Don't start with the easy jobs

Don't start with the easy jobs

Try this simple process to manage serial deadlines and conflicting priorities.

Ask any group of people how they manage their ‘to do’ lists, including major priorities, and you’ll find that few manage their work flow in a way that gets the best results. Many begin with the easiest tasks. Consequently, at the end of the day they’ve run out of time for the big or more difficult jobs. Why?

Common reasons:

‘I like to cross things off’

‘It gives a sense of satisfaction’

‘I’m getting up momentum for the harder jobs’

Try this very simple process to maintain focus and clarity.

At the beginning of the day (or even better, the night before), make a list of everything you want to do, in no particular order.

Even if you’ve got 20 things on your list, just identify the top five. Number them one through five, wherever they are on the list. Don't bother to number the rest - just the top five.

Start at number one. Don’t stop until you’ve finished, gone as far as you wish to go (you may have set a time limit), or as far as you’re able to go.

When interruptions come, as they always do, ask yourself, ‘Is this more important than the activity I’m working on?’

If not, add it to your list, put it out of eye-range so it doesn’t distract you, and stay focused on the more important activity. However, if it is more important, put the other task aside, work on the new job, and when completed go back to your list (considered and thought about before the day started bossing you around!)

Each time you move down the list, review it quickly. If something that’s jumped on the list is of higher priority than the activity you’d planned to do, give it lead position. The others won’t go away, but because they’re on the list instead of jostling for mind space you can keep them under tight rein - they won’t distract you.

If there's any day left once the top five and relevant queue jumpers have been handled, go back to the list and number off another five. This saves time at the beginning of the day prioritising things you may never get to.

Innis, a new CIO, has a slight variation – he uses time slots instead of sequential numbers. ”I used to keep everything in my head,” he said. ”I’d change priorities and activities as I went. Consequently things got out of hand.”

These days, at the beginning of the day, he writes everything down, allocates specific times, and keeps the list nearby as a prompt. The big benefit is clarity. It’s easy now to prepare. There’s no more chasing around for forgotten items. And he achieves more. However, if he’s underestimated the time needed or something really urgent comes up from left field, he doesn’t stress. He knows he’s done the best he could.

Another common challenge is conflicting priorities and deadlines from two or more senior executives.

Have a visual list of current tasks – either on a whiteboard or somewhere you can easily show them. Many bosses forget just exactly what they’ve already requested.

Ask them to agree between them on the order of action. You shouldn’t have to be piggy in the middle. Trying to keep them all happy without informing them of potential conflict only creates stress for you, missed deadlines and dissatisfied colleagues.

Robyn Pearce runs an international time management and productivity business based in New Zealand. Her report, 'How To Master Time In Only 90 Seconds', can be downloaded for free at

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