With a step-by-step guide on time management, author Frank Atkinson simplifies the nitty-gritty of professional life in his book Successful Time Management. The book deals with the skill sets and tools required for setting priorities, dealing with interruptions, managing time in meetings and in personal life—all with an interactive action plan at the end of each chapter.
Atkinson has been offering training in time management to salespeople, senior managers and directors in organizations such as Mercedes, Games Workshop, Toyota Motor Corp. and Prontaprint Ltd. In the chapter on “Setting Priorities”, he differentiates between tasks that are urgent and those which are important, and how to manage them. Edited excerpts:
Another aspect of looking at priorities is to decide whether a particular task has a deadline attached to it. If it has a timescale it is classified as being urgent and should be considered a priority.
By combining important, not important, urgent and not urgent we can get four categories of task, which can be combined into what we call the priority grid.
Most people say what they would do first is to tackle the task that is important and urgent. An example could be to present your business plan to your board of directors at their meeting on Thursday at 3pm. These are things that must be done now or very soon and take precedence over everything else.
The preferred next choice of most people is the important, not urgent task. These are the jobs that we keep putting off that can make a real difference to our effectiveness at work. An example could be to appraise the performance of members of your team.
Successful Time Management: By Frank Atkinson, Jaico Publishing House,201 pages, Rs 250.
Most people say they would then tackle the urgent but not important task. An example here could be to fill in your expense forms. These may have a deadline, but the task, in itself, doesn’t move you nearer to achieving your job purpose. The built-in time limits to these tasks ensure that these things do get done. The key is to do them as quickly as possible with the minimum quality required.
The final category that people say they would tackle is the not important, not urgent task. An example could be to make coffee for yourself at work. There are many things that are neither important nor urgent. We often do them because they give us the feeling of activity, or being busy doing something.
This is not what happens in real life!
In reality, what happens is that people prioritize based on urgency rather than importance. What they actually do is different to what they say they would do.
The order most people prioritize tasks in real life is:
• Important but Urgent
• Urgent but Not Important
• Not Urgent and Not Important
• Important but Not Urgent
The real lesson here is that in reality, what gets left till last or doesn’t get done at all are the important, not urgent tasks. Most of the really important things in our lives are not urgent; they can be done now or later. In many cases they can be postponed forever, and in too many cases they are. Example of these are long-range planning, improving systems, self-improvement, writing an article, or improving relationships. This is the area that truly determines effectiveness.
Where you have competing priorities, say for example you identify three important, not urgent tasks, these in turn must be prioritized so you can begin working on the most important task first.
When we observe people at work, we see that most people set priorities according to urgency and this usually leads to three categories:
• Must be done today
• Should be done today
• To be done sometime
Try setting priorities first in terms of importance by asking yourself:
• Does this activity contribute directly to the purpose of my job?
• Does it have a bearing on my short-term objectives?
• Will it help me achieve my personal goals?
Having determined the importance of the tasks you should prioritize them according to how well they answer these three questions.
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