A major part of planning one’s day, week, month and even year consists of prioritising. Ideally, this particular function of managing workflow should be informed by company strategy and, so, should not be left to each individual to perform – particularly not temporary staff, who could not be expected to have insight into the organisation’s ‘musts’ and ‘needs’. Locked up in this function are also benefits such as managing client expectations and project parameters, and the potential for reducing overall work stress from the top downwards.
Where does prioritisation fit into the planning process?
While the focus usually falls on planning one’s workday, less attention is given to the role that continuous, adaptive prioritisation plays in the planning process. How does one deal with priorities that tend to change from one minute to the next while deadlines have to be met? And how does all this fit in with the organisation’s philosophy, policies and overall strategy?
Remote temporary workers in particular may become lost in a sea of competing imperatives: In Robyn’s Monday’s online meeting, line management emphasized the importance of finishing a go-live schedule for Project Desert greening (PDG) by Wednesday. But it’s already Tuesday afternoon, and she finds that a swarm of emails has eaten away the minutes and hours. She is desperately trying to please a persistent, irate client that she inherited, while at the same time catching up on overdue timesheets and following up on her allocated team’s progress on fixing coding bugs in PDG. In the meantime, her baby has developed a fever and the geyser packed up the night before. Robyn is so anxious and overwrought that she is unable to step back and see the wood for the trees …
Being able to distinguish between what needs to be done right away to save a project or even a client and what can be temporarily put on the back burner can make the difference between Robyn’s successful navigation through her day and week … and going into a complete meltdown.
Urgency, importance and size
The first step in prioritising tasks would be to break them down in order of size, importance and urgency. Not everyone is equally adept at this, though: it might be a thought to put work prioritisation on the agenda of your weekly or daily online staff meeting.
Smaller, important and urgent tasks would typically go to the top of the list, followed by bigger tasks in order of importance.
It can also be useful to divide one’s day into slots: early in the morning for those critical red flaggers; late morning for smaller routine tasks; and afternoons for slogging through big, ongoing jobs.
All of this should be performed with the organisation’s bigger picture in mind – requiring inputs to be filtered down from top management as well as peers who have been around for longer than Robyn has.
Knowing how long recurring tasks take on average helps one to plan and prioritise; identify tasks that take too much time, judged by their importance; and gain a sense of calm about what percentage of your time goes into the routine part of your workload.
It is important to also factor in time spent on breaks and home-related activities. This gives one a clearer picture of where time goes during a typical working day. Travelling time to the office can be deducted and added to the day’s working hours; then deduct coffee and meal breaks as well as household and family time to get to actual hours that one needs to set aside for work.
Once one gets going with your workday, a useful way to manage activities is by following the pomodoro technique. This entails working without distraction for 25 minutes, followed by five-minute intervals. During the 25 minutes stretches, simply note down anything that crops up, and use the five-minute intervals to take care of that or let your mind rest. The pomodoro technique is particularly well suited to bigger tasks.
It also helps to identify periods of time that one finds are spent on less productive activities and move those activities out to the late afternoon, when it becomes more difficult to concentrate.
A critical final step is to set and adhere to deadlines per task, and to ensure that one does not overrun the allotted time for each – whether big or small.
Prioritising tasks, work-related as well as personal, ensures that nothing important falls through the cracks, while bigger deadlines still get the necessary attention; gives both fulltime and temporary staff and the organisation better control over where everyone’s time goes; ensures client expectations are not compromised; and lowers stress levels all round.