Time Management: How To Prioritize Effectively (Tip #6)

If I asked you to list everything you had to do at a given time at work, where would you look?

Typical answers:

  • A collection of e-mails in my inbox waiting for action
  • Notes scattered through a little black book or on a notepad
  • Sticky notes
  • Mental notes
  • No notes – others will remind me

An effective time management system should require little up-keep and quickly give you a picture of what is required to do next – in other words you need an effective, single TO-DO List.

A first-class TO-DO list system must meet 4 criteria:

  • There must be only one list
    (otherwise how does one quickly make a judgment about relative priority?)
  • Each item should say what it is you actually have to do
  • Each item should say when it is due
  • The most important items should be identified as such

For those of you (and I know there are many) who use your email Inbox as a TO-DO list, you know what it looks like:  you use flags or mark things as unread and continually go back and work your list of emails, mining for what to do next.

The issue with that approach is that it does not meet the above criteria of a good TO-DO list for a few reasons:

  • First, the date on any given email is not meaningful to you at all – it is the date the email was sent, not related at all to the due date of a specific task item.
  • Second, the subject line may or may not be useful but certainly it is not specific to what your action needs to be on the item.I have stood behind plenty of people clicking in and out of emails trying to find the one email they wanted, the one with the work they need to do, but because the subject line is not specific to you, this is inefficient.The truth is you need to be able to quickly assess and take the action, not judge by subject line, open it and determine “is this the one I wanted, what is this one about again??”.
  • Finally, a list of flagged emails in an Inbox does not allow one to pick out the top priority items easily and get down to working on them – it keeps you moving in and through your email regularly, which leads to what I like to call following “rabbit trails”.The very act of doing this lets the unimportant, less urgent take precedent over the important because as humans we are drawn to anything new that has the potential to be more interesting than what we are doing in the moment.

There is a more effective way…..first of which is utilizing a single, effective TO-DO list system in combination with scheduling time for important work in your calendar, which I will outline in an upcoming blog.

Tip:  All of the first-class TO-DO list items above can be accomplished in Microsoft Outlook’s “Task” list, as well as with other software such as G-mail.  Items can be entered directly or dragged there from your e-mail.

How many systems / ways do you use to manage your work and to-do’s now?

Joanne Spalton, Senior Consultant