During a recent mentoring session I was asked about tips on prioritising work, especially with exams on the horizon and the need to apply for jobs looming too. It is all too easy to keep putting things off and then the pile of work or study can turn into an insurmountable task that defeats us.
When I started to discuss the tasks my mentee had stacking up, it was clear that some work on understanding the difference between urgent and important was going to be critical.
It is all well and good writing a to-do list but if that list is so long that completing it is impossible then all the planning, organisation and effort can end up being mis-directed, and you still fail to achieve the tasks you really needed to do.
For those that like a bit of theory, the Eisenhower Matrix, also referred to as Urgent-Important Matrix, is one tool that can help you decide on and prioritise tasks by urgency and importance.
A task may be urgent, but not at all important. A task may be important, but not at all urgent. It may be both urgent and important, or it may be neither.
By understanding and plotting the difference you can start to prioritise those tasks that need your attention first. Sorting out less urgent and important tasks can also help you to understand those which you should either delegate or not do at all.
I have also heard of this technique referred to as the 4Ds: Do it, Do it less well, Delegate it, Dump it!
So here’s what your To Do List should look like:
To Do List
URGENT & IMPORTANT
DO IT FIRST!
IMPORTANT but not urgent
DO IT LESS WELL NEXT
URGENT but not important
Can you delegate any of these? DELEGATE IT
Neither urgent nor important
Do you really need to do these? DUMP IT
But you might want to go further than a simple urgent/important assessment. Here are some other things we recommend you consider:
- Breakdown big tasks into more manageable chunks – tasks can be less overwhelming if split into smaller steps.
- Identify important items for others to do – these are the things that enable others to get on with things for you. This is especially important in team working (and critical to learn for managers once at work).
- Set realistic timelines and deadlines – if you are not being realistic, you will not deliver what you need and when.
- Look out for “time multipliers” – these are the things we can do today to free up more time tomorrow, making the future better. This includes looking for scope to automate regular tasks, or batch them to save time. For example, your monthly banking… can you set up direct debits to automate payments? Or at least batch payments so you login once a month and complete all payments rather than doing it multiple times a month.
Finally, the main thing to do is do something! The very worst thing is to bury your head in the sand and hope the to do list will go away. So do one task immediately, tick it off the list and feel better for your achievement.
Dr Deborah Watson