I spent most of my corporate life convincing myself that if I could only get through the next 6 weeks everything would be fine. Each day was spent trying to do a little bit of everything, being everything to everyone and being everywhere at once. Besides being exhausting it was also ineffective. As I managed to keep all the balls in the air, what I failed to recognize is that while I was perfecting my juggling act the balls were only moving in a circle in front of me, not moving forward. This resulted in projects taking longer, redundancy in the work I was doing as I tried to remember where I left off on something and a feeling of frustration – nothing was ever done!
Having a world where you have the luxury to work on one thing at a time is not a reality for most of us. Therefore we need to adopt solutions that allow us to continue to manage multiple initiatives in our work and lives and still maintain our ability to focus. The key words here are “to manage” versus having the priorities manage us.
To do this we need to focus on two key components.
- Establishing clear priorities of what the goals are and when they need to be completed
- Designating chunks of time to focus on that priority
In our work, priorities are often driven by our company’s strategic planning process or annual objectives. The first step with these goals is to develop a high-level planning calendar that lays out each priority with major milestones and deliverables.
A simple low-tech way to do this is to get one of those write-on annual planning calendars that you can pick up at a local office supply store. Half a dozen colored dry-erase markers will allow you to color code priorities or themes to further allow you to build an image of what’s expected of you in the next few months. Having a strong visual will help you identify where there may be overlap in resources or competing priorities.
You can use this same approach for your personal life and use the colors to designate different people in your family or different events that you are planning for the coming year, such as an anniversary celebration or a family vacation. Laying these two scenarios next to each other will also allow you to see where work or personal issues will be competing for your time.
The elegance of this approach is that your visual can also act as a communication tool to let co-workers, bosses and family members in on what the schedule looks like. It’s also easily modified as new priorities are established or current ones are changed.
If you’re like me, the prioritization part is fun. It involves brightly colored markers and drawing pretty pictures. This next part is where we finally break from the multi-tasking juggling act and requires creating focused time blocks dedicated to working on the priorities.
A focused time block is simply an allocation of time in your calendar to work on one specific thing and only one thing…you don’t answer your phone, you don’t check your email, and you don’t allow interruptions.
For me I find that the maximum amount of time that I can focus on a specific item is 90 minutes. My sweet spot however, is around 50 minutes. After this amount of time I find that I have usually hit a spot in my work that requires others to be involved or that my brain has started to wander onto other topics.
Looking at your priorities, estimate the amount of time you will need to work on it. Determine your sweet spot for being able to work in a focused manner and schedule blocks of time into your calendar just like you would any other meeting. For instance, if a project is due in 4 weeks and will take you 3 hours to complete you could schedule 60 minutes every Tuesday for the next 3 weeks to work on it. In corporate we tend to view “attending a meeting” as sacred time in someone’s calendar. Similarly we should view “focused time” equally as important.
I manage this by alloting my time in 60 minute blocks – the length of a typical meeting. I stay focused for 50 minutes and then use the last 10 to make some notes on the progress I’ve made so I can easily pick up where I left off the next time I work on it. This last part makes it easy for me to jump back in without losing precious time re-learning.
We will still have too many priorities – that is simply the world we live in. But by adopting this simple approach, we will be managing them versus them managing us and we can ensure that the priorities will get done!
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How do you manage priorities?