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 is to collaborate on projects with the other Practically Perfect PA team members.

It is no surprise 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’, a concept thought up by Joel Spolsky, the Co-Founder of Trello, to help manage his team’s priorities.

I thought the concept would benefit Assistants when communicating priorities with their Executives. Let’s look at how you can better communicate your priorities with the ‘rule of five’.

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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 tend to reel off everything 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 updating your Executives much more efficient and true to your daily work. It is quick and easy to do, and I think it would be helpful for Assistants who are currently 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 doing

Let’s break this down because I know for many Assistants, only sharing what 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 you complete in one day, but what two tasks 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 you have honest and transparent communication with your Executive. It also helps you manage their expectations. Noting the tasks, others expect you to be working on but 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, and 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 makes expectation management much 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 more crucial now than ever. I think the rule of five can be beneficial for Assistants to use with their Executives daily or weekly.

It would be great if your Executive also utilises the method and they shared their rule of five with you. They are not working on that task – 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 an 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!

The ‘rule of five’ is a great exercise for Assistants to keep in mind and use when communicating priorities with their Executives. While it can be overwhelming to try and communicate multiple tasks, breaking them down into five key focus points makes it much easier.

If you’re looking for ways to further improve your communication skills, productivity processes and time management, I highly recommend taking a look at the Productivity and Time Management for Assistants Online Course. It’s a great way to get advice on managing your time more effectively and staying organised even under pressure.