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The easiest way to take back your time

Updated: Jan 19, 2023

Three steps to effective and successful prioritization

Design by ratdesign.de


Time finds a way of disappearing.


From meetings and follow-ups, to booking lunches and travelling to meetings, plus spending time in social situations, both personally and professionally.


This is on top of the business as usual and unexpected surprises that can impact our day.


All of these tasks can become overwhelming. They can impact our time, efficiency and priorities. Not to mention our energy and health.


To succeed in effective prioritization, I rely on two tools used in tandem that help me to win my time back.


“What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.” — Dwight Eisenhower

The Pareto Principle and the Urgent/Important Matrix


For some, these are familiar tools; for others, they are new.


I find myself revisiting them to ensure that I make time for the work that moves my business forward, so I can prioritize my days by proactively blocking time for the tasks I know are essential for progress.


Often we say, “But I don’t have time for yet another activity." Even when it's meant to help us.


But what if taking two hours to fill in a matrix and complete an activity might actually save us two hours of time every day in the long run?


It works for me.

Are you interested to find out if it works for you? Here's how to do it.


FIRST STEP: TASKS & ACTIVITIES


Start simple and list every single task you must accomplish in a given week.

  • Think of all the projects you have on the go and list them

  • Think of all the meetings you have to attend and list them

  • Think of all the administration you must complete and list them

Include emails, phone calls, lunches, everything! There are more than you think and they are likely far removed from each other, which will make the analysis much easier as you know which tasks are for you and which tasks you complete are for others.


The next step is to analyze it through an intrapreneurial lens.


SECOND STEP: THE PARETO PRINCIPLE


The Pareto Principle is the theory that 20% of activity leads to 80% of output. Often referred to as the 80–20 rule.


This is by far the best tool to understand which of the activities and tasks you just listed actually get you the most results.

“For many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.” — Pareto

Consider the following examples to gain perspective:

  • Microsoft noted that by fixing the top 20% of the most-reported bugs, 80% of the related errors and crashes in a given system would be eliminated!

  • 20% of the exercises and habits have 80% of the impact on athletic training

  • 20% of the hazards account for 80% of the injuries in occupational health

  • 20% of criminals commit 80% of crimes

  • 20% of drivers cause 80% of all traffic accidents

  • 20% of a company's products represent 80% of sales

  • 20% of employees are responsible for 80% of the results

And so on and so on and so on.


Are you aware of which 20% of your tasks lead to 80% of your results?

Or are you giving energy where it doesn’t lead to output?


QUICK WIN

Email elimination

We often gain false and rather absurd satisfaction that we’ve achieved something when we go through emails and clear out our inboxes, but what are we really accomplishing?


If we unsubscribe from useless information or notifications, we will never read anyway; we’d save ourselves at least 10 minutes every morning!


Click “unsubscribe”, - and trust me - you weren’t going to read it later anyway!


SUSTAINABLE WIN

Email action

Most of us start our days by checking our inboxes, but emails are often other people making demands on our time.


Take a moment and check your inbox; how many of the emails there are “update” emails? Or sent to you in cc, i.e. “just so you know” or “so I cover my arse”?


How many emails do we get as “updates” on a status that hasn’t changed?


I am guessing half the inbox are emails that do not push your work forward.


Now look deeper at the emails and see who you are helping. How many of the emails left required action? How many of those emails are actions required for others? How many of those action emails are colleagues asking for a favour? How many are from people who need your help to get their job done?


When we start the day with emails, we are already distracted from the value-added work we could be doing to push our own projects forward. Sure, sometimes the emails might be responses or information that help us, but they also distract us from the tasks at hand.


Take back your time

Do our own work before starting someone else’s work.


How much would we achieve if we didn’t have emails to reply to, send in cc, or “clear”? And it is not just email; it’s all the never-ending tasks sitting on our desks.


Of course, you cannot eliminate all the administration that is required in the daily course of business or the meetings with your teams and bosses you must attend. But you can ensure you start your day focused on the tasks that bring the most return by scheduling two hours every morning for your most important 20% of work.


Now, what do you do with the other 80% of the tasks? That is where the Eisenhower Matrix comes into play.


THIRD STEP: URGENT vs. IMPORTANT


By now, you have prioritized your work by blocking two hours of time for your tasks, where you will not do other people’s work, but it is time to see what else you can clear from your desk.

“Our greatest danger in life is permitting the urgent things to crowd out the important” — Charles Himmel

Time to take a hard, deep look at what you have on your desk and what you should have delegated or eliminated a long time ago.


Allocate the activities and tasks identified in STEP ONE into the following categories:

  • Urgent > Deadline is imminent, must be completed

  • Not Urgent > Preparation and planning required

  • Important > Pressing problems, new opportunities, relationship building

  • Not Important > Interruptions, emails, calls, meetings, “busy” work

Enter them into the matrix and then start to take action.


Urgent + Important

These are the most critical tasks, really critical; I mean, not because someone says they are! Do you need to call that customer back this morning? Or submit that proposal before 10am?

Action: “DO IT NOW”

Do the most urgent/important things by scheduling the time prior to the deadline to ensure they are done, and block your calendar, so nothing distracts you.



Not Urgent + Important

This is where I would bucket your 20% of tasks identified in the Pareto Principle; they come first and foremost as they are the long-term win for your role and your development. Do they drive your business or project forward? Do they require your undivided attention?

Action: “SCHEDULE A TIME TO DO IT”

Do the top three tasks before you check other emails and schedule your first two hours of the day to complete them and block your calendar.



Urgent + Unimportant

Is this easy? No, of course not. For instance, maybe you don’t have anyone to delegate to, but then consider deleting it, or letting the team know, “Hey, please don’t cc me or invite me to meetings unless absolutely crucial for me to know or give insights.”

Action: “FIND SOMEONE TO DO IT FOR YOU”

If you are an entrepreneur, consider finding freelancers to help with tasks you are not an expert in, i.e. design, social media, email campaigns, communications, etc.



Not Urgent + Unimportant

This is the toughest component for many people, letting go. The more unimportant tasks you can remove from your desk, the more time and energy you will have to focus on things that are important to you and where your skills are most needed. If this section is done honestly - be honest with yourself! - you will have a plethora of time at your disposal.

Action: “ELIMINATE IT”

Take the time to establish if the tasks are useful or relevant, and then delete, remove, or eliminate those tasks that are not!


The only goal here is to focus your energy on the activities that move you forward

After 35 years of experience, I still fall prey to random requests, requests for help or advice.


I over-schedule my time, so I can see my friends and colleagues while we can. I subscribe to emails that do not give me value-added advice because I am hoping I will take the time to read them.


We all do.


These tools, however, help me to win my time back and prioritize the things that matter to me, like writing, for instance. I wrote this article before I opened my email accounts…otherwise, I would have been distracted and never would have written it!


Take time now. To take back your time.



Here are some worksheets you can use for your prioritization activities.



Good luck, and if you found this article helpful, please do share your wins with us on social.



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