Have you ever seen a Plate Spinner? Sometimes they are part of a circus act or perform on TV variety shows. I remember watching one of these entertainers on TV when I was young. The objective of the act is to see how many plates the spinner can spin on the top of long poles. The more plates spinning – the more entertaining it is! The challenge then becomes to keep everything moving so nothing comes crashing to the ground. Here is a YouTube clip for your enjoyment!
So goes our professional priorities – captured in planners, to do lists, project timelines and workflow charts – with the ever present challenge of doing all of it in the midst of unplanned events, budget cuts, hiring freezes, market pressure, and life in general. It’s no easy task! We can all relate to the well known and often experienced dilemma of spending our time on urgent tasks versus important priorities. This topic has been written about by much smarter people than me, including Stephen Covey and other leaders and experts in time and priority management.
This topic is on my brain at various intervals as I interact with people on a regular basis who seemingly have more to do than what time permits them to get done. Invariably, the tasks that do get checked off their lists are those items which have come from the squeakiest wheel, loudest voice or most demanding client. This does not mean that those things are their most important priorities – it just means they are the most visible. Once these are out of the way, it’s easier to settle in on tasks that are less demanding but have a greater degree of importance.
This is the inevitable challenge we all face, which Covey wrote about in his book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I recall reading this years ago and applying many of his lessons, but I see how easy it is to let the demands on my time push aside the high priorities I have identified which need my attention. I did this a couple of weeks ago with a project I wanted to complete that would help me in my consulting practice. No one identified the priority – just me. But because of the demands on my time from other people, projects and deadlines that one project I wanted to devote myself to finishing is still in process. I fall victim to it like so many other people.
How do you get it all done without missing opportunities, deadlines and business objectives?
Here are a few simple things I have learned over the years that can enable us to keep urgent demands in order while also accomplishing our most important priorities.
- Block time in your schedule. As the old adage goes, “failing to plan is planning to fail.” Set aside time in your calendar to work on a key task, project, search, etc. Failing to do this will ensure that other demands on your time will take priority over what you want to accomplish. You may simply want to block an hour or two each day to focus on an important project, so you don’t take a full day away from other demands.
- Manage your email. Email is a great communication tool but it can also be a great interrupter. When working on key priorities, use an out of office message and ignore or turn off your email for a set period of time. Respond to emails when you have completed the work you need to get done.
- Control interruptions. Whether it is an out of office email message, special voice message on your phone, or a sign at your desk alerting visitors to your schedule, let people know you are working on a critical project. Find ways to alert team members, key clients and business partners to your plan so that your blocks of time can be relatively interruption free.
- Manage your space. This can be a larger challenge for some, as space flexibility can be limited depending on your job, adjacent space, work from home parameters, etc. Some creativity can be applied here with the sole purpose of reducing distractions and interruptions – find a small conference room, empty office where you can work for a few hours. If you have the flexibility to work from another location (home, coffee shop, library, etc.), use that as an option to get out of the line of sight for awhile.
- Exercise discipline. It takes some real mental discipline to make a plan and stick to it. Not that dissimilar from going to the gym. The mental battles always seem to be the most challenging when it comes to changing up our work habits to focus on the things that matter. Each time I have done this and explained the intent to other people, I never met any opposition. People understand and, in many cases, resonate with the need to do what you’re doing!
- Tackle the hardest project first. It’s great to get things done, but what feels even more satisfying is to get the toughest projects completed and off your plate (pun intended!). Those difficult and more expansive tasks can often get pushed aside by virtue of this fact. But once you have positioned yourself to focus on your important priorities, tackle the hardest ones first. Dive right in!
- Cut yourself some slack. The challenge of the important versus the urgent is a real one and it requires some specific decisions and mental focus to shift gears if you have been in the habit of allowing demands and interruptions direct your time. As you chart a new course in achieving your important priorities, allow for some flexibility if your plans don’t work out or if you allow some interruptions to leak through. You will need to be the judge of what to allow and what to stand firm against. You will make some mistakes – take it from one who knows!
Good luck with throwing in some changes to your planning and time management efforts. May your plates never crash to the ground!