When your To Do list doesn’t stop growing, how do you plan what to do first? Knowing which tasks are urgent and which are important will help you prioritise what to work on first.

Understand What’s Important

Important tasks are:

  • Things that contribute directly to achieving your personal objectives
  • Things that contribute to the success of your department or team
  • Often projects.

Highly important tasks are things like building relationships within your organisation, or with suppliers, planning and strategising and identifying new opportunities. Important work can also involve issues with a tight deadline such as dealing with a crisis or an upcoming deadline that can’t be moved.

Sometimes you’ll have to take a judgement call on what’s important. It might be important to get those meeting minutes finished, or it may be OK to let them slide for a bit while you work on something else.

Tasks that aren’t important are things like dealing with trivia at work. You can probably identify a whole load of emails and calls you’ve had into the office this week that don’t count as important and yet took up a lot of your time!

Understand What’s Urgent

Urgent tasks are:

  • Things that have to be completed soon to avoid a negative impact
  • Things that are often quick to complete.

Urgent work has to be completed in a short time period. You generally have to judge what’s urgent based on your knowledge of the situation. Some interruptions will be urgent, for example being called to join a meeting at short notice. Some correspondence will be urgent, as will be dealing with today’s crisis.

Returning phone calls and dealing with emails are not, in the main, urgent tasks, but it does depend on the message!

Plan Your Focus

This chart shows how you can plot your work on the twin scales of urgency and importance.

Think of the tasks you do, and where they fall on the continuum. This is how your To Do list will break down:

  • Important and urgent: Tasks to do soon to avoid a potential crisis. Your top priorities.
  • Important but not urgent: Tasks that are objectives of the ‘day job’.
  • Urgent but not important: Tasks that, if they are not done now, will cause disruption or a negative impact. Tasks for other people who need answers now.
  • Not important and not urgent: Tasks that are not essential to your objectives. Do you need to do these at all?

In summary, the high urgency, high importance tasks are the ones that should be priority, especially when time is tight. Ideally, the fewer urgent tasks you have the better, as that gives you time to focus on the important actions. These are normally the ones that help you meet strategic and operational goals and move forward.

Making the Tough Decisions

But what if everything is important? And everything is urgent?

Well, there’s a secret that helps you know what to do in that case.

The secret is: Not everything you are asked to do truly is important and urgent.

Call out your manager when the urgent list is getting too big.

“I’m already working on the report for the Remuneration Committee, which will take me until Tuesday. I can work on this new task after that. Or would you prefer that this got done first and the Committee report was finished on Thursday?”

“Can’t you do them both?”

“Yes, if Claire organises the long service lunch instead of me.”

There might be rolling of eyes. There might be sighs. But most normal, rational people will be fine when you help them prioritise the work like this.

The most common explanation for giving you more than it feels like you can handle is that they’ve forgotten what you already have to do. If you remind them of what’s on your To Do list at the moment, they’ll be reasonable in their expectations of what you can achieve.

Once you’ve been in your role for a while you’ll get a feel for what is truly urgent and what is just someone blustering. Push back, ask for more time, provide evidence as to why that time is needed and get a steer about what is critical from the people who can help. This is essential to give yourself the space you need to do a good job because multi-tasking is not the answer to a long To Do list.

Remember: Lack of planning on your part does not constitute a crisis on my part! What’s urgent for someone else might not be urgent for you. Work with your colleagues to prepare for upcoming deadlines and stay on top of all your work.

This guest post was written by Elizabeth Harrin, project management author and blogger from GirlsGuideToPM.com. Elizabeth will be speaking at the Future Assistant event in February 2018. 

Elizabeth is the author of 4 project management books and the award-winning blog, A Girl’s Guide to Project Management. She’s also a practicing project manager in the healthcare industry.

Elizabeth’s goal is to help people to manage their projects with more confidence and less stress through practical tools and techniques that work in the real world. She is a Fellow of the Association of Project Management.

Grab an Action Log template (Excel) in Elizabeth’s free project management resource library, and use it to track your tasks.

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