How to prioritise your workload for a more productive day

Do you ever feel like you’re spinning plates, rapidly switching between one unfinished task to another, putting in a burst of effort to keep one task ‘spinning’, hoping that none of the other plates crash to the floor in the meantime? It’s an exhausting, stressful and ineffective way to work. Only when we’re able to prioritise and give our single, undivided attention to the task in hand can we keep focused and productive, and have the freedom to think creatively.

Ultimately it all comes down to time management and the ability to take control of our workload and deadlines, and prioritise tasks effectively. Often when we look at our list of actions in one column, and the time we have available to work in the other, rarely do the two balance. To make matters worse, the time that we’ve allocated to actions is rarely enough, and if we’ve underestimated, this has a knock-on effect on other tasks.

It can be hard to say ‘no’ to things, but only when we’re truly on top of our workload and schedule are we able to clearly see what we can manage, and what’s unrealistic. A well-structured workload is the key to having a truly productive day. If that feeling of being snowed-under is a daily occurrence, here are some ideas to help you prioritise…

Visualise your workload

It can be an extremely helpful to create a visual chart of your projects and deadlines, to see how your day as well as week, month and year are shaping up. This will help you to ensure that your work schedule is achievable, without too much overlap between projects and factoring in time for unforeseen delays and problems.

There are many different ways to do this from a simple Excel spreadsheet, through to Gantt charts, workflow diagrams and even bullet journals.

Distinguish between ‘important’ and ‘urgent’ tasks

A common daily productivity mistake is to fail to differentiate between important and urgent tasks. Important tasks directly contribute to your job role and responsibilities, and the functioning of your business as a whole. Urgent tasks will have a negative impact if they’re not completed soon, and are often tightly linked to the accomplishment of someone else’s goal. Often the danger is that we assign undue priority to an action that’s urgent, simply because it was needed ‘yesterday’; while tasks that are genuinely important fall down the priority list until they become ‘urgent’ and reach crisis point.

The Covey time management grid makes use of four different quadrants and allows you to prioritise tasks in relation to their importance and urgency, helping you to decide whether you need to address a task immediately or if you can postpone it.

To help determine the importance of a task, ask yourself: “Will doing this task move me closer towards achieving my goals and/or job objectives?”

To determine the urgency of a task, ask yourself: “What would be the impact of not doing this today/tomorrow/this week?”

Source: Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

Source: Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

Break your days up into time periods

Time can utilised more effectively if broken down into bite-size chunks. Depending on the nature of your work, you may choose to simply consider morning, afternoon and evening; or your may prefer to divide the day into hourly periods, or the Pomodoro technique breaks the day up into 25 minute work intervals separated by short breaks. Adopting one of these techniques will help to make the working day and the tasks you assign to each time period seem more manageable.

Taking things one step further, you can also plan particular work around your body’s natural rhythms, so that you’re making the most of the time of day when you’re energised, alert and least distracted. When it comes to doing cognitive work, for example, most adults perform best in the late morning.

Focus on one task at a time

Our brains are designed to handle one cognitive task at a time. While some individuals may pride themselves on their ability to multitask, what they’re really doing is rapidly switching between one task to another, not really giving anything their single, undivided attention. This can slow us down as our brain is constantly playing catch-up, and instead it can be far more productive and effective to focus on one job at a time.

Avoid serial or methodical processes

One of the biggest obstacles to daily productivity is boredom, or monotony. While we may begin a new project brimming with ideas and enthusiasm, as time rolls on it’s easy to become bogged down in the mundane, and lose interest in the overarching goal. One way to ensure that we remain energised and focused on a big project is to keep it fun and engaging, on a daily basis. It can help to avoid very methodical processes which our brain will rapidly lose interest in. Instead it can be more affective to plan parallel processes, where maybe other team members are working on other project elements at the same time so that collaboration happens more quickly. This way you’ll be more driven with your daily tasks as you’ll be more passionate about the bigger picture and your role within it.

Keep a log of each working day

Do you ever finish a working day feeling that you’ve been busy, but ineffective? If you’re unsure about how long particular tasks are taking you, it can be a helpful exercise to time yourself and keep a record over a one week period. This will enable you to see which tasks are taking longer than they should, how your attention shifts and how many times you get interrupted or pulled into meetings, for example.

If this proves to be a fruitful exercise it could be worth setting up a time management tool such as Harvest, which you can use on a daily basis. Moving forward, this will not only help you to set more realistic deadlines for each of your tasks, but it will also ensure that your time is being used most effectively.

Remember the 80:20 rule

Overall, it can be a helpful rule of thumb to remember that 80% of our work contributes to less than 20% of its value. On a daily basis it’s important to ensure that you’re prioritising the most crucial 20% of your workload, tackling the most critical tasks first while your performance is strong and you’re operating at your peak.

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