Manager’s Notebook: Prioritizing Work

Jar of Rocks (Photo credit: origami_potato on today’s business world, everyone does more with less. People have multiple projects on their plates, and no end in sight to their to-do items. How do you prioritize your work to ensure you meet your organizations’ goals, while avoiding burnout from all the things you have to do? How do you guide your team to prioritize their work to do the same? The value of your team’s work is directly related to how well it lines up with your organization’s priorities, so it’s imperative that you help them prioritize their work well.

Applying the Pareto Principle

The Pareto Principle states that 20% of your activities provide 80% of the value. Unfortunately, most of us get caught up in working on the other 80% of tasks, fighting daily fires and responding to urgent requests rather than important ones. Most professionals rarely have more than 2 hours a day to focus without interruption.

Let’s use the jar illustration to demonstrate this idea. If you are given a jar, along with rocks, pebbles, sand, and water, how do you fill up that jar? Do you put the rocks in first? The water? How do you fit the most items into the jar? Ideally, you start with the rocks first, because they are the largest, then you add the smaller items in size order to fill in the spaces between.

In terms of prioritization, the rocks are your highest-priority items. They are larger and take more time, but deliver the greatest possible results. The pebbles are important activities that support the rocks and help you get the results you want. They take up less room, but you need more of them to complete the rock items. Sand is the fun stuff – the things you like to do and make your daily work life enjoyable. They may or may not be relevant, but they require little effort and don’t return high-value results. Finally, water is the clutter in your life – things that people perceive as “must do,” but bring little results of satisfaction.

Separating the Urgent from the Important

Most of us fall into the trap of working on urgent things so often that we neglect the important things. The following grid can help you and your team determine where the focus of our work is going and see where we might re-prioritize some items.

priority gridTo assess your team members’ current focus, have them complete the following steps:

  1. List all the activities and projects that they feel they have to do. Try to include everything that takes time at work, however unimportant.
  2. On a scale of 1-5, assign importance to each of the activities. Judge importance by how well that item helps them meet their goals and objectives.
  3. Evaluate each activity’s urgency using the 1-5 scale.
  4. Plot each item on the grid according to the importance and urgency values they gave it.
  5. Study the grid to determine where they might need to shift focus to ensure they are spending more time on important work.
  6. Rework and schedule their work according to your set priorities.

When I led my team members through this exercise in prioritizing work, many of them were surprised at where in the grid most of the items they thought were important fell. This exercise can be a real eye-opener and help you guide your team to reprioritizing their work in a more productive way.

Determining the Big Picture and Future Impact

Keeping the big picture in mind throughout your prioritization process is necessary to ensure you are heading down the right path. You must continually reassess how your team’s work fits into the overall goals of your organization, and adjust and readjust accordingly.

To help your team think about the big picture, ask them the following questions:

  • Why are you here?
  • What should you be accomplishing?
  • What is your major goal or objective right now?
  • What results are you hoping to get from this?

To help yourself determine the future impact of a task, you can ask these questions:

  • Does this task contribute to my most important goals?
  • How will this task impact my work for the next few months? Few years?

Maintaining Productivity

Working productively on high-priority tasks should be repeatable and maintained. Ensure that your team remains vigilant so that the urgent does not take over the important, and every so often revisit your team’s task list and help them re-prioritize those tasks. Resist the impulse to do the easiest things first and focus on the things that are important. Teach your team what to do when they receive unplanned tasks from others—evaluate its importance and urgency using the grid method. Then have them add the item to their list in the appropriate place based on its resulting priority.

Prioritizing tasks frequently is the key to good time management. Taking action on your high-priority tasks ensures your team meets their professional goals. And meeting their professional goals helps projects to move smoothly, their stress to be soothed, and their work to make a real difference.


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