A frequent request I get from managers during training sessions is for help to better manage time. ‘Unless you’re Einstein’, I reply, ‘better stay away from metaphysics of managing the time-space continuum and focus instead on something that is under your control: knowing what is the most important thing to do.’ Of course, using time productively is no joke.

Some of the managers say they are feeling stressed by being behind in getting work done, and feel overwhelmed by the demands from their staff and their boss. Others say they want to fine-tune how they set priorities since they are not sure they are focusing on the right ones.

The following 6 steps will help to identify those activities that, if done in a timely manner each day, will enable you to make a significant difference in your organization. The focus of this approach is to develop your ability to differentiate what is important and unimportant, what is urgent and non-urgent, and to use strategies to work within each area to identify your priority actions.

Start by making a 2 square by 2 square table with headings at the top for important and unimportant, and down the side for urgent and non-urgent.

Sort your to-do list into each of the boxes:

  • Important and Urgent,
  • Important and Non-urgent,
  • Unimportant and Urgent, and
  • Unimportant and Non-urgent.

Eliminate everything that is in the unimportant and non-urgent box.

A substantial amount of e-mail is a prime example of activity that sits in this box.

Global New reports on research out of Carlton University that ‘people now spend one-third of their time at the office – and half of the time they work at home – reading and answering emails. And 30 per cent of that time, the emails are neither urgent nor important.’ That’s a lot of time you could be doing something more productive!

If you find you are on someone’s distribution list, or getting trivial e-mail from other sources, block them. If you cannot block them because they sometimes send something important you may set a rule in your e-mail server that sorts these to a separate file that you can then sort through them all at one time.

You might wish to share the available research on time-wasting e-mail with your boss or team and ask if anyone else is having the same experience. You could then strategize together how to reduce this source of inefficiency.

Work to eliminate those items that are in your unimportant and urgent box.

You probably can’t immediately eliminate these items as the ‘urgency’ is often based on demands from your boss or other departments in the organization. A common example of this is the requirement to submit regular reports.

If you question the value of certain reports because you never receive feedback on them, or never see the information in them used, ask if it is still necessary to complete them at all. Or you may ask to be told the most important parts of the report and focus on those. Or, to minimize the time you spend on it, you may come up with an automated way to compile and transmit the report.

Review those items that are in the important and non-urgent box.

These are normally the activities you need to do to maintain stability or ensure your organization is adapting to changing demands:

  • Performance reviews,
  • Policy and procedure writing to give guidance to your staff,
  • Making the rounds of the organization to talk with your team or others to keep in touch with what is going on,
  • Writing reports or proposals that help your team, your boss or the funder understand the importance of your area of responsibility, or
  • Focusing on your own personal and professional development.

While these activities should be a regularly scheduled priority, they are often neglected since the urgent ones, important or not, have a way of taking over. There is a substantial risk if your important and non-urgent activities are incomplete. You may find, for example, that not regularly reviewing staff performance or job descriptions has resulted in continued under-performance, role confusion or interpersonal conflict.

It is helpful to set a percent of your time each week to focus on the items that are important, monitor them for completion, and take corrective action if you falter on meeting this expectation.

Review those items that are in your important and urgent box.

These include immediate concerns such as issues where harm may occur to clients, staff or property (fire, flood), or other foreseen or unforeseen pressing issues (e.g., you receive a message from the funder that there is a funding opportunity that requires a proposal by the end of the week).

These are, by definition, activities that must be done first. After gaining work experience, managers can improve their ability to respond to these items very efficiently. Occasionally, in order to focus on important and urgent matters you may need to reschedule the time you provide to the important and non-urgent items.  If you notice the important and urgent demands are sustained, for example where flooding has required relocation of services, it is advised to sit with your boss to let them know the situation, and negotiate the temporary addition or redirection of resources.

Prioritize what you are to do each day.

Now that you have reviewed the pattern of demands on your time, you can more efficiently set your priority to-do list for each day.

Start with your annual goals, and specify what you need to do each month, week and day to meet them. This process may reveal priorities that had not yet appeared on your list. I recommend two books to help guide you through habit-forming skill development and strategies to identify and manage priorities:

  1. In the book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1989, 2004) Stephen R. Covey describes and explains, in detail, the sorting of importance and urgency in Habit 3, Put first things first. The benefit of reading this chapter rests in his quote, ‘the key is not to prioritize what is on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.’ There is an interesting Forbes review of this book which also cites this chapter as memorable and helpful.
  2. In the book, The One Thing (2012), Gary Keller advocates cutting through the clutter to focus on your important tasks one-by-one. He quotes a Russian proverb, ‘If you chase 2 rabbits, you will catch neither one.’ This book provides more modern references to help establish the perspective and importance of determining priority tasks.

While everyone would intuitively agree with the importance of doing first things first, it can be a challenging but worthwhile effort to undertake the sorting to find the priorities of greatest value. Use these steps and resources to eliminate what you can and prioritize the rest.