The Challenge of Prioritising

1234“Being successful doesn’t make you manage your time well. Managing your time well makes you successful.”

Randy Pausch, Time Management Lecture




How many of the following behaviours do you identify with?

Do you:

  • Live in crisis mode, reacting to the demands of circumstance?
  • Tend to “squeeze it in” rather than eliminate items from a crowded      agenda?
  • Think that everything belongs on your urgent list of daily to-dos?
  • Rarely step back to consider what really matters?
  • Let others set your priorities for you?

It is only when we take stock that we can prioritise, asking ourselves questions like

  • Is this really necessary?
  • If I am going to take this on, what am I going to give up?
  • Am I really living my life according to my deepest values, or just      reacting to whatever pops up?

Prioritising is difficult for everyone, especially in a fast paced, challenging work environment and instead of prioritizing “first things first”, many people make choices according to other rules

  • Whatever’s on top. Paper shuffling.
  • Whatever’s the easiest.      Easy does it.
  • Knock-knock. Responding to whomever asks me first.
  • False progress. The more I can tick off my list the more productive I feel.
  • Proximity. Might as well do it while I am passing by.
  • You decide. I don’t want the responsibility.
  • Conflict avoidance. If you yell loudly about something, it will go to the top of my list.
  • Whatever I am in the mood for. I’ll do it if I feel like it.
  • Save the worst for last. Anything but that!
  • Go with the flow. Doing whatever my colleagues do.
  • Habit. Just doing the usual.

All of these ways of prioritising aren’t really prioritising at all. In fact, they are ways to avoid prioritizing, letting habit, circumstance, or the priorities of others determine how you spend your time. When you prioritise according to these rules you are unlikely to fulfill your potential at work.


b) Taking Control of Your Time at Work

In his Time Management lecture Randy Pausch suggests that failing to prioritise and plan is the same as planning to fail; he then helpfully points out that you can always change your plan, but only once you have one! He recommends that you set both long term and short term goals and plan accordingly for each day, week, month and three month period.

It is also important to remember to set aside an appropriate amount of time to attend to life issues that are not work related. Time spent with your family, for instance would fall into this category. When prioritizing, you must remember to place sufficient value on activities that give life greater meaning. These real priorities are often inadvertently overlooked when we focus on maintaining our professional lives – often with negative consequences.

The decisions you make about which tasks should come first will probably be the most important part of managing your time. These decisions can be difficult and frustrating but are the key to effective self-management. In the next post  we introduce a number of tools to help you do this effectively.

Time management experts argue strongly that you must learn to judge the relative importance of each task to help in your scheduling.

The Swiss Cheese Method.

swiss cheese






It’s fifteen minutes to your lunch break – far too short a time to do that overwhelming task which you routinely pick up every morning and then put down again.

But wait!

You could do something to get that task started…

What about making a list of all the relevent sub-tasks that will result in the finished product?

Yes! You decide to try that approach and ten minutes later off you go to lunch feeling better about the task and yourself.

Why? Because you have accomplished something, you have made the list of sub-tasks and are no longer fearful of the main task.

This is called the Swiss Cheese method because by using small amounts of time you are making holes in the larger task. It is a commonly used time management technique

How to respond to Overwhelm

One of the keys to managing yourself effectively in relation to time is being sufficiently self-aware to resourcefully address overwhelm as it arises.

An effective tool for managing overwhelm involves changing how one looks at its trigger. In his ground breaking book, Awaken the Giant Within, Anthony Robbins proposes that the best way to deal with overwhelm, is to firstly acknowledge it, and secondly, see it as a “call to action”. In other words, see overwhelm as having a message for you. Generally speaking you are likely to feel overwhelmed when you are over loaded; that is when you have too much to do / are ‘time pressured’.

You may be feeling that you have too much on your plate. Another feeling is that you have lost control over a situation. The message is that you have not prioritised things in your life.

People who have learned to read overwhelm as a messages, are able to manage themselves effectively in that they are able to able to take action

  • Decide on which crucial tasks require completion (as above).
  • The simple of act of listing means you start to have more control over your load.
  • Write down in order of priority what is most important to accomplish (as above).
  • Chunk tasks down.
  • Remember the orange segments! Break tasks down into small steps.


  • Act on your priorities.


“You don’t have to get it right, you just have to get it going”

Tracy Repchuk


  • This can be done in one of three ways, using ‘3D’ – DO IT NOW DIARISE / DECIDE WHEN TO DO IT, or DELEGATE!
  • Use Small Periods Of Time To Get Started
  • There are many tasks which because of their complexity and wealth of detail, are difficult to start. There are always other (and sometimes less important) tasks which give instant satisfaction.
  • Take consistent action

“Ordinary steps taken consistently produce extra-ordinary results”

Alex Mandossian

  • Be prepared to re-prioritise as necessary.
  • Re-evaluate continually. Asking yourself questions such as:

Why am I doing this? 

What happens if I chose not to do it?

The “we’ve always done it that way..” story

Apparently this is based on a true incident.

A quality management consultant was visiting a small and somewhat antiquated English manufacturing company, to advise on improving general operating efficiency. The advisor was reviewing a particular daily report which dealt with aspects of productivity, absentee rates, machine failure, down-time, etc. The report was completed manually onto a photocopied proforma that was several generations away from the original master-copy, so its headings and descriptions were quite difficult to understand. The photocopied forms were particularly fuzzy at the top-right corner, where a small box had a heading that was not clear at all. The advisor was interested to note that the figure ‘0’ had been written in every daily report for the past year. On questioning the members of staff who completed the report, they told him that they always put a zero in that box, and when he asked them why they looked at each other blankly. “Hmmm.., I’m not sure about that,” they each said, “I guess we’ve just always done it that way.”

Intrigued, the consultant visited the archives to see if he could find a clearer form, to discover what was originally being reported and whether it actually held any significance. When he found the old reports, he saw that the zero return had continued uninterrupted for as far back as the records extended – at least the past thirty years – but none of the forms was any clearer than those presently in use. A little frustrated, he packed away the old papers and turned to leave the room, but something caught his eye. In another box he noticed a folder, promisingly titled ‘master forms’. Sure enough inside it he found the original daily report proforma master-copy, in pristine condition. In the top right corner was the mysterious box, with the heading clearly shown……Number of Air Raids Today



How to implement the 80/20 Rule

Ask yourself,

“Which 20 percent of my work should I be focusing on?”

  • Remember your ethics and values. Let them guide your decision making, and you’re bound to end up focusing on your 20 percent.
  • Keep current. Make yourself aware of new technological innovations. However, a word of caution, Randy Pausch reminds us to only use technology that does actually save time

Bad Day at the Office

  • Challenge established routines that could be shifting your focus away from your 20 percent.


The 80/20 Rule of Time Management: The Pareto Principle


“Doing the right things is more important than doing things right”

Randy Pausch, Time Management Lecture


Vilfredo Pareto(1848-1923) was an Italian economist who in 1906, observed that 20% of the people in Italy owned 80% of the country’s wealth.

Over a period of time this observation became known as the Pareto Principle. Pareto’s theory of predictable imbalance has since been applied to almost every aspect of modern life including ‘time management’. Given a chance, it can make a difference in yours.


Recognizing your 20 percent

Simply put, the 80/20 rule states that the relationship between input and output is rarely, if ever, balanced. When applied to work, it means that approximately 20 percent of your efforts produce 80 percent of the results. Learning to recognize and then focus on that 20 percent is the key to making the most effective use of your time.

80 percent or 20 percent?

Gain more control over your time and your work by taking one small step right now. Simply begin to look for the signs that will tell you whether you’re in your 20 percent or your 80 percent. This increased awareness of what’s vital may be all you really need to start using your time more effectively.

Here are some signs that will help you to recognize whether you’re spending your time as you should:

You’re in your 80 percent if the following statements ring true:

  • You’re working on tasks other people want you to, but you have no investment in them.
  • You’re frequently working on tasks labeled “urgent.”
  • You’re spending time on tasks you are not usually good at doing.
  • Activities are taking a lot longer than you expected.
  • You find yourself complaining all the time.

You’re in your 20 percent if:

  • You’re engaged in activities that advance your overall purpose in life (assuming you know what that is —and you should!).
  • You’re doing things you have always wanted to do or that make you feel good about yourself.
  • You’re working on tasks you don’t like, but you’re doing them knowing they relate to the bigger picture.
  • You’re hiring people to do the tasks you are not good at or don’t like doing.
  • You’re smiling.

The Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi FLOW story


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi a professor at the University of Chicago cites similar findings in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

He suggests that Flow – a state of concentration so focused that it amounts to absolute absorption in an activity – can be controlled by balancing challenges and skills.

When a challenge is much higher than the skill we bring to it, we experience overwhelm. When our skill level is much higher than the challenge, we experience boredom. There is a place between overwhelm and boredom that Csikszentmihalyi calls the “flow channel”. A task that would fall in the flow channel would be one which you would find challenging, but you are confident that your skills are sufficient to meet the challenge.

It is possible to optimise the potential for flow. Learning to get to the flow channel is both achievable and rewarding

It could be that a task itself is not an overwhelming challenge, but the timetable attached to it is. Is there a way to change the time requirements? Or if a job feels overwhelming, is there a way to chunk down the task so that each part is the right size to balance challenge and skill?

Alternatively, is there a way to increase the challenge when you are faced with a job that could be boring?

The Mcclelland Motivation Story


A pioneering thinker in the field of workplace motivation, David McClelland developed his theories chiefly while at Harvard in the 1950-60’s with experiments such as this one.

Volunteers were asked to throw rings over pegs rather like the fairground game; no distance was stipulated, and most people seemed to throw from arbitrary, random distances, sometimes close, sometimes farther away. However a small group of volunteers, whom McClelland suggested were strongly achievement-motivated, took some care to measure and test distances that would produce an ideal challenge – not too easy, and not impossible.

Interestingly a parallel exists in biology, known as the ‘overload principle’, which is commonly applied to fitness and exercising, ie., in order to develop fitness and/or strength the exercise must be sufficiently demanding to increase existing levels, but not so demanding as to cause damage or strain.

McClelland identified the same need for a ‘balanced challenge’ in the approach of achievement-motivated people. People with a strong achievement-motivation need set themselves challenging and realistic goals – they need the challenge, but they also need to be sure they’ll accomplish the aim.



“Delegation is not dumping”

Randy Pausch

Covey presents delegation of tasks that are assigned to List 4 (Quadrant 4), and any tasks that you cannot personally attend to from Lists 1 and 2 (see above), as an important part of time management. Successful delegation, he suggests, focuses on results and benchmarks that are to be agreed in advance, rather than on prescribing detailed work plans.

Randy Pausch agrees. He recommends that you give objectives, not procedures and that you explain the relative importance of each task.


  • Delegate when tasks are urgent, but not important (List 4; Quadrant 4)
  • Delegate any tasks that you do not have time to complete yourself from Lists 1 and 2 (tasks from Quadrants 1 and 2)
  • Grant authority with responsibility.
  • Be Specific

Give people a specific task to do by a specific date/time with a Specific reward or penalty. Remember to reinforce behavior that you would like to see repeated with positive feedback

  • Challenge People.

People rise to a challenge. Randy Pausch suggests that you delegate “until they complain”


How to update your daily To Do lists


Update your daily “TO DO” list each morning. Bring forward the 1, 2, and 4 items not completed the day before

Add new items to the lists after considering carefully where each new item should go using Coveys 4 Quadrants.

Review the list, schedule the new tasks, and start on the top priorities, crossing off each one as it is finished throughout the day.

An alternative to re-writing your list each morning is to spend the last 15 minutes of your day on your list, so that you can start immediately the next day

Update your daily “TO DO” list each morning. Bring forward the 1,

2, and 4 items not completed the day before

Add new items to the lists after considering carefully where each new item should go using Coveys 4 Quadrants.

Review the list, schedule the new tasks, and start on the top priorities, crossing off each one as it is finished throughout the day.

An alternative to re-writing your list each morning is to spend the last 15 minutes of your day on your list, so that you can start immediately the next day