

Time isn’t free. Time is an absolute gift and squandering it is the worst thing you can do. Using time and focus to accomplish what you need to is extremely rewarding. It also helps you to develop your reputation as a reliable person. Everyone loves relying on someone who is there for them and can deliver.

Time isn’t free. Time is an absolute gift and squandering it is the worst thing you can do. Click To Tweet

So, it’s the end of your day, you know what meetings you’re attending tomorrow and you’re prepared for them. What you see left on your calendar is some white spaces. Eeek!

I run by the rule: “If the meeting isn’t booked at least a day in advance, I want a phone call.”

If your calendar is booked, the organizer will need to call you and check in. Again, it’s about respecting the gift of time. You aren’t obligated to give many people that free time. If someone really needs you, they’ll call and check in for the time they’re requesting.

What goes into those wonderful white spaces then? Everything on your to-do lists. Seriously.

 

Getting All Of Your “Stuff” In Order

Start with all of your lists. Home, work, honey-do, personal, etc. You might be looking at your task list and shaking your head. You believe that the tasks have colluded to come together and overtake you. Friends, this is not the case. You need to put them in their boxes and work it through. You’ve got this. Start with identification:

 

Self-Care and Family-Related Responsibilities

If you don’t take care of yourself and your closest relationships, you can’t take care of business. Self care is a huge part of the game and it goes right to the top of the list.

Examples:

  • Working out
  • Meditation/Yoga
  • Time with friends
  • Time with family
  • Taking a bath
  • Calling a friend
  • Cooking

 

Deadlines

Tasks that have a clearly defined deadline go into your white space first. This takes care of the time sensitivity.

 

Short-Term Projects

I define short-term projects as six months or less. I slot time to review the status, ensure the course is still on track and develop key pieces that don’t take too much time but will contribute to success. Always review communications, interim reports, updating lessons learned or history documentation.

 

Long-Term Projects

I define long-term projects as six months or more. I make sure to review long-term projects regularly and follow the same protocol as short-term projects. Note: Long-term projects may be made up of several short-term projects. Regardless, assess their value in the bigger picture.

 

Response Times

Identify time to address phone calls and emails. Decide when you read the message whether the message requires immediate action or if it can wait a day or so. As email users, we all need to get better with subject lines and content. See EmailCharter.org for my favorite ways to get attention via the subject line, organize my email and work with others digitally.

  • Action Items: I use an ACTION label on everything that I need to respond to in a reasonable amount of time. I have my inbox filtered so that items labeled with ACTION come right after my unread items.
  • Awaiting Response: I also have an AWAITING RESPONSE label so that if I sent something out and didn’t receive a response, I can effectively follow-up follow up. I also have this filtered to show up right under my ACTION label.

 

Training and Self-Improvement

As a professional, you need to be continuously following some sort of improvement plan. It’s for you, it’s for your company, it’s for your generation. Sincerely, the better you are, the better the people around you become. Block off 30 minutes to two hours a week to learn.

Sincerely, the better you are, the better the people around you become. Click To Tweet

 

Power Hour

Once a week, I dedicate one hour to administrative tasks  so that I (and my team) can stay organized. This means: Filing items in common areas, taking time to delete old emails, cleaning out my locker, cleaning my desk, etc. This is the time to complete lower-level, mundane priorities that make everyone’s life easier. I keep a running list in the calendar event so I know what I need to get done during that time. I also do this at home so I remember to restock the toilet paper.

 

Assign Time to Priorities

I love this fun exercise! I have general guidelines for how I assign time slots and I really love trying to complete a task before the timer runs out (more on timers later). Estimating how long something is going to take is one of the most important tools in my kit. It takes practice to gain an understanding of how long a task will take you, so overestimate.

 

Smaller Tasks (25 Minutes Max)

I like to break my day down into 30-minute chunks. Science has found that adults can only focus for up to 20 minutes at a time, so a 25-minute chunk (thank you Speedy Meetings) allows for 20 minutes of focused work, five minutes to figure out what you’re doing next and prepare for it, then five final minutes to travel. Again, arriving to a meeting early makes you a freaking hero nowadays. I want to point out that since you did all the pre-reading and have your questions all ready to go, you’re ahead. BOOOM.

Here are some examples of smaller tasks:

  • Morning Hold (25 minutes) — This time is mine and I defend it pretty vehemently. It means that if my bus is late getting to work, I’m not worried about it. It means that if I want to get a peppermint tea and get to my overnight emails for half an hour, that’s up to me. How you start your work day is very important and that first half hour helps to set up the rest of your day and gives you a chance to destress if you have a crap start. It’s like hitting restart.
  • Email (25 minutes)
  • Phone Calls (10 minutes each)  — Note: Write who you are calling and the phone number in your event details. Include reasoning in the event description.
  • Report Writing (Should be two pages or under. One page should take you about 20 minutes to type.)
  • Proofreading/Editing (25 minutes)
  • Agenda review or pre-reading (Aim for under 10 pages.)
  • Reviewing your calendar for the next day (25 minutes)

 

Longer Tasks (30 minutes or longer):

  • Strategic tasks – writing, imagining, artistic endeavours
  • Pre-reading for meetings (10+ pages)
  • Feedback, development or mentoring conversations
  • Reflection (Always 30 minutes minimum.)

If you’ve finished your emails in 10 minutes, take note so that when you evaluate your time usage after two weeks, you’ll have a very clear picture of where your time went. Another name for this is “time logging.” It is very important in learning to prioritize your time.

 

More Tips

  • If you finish a task earlier than expected, thank your laser focus. It’s important to recognize that you put in the work.
  • When you’re done with that pat on the back, get back to grinding. Move everything else up in your day so that when you get to the end, you have more time for reflection and evaluating the next day’s calendar.

Of course, there are other methods that you can use to prioritize your tasks, such as Brian Tracy’s ABCDE method, which is essentially grading each of your priorities. This method relies on you knowing which priorities need to be done and which can be eliminated from your list.

Now that you’ve carefully chosen your priorities and put them into your calendar, how do you go about getting them done and dealing with surprises like a massive reorganization announcement or an insane amount of phone calls in one day?

 

Deciding HOW to Do it

Now that everything that you need to get done fits nicely into the white spots, your calendar is full, you’ve consolidated the multiple places that you keep your to-dos and assigned a time frame to get them completed in. Now it’s go time.

Kidding.

It’s time to see how accurate your planning was and be prepared to choose flexibility over rigidity. You loaded your calendar so you could have focused time to get tasks done, but if you see other opportunities arise during the day for more high value activities, you may choose to adjust your schedule.

There is a saying that a task will only take the amount of time that you give it. If you’re working in a focused manner on the singular task, you are much more likely to get that task completed in a higher-quality manner than if you were to also be answering the phone, answering email and working on the assignment. I highly recommend using laser focus to complete as many tasks as possible during your day.

A task will only take the amount of time that you give it. Click To Tweet

Why?

Because it takes time to get back your focus for each distraction that you encounter and this study found: “…interruptions lead people to change not only work rhythms but also strategies and mental states. Another possibility is that interruptions do in fact lengthen the time to perform a task but that this extra time only occurs directly when reorienting back to the task and it can be compensated for by a faster and more stressful working style….”

Let’s say that you were going to work on your blog post for 30 minutes. Seven minutes in, your mom calls and wants to chat about a recipe she found. You let her know you’re busy and three minutes later you’ve hung up. You won’t be completely focused on your post for another several minutes. Now you’re behind on the work that you wanted to get done.

Alternatively, you could have set aside your phone for 30 minutes, scheduled time to return texts, voicemails and emails, and had a laser focus on your blog post. Here’s what the time breakdown looks like:

 

Helping You Focus

If you have dedicated an hour or more to a particular task, I recommend that you use the Pomodoro technique to break up the task into 20-minute blocks with a five-minute break in between, as well as a longer break after an hour is complete. As mentioned before, 20 minutes is the maximum amount of time that adults can focus, so it’s good to set the time limit, work diligently and end up with a product after each segment.

Once it’s the end of the day, check how you did. Did anything surprise you? Did something take longer than expected? Were you able to whip through your emails in half the allotted time?

 

Wrapping Up

My life is precious and important to me and I will use every moment to make it amazing. Click To Tweet

How you use your time tells others what you value, who you value and reveals your true level of productivity. Setting your priorities comes down to who you are and who you want to be in the world.

Do you want to leave a legacy?

How do you want to be seen by others in your industry?

How do you want to be seen in your family?

Your peer group?

When you take the time to learn about yourself and what you are doing with the finite resource of time, you will discover part of who you are. Over time, the compounding effect of using your time wisely will ensure that your goals are achieved, your life is fulfilling and your regrets will be few because you chose how to spend your precious moments of life wisely.

Your schedule is a reflection of your priorities... and if you're not getting everything done that you need to, it just means that you need to reprioritize and match your calendar to your new priorities. Setting priorities is all about what, when, and how. You're not too busy, you just need to prioritize better.

  • Cate

    Such a great article! The power hour is no joke, I do this often. Just take an hour to file, organize all my physical paperwork, shred papers, organize and delete emails etc. It’s the tedious stuff that has to be done, so if you just block out a little time to do it, you’d be surprised how great it feels when it’s done! And you get used to the routine very quickly. Excellent work on this piece, lots to think about.

    • Yes! I spent like 3 months procrastinating doing stupid little tasks like cleaning out the trunk of my car or taking extra keys off of my key ring… They were annoying me but I just “didn’t feel like” doing them. You know how long they took me? Literally less than 5 minutes each. I spent HOURS, DAYS AND WEEKSSSS procrastinating something that took me 5 minutes. I was like “seriously?!” So now, I just don’t let myself procrastinate lol.

  • The Expat Mama

    Even as someone who doesn’t “work” as such, the reminder of prioritizing time and myself is much needed. A must read for anyone feeling the strain from a busy life.

  • Patricia A. Go

    Good tips! I think it is important to prioritize relationships over tasks, because in the end it is what will last more.

    • COULD. NOT. AGREE. MORE. I struggle with that as well… My personality is task-based by nature, so I always have to remind myself to focus on relationships.

  • This is a great post I am trying to balance my work/home life a little better and this really helps

    • So glad you found this helpful… I know for myself, finding that balance almost feels like walking a tightrope lol. Good luck 🙂

  • Gayathri

    Wow this post offers practical suggestions that make me believe I can actually catch up with my backlogs.

    Gayathri @ Musings Over Nothing

    • That’s so awesome! Let me know how it goes 🙂

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