Practical Prioritising: Important, Urgent, or Just Demanded?
How many times have you looked back on periods of your life and wondered, “How was it that I ever thought that was a priority?” Whether it was a hobby you no longer engage, an unworkable relationship you sacrificed healthy ones for, or a compulsion you no longer regard as urgent, most of us have to admit that at times we have made decisions about what to prioritise which defy logic. There is a skill to establishing priorities. It has two steps: (1) working out how you are currently prioritising by examining your time use for both your at-home and your work or school hours and (2) Learning to prioritise by distinguishing between important and urgent tasks.
Current time use: keeping an activity log
If prioritising is about asking, “Why are you doing what you’re doing when you’re doing it?”, then keeping track of your time use for a week is about asking, “What are you doing, and when are you doing it?” The reason to go through this process (admittedly a bit tedious!) is so that you can see patterns in the tasks and activities that you choose and the interruptions, distractions, and unplanned events that get in the way of your choices. Once you are aware of your time use tendencies, the strategies we offer in this module will all make more sense to employ.
You don’t need fancy stationery or templates to keep a time/activity log for a week (although we have put a template into the Appendix for you, should you wish to use it). You need a pen, paper which you can block off as follows, and – mostly – discipline. Here’s how your log could look (you might have one like this for each of the seven days of log-keeping). We follow it with a description of the log-keeping steps:
- Keep track of both work/school and personal time; you might be surprised at how much time various activities take!
- Analyse your findings at the end of the week. See any unnecessary activities? Identify all that could be eliminated.
- Find some chunks of time throughout your typical week that you could block off for those high-value tasks that have a big payoff. It tends to be these which suffer the worst of the interruptions and delays (Mind Tools, 2016a; Zeigler, 2005; Tracy, 2015).
Urgent vs. important: the unending competition
Armed now with essential data about your current time use, you can make decisions about any changes in how you manage yourself through time. The takeaway concept here is that, for greatest productivity, you must always distinguish between what is genuinely important and what is screaming at you to be done, but is urgent rather than deeply important. You can think of the two qualities as continua on a matrix, as below:
|Due Today: URGENT||Due soon: not as urgent|
|IMPORTANT||A Tasks||B Tasks|
|Less important||D Tasks||C Tasks|
You can use Zeigler’s (2005) ABC Method with this decision-making matrix to prioritise the tasks:
The ABC Method
A Tasks are those you must do now: the deadline is today and the task is very important (if not to you, it may be crucial to your boss, teacher, or even partner if it is a task from the personal realm). You need to get these tasks completed on time in order to maintain important relationships, help clients and others meet vital needs, and protect your reputation (academically, career-wise, or personally among friends and family). As a student, a major assignment for a course could fit this description. In the world of work, a report offering data which will feed into others’ time-sensitive decision-making is also in this category.
B Tasks are those you should do now. They fit the A Task criterion of importance, but there is no deadline today (note, however, that as you get better at managing time, you will “catch” more tasks on the right hand, upper corner of the matrix before they slide over to the left hand side and are immediately due). A personal task here might be repainting the house before you put it on the market to sell. Perhaps you have several months before you intend to put up the “For Sale” sign, so the paint job is not required just yet, but the real estate agent has warned you that it is crucial for it to be done before the sale process begins in order to attract a fair market price.
C Tasks aren’t due soon and aren’t particularly important. Perhaps some things you like to do are in this category; you can work on them whenever you have time to spare. For example, re-organising your files (electronically or on paper) might be a great “nice to do”, but perhaps is not as important as other projects you are working on.
D Tasks are the ones that have to be guarded against. Less important than A’s and B’s, they nevertheless are capable of hijacking your schedule because they are due today. In the personal realm, for instance, organising a few minutes to pay a bill may not be important to you in the scheme of things (you have much bigger items on your worry plate), but it is urgent, because the electricity company (or whoever) may cut off your supply of vital services if you do not pay on time. While D tasks must be tended to, good time management would dictate fitting them in around the A’s and even some B’s, but not doing them during times when your energy is fresh and at higher levels; such time blocks should be reserved for the truly important things you need to do (adapted from Zeigler, 2005).
A few tips can help with prioritising decisions:
- Know why the task is important and when it must be done. When someone requests that you do something or delegates a task to you, it is tempting to assume, especially if they are an authority figure, that the task is an “A” task or that it must be done immediately. It is more productive for you to take up a negotiating stance, asking when they really need it. When it is you requesting that others do tasks, you can help them manage their time by being clear on why you need the thing actioned, and when you need it.
- Think about each task before scheduling it. Given the explanation of tasks on the matrix above, where would this proposed action or activity fit? Taking just a few minutes to think about this helps ensure that you proceed with greater confidence, and probably more logical decision-making.
- Use the Salami Slice Method, slicing big project chunks into thinner pieces, like salami. Remember, we tend to do tasks which are easier or don’t take much time (lots of C’s and D’s), procrastinating on the big and/or important projects. If your time log analysis tells you that you are doing this, take a few minutes to break the big project down into smaller pieces. A huge roll of salami hanging from the ceiling of a butcher shop may not seem at all enticing, but when it is sliced thinly and offered on a plate, you might feel quite happy to eat it. Ditto with projects.
- Figure out what is important to your boss/teacher/partner. If you cannot figure out the priority based on your goals, it may be time to review and work in with others’ priorities. No person is an island, after all, and what you do or don’t do at work/home/school has a lot to do with what happens for others in those environments. Saying this does not mean abdicating control of your schedule to others! It just acknowledges that you are part of larger social units which sometimes have needs as important and urgent as your own. Moreover, you are likely to get raises or promotions at work and elevated status as a student if you complete “cod-liver-oil tasks” than easy ones or ones which merely put out fires (the D’s).
- Sometimes you might need to just say “no” or “not now”. Developing your assertiveness skills helps your self- and time-management. The more you learn how to use this simple word (diplomatically, we hope), the more you reclaim your time and life (adapted from Zeigler, 2005; Tracy, 2015).
- Mind Tools. (2016a). Activity logs. Mindtools.com. Retrieved on 25 January, 2016, from: hyperlink.
- Tracy, B. (2015). Interview with Estrada College.
- Zeigler, K. (2005). Getting organized at work: 24 lessons to set goals, establish priorities, and manage your time. New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-07-145779-8.