Week 2: Prioritize and Protect
The key is to protect time to do the right things!
In sticking with our overall theme of “More in ‘24,” I’d like to talk a little about time management – but with a bit of a twist!
Have you ever felt like a juggler trying to keep multiple balls in the air, only to realize your attempts to improve only add more balls to the mix? In today’s knowledge economy, mastering time management is not just a skill – it’s a necessity. The secret though is learning to prioritize effectively and use the power of time-blocking.
Typical “time management” advice generally helps get more things done but we need to focus on quality over quantity. Accomplishing a long list of minor tasks might feel good but concentrating our efforts on the most important tasks is how to be more successful in the long run. “Getting things done” is not the same as “getting the right things done.”
Understanding Prioritization in the Workplace
The first step is to identify your true priorities, which isn’t always easy. Most of us work in a fast-paced environment, which means we’re in “reactive mode” much of the time. In case you haven’t noticed, this tends to create bad habits. Over time, we naturally react to whoever is the loudest or whatever task is at the top of the inbox and therefore feels urgent. Many people simply default to using their email inbox as a quasi to-do list. If you’re doing that, I want you to think about this: Your email inbox is a to-do list that everyone (except you) controls!
The first key to successful time management is to know your top priorities.
I suggest that you work closely with your supervisor to determine a shortlist of top priorities that align with your organization’s broader goals. This list must then become the ruler against which everything else gets measured.
Let me be blunt: You’re not going to get it right the first time. You’ll create your list, start focusing time on tasks related to those priorities, and then your supervisor will give you something more urgent to do. That’s fine – do the urgent task your supervisor gave you but then have a conversation about it later. If this task was a higher priority than everything else on your “highest priorities” list, which your supervisor helped develop, then why wasn’t it on the list? And if the answer is something like, “Well, things will just occasionally come up that are hot and need to be handled,” that’s not good enough. You need to unpack that a bit. Define the parameters for what constitutes one of those “hot” tasks and put those parameters on your list.
For example, my current team focuses on empowering people to improve the digital accessibility of their work products to ensure that people with disabilities have comparable access to information and communications technology. Therefore, the training we give and the coaching we provide is our highest priority. If an urgent request comes in for my team to remediate a document – in other words, to fix someone else’s mistakes for them – it is not a priority. We will get to it after our training and coaching is complete and a subject matter expert is available to review the document. No matter who the request for remediation came from, my team doesn’t drop everything because document remediation is not their priority.
Tactics for Saying ‘No’: Delegate, Defer, or Delay
I would be remiss if I didn’t at least quickly address what many people ask when I talk about priorities: “How am I supposed to say ‘no’ to people in authority?”
First of all, the reason I encourage you to at least finalize your high priorities list with your supervisor is so that you aren’t always the one who has to say ‘no’ to a request. If your supervisor has reviewed and approved your priorities and you are working on tasks that specifically support those priorities, then you are technically doing work assigned by your supervisor. If someone wants you to do something else instead, then they need to talk to your boss.
Of course, telling someone ‘no’ doesn’t always go over very well, but there are things you can do instead. Here are three tactics for you to try:
Delegate: Pass the task on to someone else who can handle it. This is an excellent way to provide meaningful assignments to junior members of your team. Just because it’s not your priority doesn’t mean it’s not important work for someone to do.
Defer: Choose to tackle a task later if it’s not truly urgent. If a request doesn’t align with your current priorities, then schedule it for a future date.
Delay: Postpone tasks that don’t contribute to your immediate goals. This differs from the prior tactic because the idea is to postpone it indefinitely and only return to it when you have available time or when your priorities change.
Leveraging the Power of Time-Blocking
Now, once you’ve established your priorities, you need to make sure you carve out specific blocks of time to focus solely on them. My recommendation is to implement some time-blocking.
The second key to successful time management is to protect time for your top priorities.
Time-blocking is a time management method that has you dividing your workday into blocks of time that are then devoted to predetermined tasks. You don’t need to go all out with your time-blocking to benefit from the method though. I suggest you start by scheduling a recurring 2-hour block in your digital calendar each day, dedicated solely to high-priority tasks.
This block of time is your fortress of focus – no meetings, no emails, just concentrated work. It’s okay to move this block around to fit your day, but make sure it’s there. Starting with just two hours a day can skyrocket your productivity and ensure you're making progress where it counts.
Find What Works for You
I’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to managing your priorities to ensure the best use of your time but it’s best if you don’t overthink some of this stuff. There’s no one-size-fits-all in time management and personal productivity, so experiment with these techniques and adjust them to fit your work style.
Don’t be afraid to try different things and find what works the best for you. Maybe you’re a morning person, and your focus block works best at the start of your day. Or perhaps breaking it into two one-hour blocks aligns better with your workflow. The key is to stay flexible and find what works best for you.
Call to Action
Reflect on your current time management strategies. How can you apply these prioritization and time-blocking techniques to elevate your productivity? Experiment with the 2-hour focus block in your schedule this week, and adjust as needed. Just remember that effective time management isn’t about doing more; it’s about doing more of what matters.
To get started, set a clear, short-term goal. Prioritize tasks that move you toward that goal, and guard your time block like it’s the most important meeting of the day – because, in many ways, it is.
Your journey to masterful time management starts now!