Putting First Things First - Best Practice
Once you create your master project list, you will have a clear picture of all the ways you could be spending your time; now you have to choose how to actually spend it. Remember that you can do almost anything, but you cannot do everything. Whenever you start a task, you are automatically giving up everything else you could have done during that time.
The best practice of Putting First Things First means taking conscious control of your choices and choosing to spend more time on the projects and tasks that are important and valuable, and less time on the ones that are not as important or valuable.
This may sound obvious, but the fact is that the vast majority of people don’t put much thought on how they spend their time. They just flow through life going wherever the current will take them, doing whatever grabs their attention next or repeating the same things day after day out of habit and routine.
In 1895, the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto discovered what is now commonly called the Pareto Principle or the “80/20” rule. While studying the economy of his town, he discovered that 80 percent of the wealth was owned by only 20 percent of the population.
While there are exceptions, his principle does seem to apply to all sorts of groups including your projects and tasks: 80 percent of the value is contained in only 20 percent of the items. If you have fifty tasks spread over the various projects you are actively working on, ten of them will likely be more valuable to you right now than all the others combined.
The key to effective prioritization is to apply the 80/20 rule and discover the 20 to 30 percent of your projects and tasks that will give you the most value and the greatest returns on your effort.
Determine the Value and Importance of Your Tasks
In many cases, your intuition is more than enough to determine whether a task is important or not. Other times, it helps to keep the following points in mind.
» Consider the long-term benefits. Important and valuable tasks often have significant long-term benefits that will make a big difference in your life, your work, or your career. Trivial and unimportant tasks have few, if any, long-term benefits.
» Consider the consequences of inaction or delay. Another way to gauge the importance of a task is to consider what would happen if you didn't do it at all. Important tasks are usually associated with significant long-term consequences for their successful completion. If there are no consequences for delaying or not completing a task, it is probably not that important.
» How does it affect others. When considering the consequences of delaying or not completing a task, you also need to think about how the delay will affect other people or groups in your organization. Will it push out their schedules? Tighten their deadlines? Make it difficult for them to succeed?
» Think about what you are ultimately trying to accomplish. Tasks that directly support your overall objectives are more valuable than "filler" tasks that do not. Julie Morgenstern suggests you look at how each task affects the bottom line as a way to determine its value. Tasks that directly contribute to your company's bottom line, either by making or saving money, could be considered more valuable than those that are two or three steps away from it.
In Debugging the Development Process, Steve Maguire argues that the most valuable tasks in a software project are those that directly contribute to improving the product.
» Consider the task's return-on-investment (ROI). Your tasks not only have value and importance, they also have costs in terms of your time and energy investments. The best way to take these costs into account is to use the ROI to determine if a task or project is worth it.
» Can you link it to your mission, vision, or goals? Any task that contributes to your long-term mission and goals is bound to be important in some way. The strength of the link between the task and the goals determines its value and importance.
One system for prioritizing your projects and tasks is the ABCD method. With this method, you go through each item in your list and assign it one of four labels:
A – The A's are assigned to projects and tasks that are very important or valuable or that need to be completed right away because of an impending deadline.
B – The B's are assigned to projects and tasks that should be done, but are not as important, valuable, or urgent as the As.
C – The C's are assigned to projects and tasks that you may want to do at some future time, but that are not important or valuable enough for you to spend your time on them right now.
D – The D's are assigned to projects and tasks that you are not planning to do. They are not worth your time and energy.
It may seem strange to leave the D projects and tasks in your lists, but if they made it there it’s because at some point you thought you might need or want to do them. Rather than loose track of them, just keep these items in your list in case they pop up again or you change your mind and decide that you would like to do some of them.
Once you’ve labeled all your projects and tasks, focus on the A's and assign individual priority rank values to the top five to ten items: A1 for the most important, A2 for the next most important, and so on.
You can usually tell which of two items is more important by asking yourself “If I could only complete one of these but not both, which one would I choose?” Your choice represents the more important task. If you think two tasks are equally important, just assign the same priority value to both of them.
If you have more than ten items at any given level, you don't have to assign rank numbers to all of them. Just rank the top five to ten items and leave the others with their general labels (A, B, etc.) When you complete all your ranked tasks, you can choose the next five to ten most important items and rank them appropriately.
The Achieve Planner time management software uses prioritized hierarchical (multi-level) to-do lists to help you get organized, increase your productivity, and work more effectively. You can try it free for 30 days.
Urgency and Importance
You need to consider both the short‑term urgency and long‑term importance when assigning priorities to your projects and tasks.
Some examples of projects with long‑term importance are: completing a product for a major customer, planning and preparation, hiring a project lead, maintaining a good relationship with your customers, spending quality time with your family, regular exercise, and keeping your finances in order.
Some examples of projects with short‑term urgency are: completing a document before the product ship deadline, completing your tax returns before April 15th, responding to a colleague’s email with the information they need to continue their work, traveling to visit a customer, responding to a major crisis, or delivering a presentation to the board on a specific date.
In putting first things first, it is critical to distinguish between the importance and urgency of projects and tasks because important things are not always urgent and urgent things are not always important.
In the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey uses the four quadrants paradigm to illustrate the distinction between importance and urgency. Quadrant One corresponds to things that are both important and urgent, which should represent your highest priorities. These are important things that need to be done right away.
Quadrant Two represents things that have long‑term importance and consequences but are not urgent. Some examples of quadrant two activities include planning, preparation, rest, and prevention. In fact, some of the best practices described here are quadrant two activities. Because quadrant two activities are not urgent, they can be easily hijacked by other less important but more urgent things that grab your attention.
Quadrant Three corresponds to things that are urgent but not very important. This quadrant is usually filled with distractions such as phone calls, unproductive meetings, and chatting with drop‑in visitors. It is very easy to spend your time in quadrant three activities because their perceived urgency makes them seem important even when they are not.
Quadrant Four corresponds to things that are neither urgent nor important. Activities in this quadrant correspond to wasted time and energy. Examples are mindless TV watching, some forms of web-surfing, and gossiping.
A closer look at Quadrants Three and Four reveals that they are often “escapes” from too much work in Quadrant One. In fact, many of the worst practices that I’ve discussed fall directly into Quadrants Three and Four. Drifting into Trivia and Gold‑Plating are good examples of useless Quadrant Four activities that allow you to rationalize your escapes from more important work.
A common problem people face while trying to set priorities is that they often have too much urgency in their schedule. They are trying to resolve one crisis after another, constantly putting out fires, always feeling rushed and under time‑pressure to get things done, and the deadlines just keep piling on. This condition manifests itself as a long list of "important and urgent" activities that all need to be done right away.
While it may seem that this is just a fact of life and not really a problem you can do anything about, too much urgency is usually a sign of poor time‑management. It can lead to what Michael LeBoeuf calls the “tyranny of the urgent,” where we sacrifice important long-term projects because we are too busy dealing with the urgent ones.
A large list of important and urgent tasks that all need to be done right away is a clear symptom of the worst practices of Management by Crisis, Attempting Too Much, Always Saying Yes, Wishful Thinking, and Poor Planning. It is a condition that over the long term leads to burnout, high stress, and poor quality work.
People often try to solve this condition by working even harder to get a handle on everything they need to do. However, the real solution is to attack the causes instead of just dealing with the symptoms, much like the superior doctor prevents illness and disease rather than just treating patients after they become sick.
The real solution to the problem of too much urgency is to correct the worst practices that are creating it in the first place by replacing them with the corresponding best practices.
As you dedicate more time to the best practices and correct the causes, your "important and urgent" list will gradually being to shrink and get under control.
Don't get me wrong, you will still have important and urgent tasks. The difference is that you will also be able to make time for important tasks that are not as urgent.
Prioritizing "Quadrant Two" Tasks
It is obvious that "Quadrant One" projects and tasks should be prioritized as A's since they are important and urgent, but what about the important tasks that are not as urgent?
Quadrant Two contains three types of activities. The first are the time‑management best practices described throughout this website. Since these best practices are not really part of your projects and tasks, but are instead practices that help you manage your time more effectively, you will not be adding these practices to your master project list. Instead you should make these practices part of your normal routine by turning them into habits. For example, the best practices of Effective To-Do List and Master Project List help you plan, organize, and manage your projects and tasks. You don’t have to prioritize these practices because they become part of the normal way you do your work; they are internalized in the systems and processes you use every day to get things done.
The second type of quadrant two activities are routine activities such as exercise, keeping your finances in order, continued learning to expand your knowledge and skills, cultural activities, spending time with your family, recreation, and relaxation. There are two main techniques you can use to help you give these activities the time and priority they deserve. The first is to include them as part of your master project list and schedule time for them like any other project. This works particularly well for activities like keeping your finances in order, going on a trip, researching a specific topic, etc.
The second technique is to allocate blocks of time on a weekly basis for the activity as part of your normal routine. For example, you may schedule regular times for exercise, or you may decide that Tuesday night is family time, or reserve certain Saturday evenings as “date nights”. The best practice of Weekly Planning will show you several examples of each.
The third type of quadrant two activities are long‑term projects and initiatives. Examples are launching a project to figure out how to streamline business processes in your department to cut costs and improve productivity, training your staff, automating repetitive tasks with an IT solution, going back to school to get a master’s degree, starting to plan your next project, or going after an important goal. These correspond to projects that although not yet urgent, are important and valuable undertakings. These type of projects are best managed using the master project list. You can assign a high priority to these important projects and allocate some time each week to work on them.
Don’t make the mistake of automatically assigning Bs to important but non‑urgent projects; you’ll be amazed how much progress you can make by working steadily on an important project week after week, even for relatively small blocks of time on any given day. These are the types of projects that you have to make time for in your schedule on a weekly basis.
The priorities of your projects and tasks are constantly changing. A project that was once a top A may need to be readjusted if you discover it is not as important as you once thought, if the circumstances surrounding it change, or if the deadline is postponed. You may also find other more important things that you should be doing instead.
Don't be afraid to reshuffle priorities as needed based on your day-to-day realities. As each day passes, some of your projects will become more important and others less important. Remember that the goal is for your priorities to accurately reflect the "first things" in your life.
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