Time management: the elephant in the room

Even if you’re willing to work 12 hours a day, it’s still a limited amount of time, and if you are trying to do 15 hours worth of work in a 12 hour day, it’s not going to work. You’re going to feel frustrated at the end of the day. You’re going to feel that you didn’t get enough done.Julie Morgenstern

Exactly! I can implement all the tips and techniques I want, but I will still have not enough time to do everything (see How to find time?). Could it be that time management does not live up to my expectations? I thought that it was the art of having time to do everything that you need.

Well, eager to accomplish more in less time, I have focused my attention – until now – on tried-and-true strategies to be more productive and efficient with my time. However, time management is also about being able to prioritize. Doing so is particularly important when time is limited and demands are seemingly unlimited – as in my case. Unfortunately, many of the best time management techniques fall short in one way; they do not help you prioritize your work.

Time is a limited resource. Be sure that you spend your time where it matters most.

Prioritization helps you allocate your time where it is most needed. The idea is to focus your energy (or time) on the things that really matter (i.e. the most profitable for your business1, or more generally, those activities that would help you reach your goals). Specifically, prioritization helps you to realize that not everything you do is important. This also means that you should not waste time on non-priorities. In keeping with this idea, most prioritization methods would involve organizing your tasks based on different factors (e.g. importance, urgency). In doing so, you typically end up with four options: do, defer, delegate, or delete.

To reach your goals and achieve success, you must focus effort on your priorities, those things that are truly impactful and important to you.Cary J. Green

Little aside: some tasks may indeed not be important for a specific goal; yet, they may be for another one (see textbox below). Besides, you may choose, purposely, to spend time on meaningless things.

The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.Bertrand Russel

  is a priority,  
nothing is.

There is an everything is important paradox when it comes to prioritizing your tasks; still, what if everything you do IS important? What if there is no task that you want, or could for that matter, delete? The typical advice in time management is: Instead of doing everything, effective prioritization at work will help you focus your time on only a small number of productive activities. However, the truth is that to generate the full 100 percent return, the expenditure must also be 100 percent.2 With this mindset, when I first looked at the prioritization methods (and the idea that the non-priority tasks should be removed from your to-do list), no wonder that I decided to skip these tools.

What makes the problem worse!

One way to determine your priorities is to answer questions like these:

  • What are your goals?
  • What are your responsibilities?
  • What is the impact of the activity?

This is no easy task from a professional perspective (i.e. a business or an entrepreneur), but it becomes even more complex if you include your personal life into the equation? Do you prioritize your work and personal (as in “family”) tasks separately? Or do you prioritize one over the other? Note that I didn’t even refer to my personal (as in “me”) goals!

As humans, there is so much that we desire to accomplish in our personal and work lives. For that reason, we must decide which goals to tackle first.Hai Nguyen

What if you have more than one professional occupation? Of course, it is my responsibility to provide for my family; thus a paid full-time job should be prioritized over a yet-to-be-released podcast (with no guaranteed return). Still, how do you accommodate your short-term needs with the longer-term bigger necessities?

“Should I mention my (way too) many projects (both personal and professional)? Or is the problem clear enough?”

Now, focusing on this aspect of prioritization (i.e. discarding low priority tasks) was not only an oversight but also a mistake. Indeed, prioritization is not about saving time by pruning your to-do list, it’s figuring out what you need to focus on now in order to get things done. In other words, it’s what should be done first when you have a lot of tasks to complete.

Determine the order for dealing with (a series of items or tasks) according to their relative importance

how you decide
  what to work on first.  

Establishing priorities ensures that the right things get done at the right time. Prioritization indeed helps you get clear on your most important activities, ensuring you devote your (best) time and attention to work on them (see Eat that Frog). In doing so, you will indeed increase your productivity and efficiency.

Prioritization helps you save time. When you’ve got all of your tasks neatly lined up in order of importance, you can quickly move from one task to the other without stressing about which task to tackle or the order in which they need to be completed. This will save you valuable time and mental energy.Michaela Rollings

It also helps you regain control of your time and push back against unreasonable last-minute panic assignments. Undeniably, prioritization can help to overcome our natural tendency to focus on unimportant urgent activities. Keep in mind that being busy (doing something) is not the same thing as being productive (doing something important). In fact, without a thoughtful plan of attack, we can let truly important tasks go undone until they become a crisis forcing us to drop everything else and ‘put out the fire’ in panic mode. For that reason, you should make sure that you have plenty of time to do important things properly so that they do not become urgent.

Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.Stephen Covey

Here is a short extract from an article by Cary J. Green on that matter:

“If you have urgent activities and important activities competing for your time, which would you work on first?” Many people incorrectly answer that they would first work on the urgent activities. The point is that the enthusiasm often associated with urgency counterfeits itself as importance. Don’t be fooled: You should work on the most important things first, and remember that urgent issues are not necessarily important issues.

To sum up, the need to prioritize comes from a very simple fact: we just don’t have enough resources to work on everything we can come up with. Thus, we need a process to determine the sets, and equally important, the sequence of things that should be done to deliver the most (in achieving our goals) given our constraints. However, as already stressed, there is more in prioritization than just cutting tasks out of your to-do list.

Prioritization is important because it [will] allow you to give your attention to tasks that are important and urgent so that you can later focus on lower priority tasks.Hai Nguyen

“Now, I am convinced.”

To be continued…

1 In business, time is money. Prioritization helps businesses identify the most promising markets or projects to allocate resources, time, and effort. Besides, in many cases, demand is higher than supply or available capacity. That is why prioritization is a key skill for success. ^
2 Often, things that provide little value compared to the effort involved to complete them will also end up in such a category – when it comes to prioritizing, forget about the 80 and focus on the 20 which is sure to produce results. You may remember from a previous post what my opinion is on that matter (see Pareto principle)! ^
3 Prioritize (2010) Oxford Dictionary of English – Third Edition. Oxford University Press. ^

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