Communicating your priorities better with the ‘rule of five’

One of my go-to tools for prioritising and managing my to-do list is Trello. I use the collaboration tool to manage all of my tasks and projects, and I love how easy it easy to collaborate on projects with the other members of the Practically Perfect PA team.

It comes as no surprise then that I am a frequent reader of the Trello blog. They have great content on time management, leadership and productivity.

I was reading this recent post about ‘the rule of five’, which was a concept thought up by Joel Spolsky, the Co-Founder of Trello, to help manage the priorities of his team.

I thought the concept would be really helpful for Assistants when it comes to communicating priorities with their Executives. Let’s look in more detail how you can start communicating your priorities better with the ‘rule of five’

What is the rule of five?

Giving our Executives a true picture of what we do daily is hard. Many Executives are happy for ‘the magic to happen’ and don’t want to be particularly involved in the detail. Other Executives are too busy and don’t take the time to find out what is happening with your task load. Of course, now that many Assistants are working remotely, understanding what everyone is doing, is harder than ever.

If you are lucky to have an Executive who wants to understand what you do and your priorities, you might have a tendency to reel off everything that you have on your plate, so you can show your Executive how busy you are.

As Lauren Moon writes in the post:

Let’s be real, though. While these tasks aren’t necessarily a complete fabrication, they’re also most likely not an accurate representation of what you’re truly spending your time doing. It’s natural to want to prove that your work is providing value to the company. But ask any manager, and they will tell you that instead of the twenty one-off tasks you have on your to-do list, what they really want is to get a gauge on the most important ones.

The rule of five makes this process of updating your Executives much more efficient and true to what you are working on each day. It is quick and easy to do, and I think, would be really helpful for Assistants at the moment, who are working remotely.

So what is the rule of five?

The rule of five is simply sharing:

  • Two tasks you are working on today
  • Two tasks you are planning to work on next
  • One task that people expect you to be working on but that you aren’t actually doing

Let’s break this down, because I know for many Assistants, only sharing the things they are doing in a day sounds scary (who only does two things in a day!?)

Communicating your priorities to your Executive

The rule of five is designed to keep your Executive in the loop with the work that you are doing. They don’t need you to prove that you are busy, they should know that already. What they want to know (what they should want to know) is what you are prioritising and where you are focused.

Yes, there will be other tasks that you are completing in one day, but what are the two tasks that take priority and require your focus? These are the tasks that you should share with your Executive.

After you have detailed the main two tasks taking priority, the next step in the rule of five is to share what you have in the pipeline.

Two tasks you are planning to work on next

Communicating to your Executive what you have coming up shows that you are planning, and creating a realistic roadmap. It will help you and others assess what’s coming next and act accordingly.’ If your Executive is waiting for you to complete those future tasks, it also gives them a clear view of when to expect the work to be finished.

Transparent Communications

The final part of the rule of five ensures that you are having honest and transparent communication with your Executive. It also helps you manage their expectations. Noting the tasks that others are expecting you to be working on, but you aren’t doing (and this could be for several reasons) shows your day-to-day reality.

Now the reason you are not doing the task needs to be explained. It could be that you are too busy, it is not in line with your goals and objectives, it doesn’t match the company strategy, you’ve been putting it off, you’re waiting on other people to provide you with detail. Whatever the reason, having that self-awareness and ability to discuss what you are not working on make expectation management a lot easier. As Lauren Moon writes:

When expectations meet reality, it’s more satisfactory for everyone.

Using the ‘rule of five’ with your Executive

Creating a quick, effective and efficient dialogue with your Executive is so crucial, now more than ever, and I think the rule of five can be beneficial for Assistants use with their Executives on a daily or weekly basis.

It would be great if your Executive also utilises the method, and they share their rule of five with you. That task they are not working on – you could run with it, or you can get started on the two additional tasks they have coming up.

The rule of five can be communicated over email or in your one to one meetings. It is a really agile method that will hopefully lead to a greater understanding of your priorities and what you do behind the scenes to make the magic happen!