Abundant Optimism

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A Different Approach to Prioritizing

by Tamara Martfeld

I have taken several business and management courses as well as read several books which cover prioritizing and most suggestions for prioritizing work tell you to rate the importance with the letters A, B, and C, and then to number the As, Bs, and Cs according to their importance. Once done, start at A1 and work your way through your list. This works well in most situations and can be a good starting point. However, it can mean missed deadlines and injured office politics.

I have used a different approach for years which has worked very well for me. I can honestly state that every missed due date I have had has been due to someone not getting back to me and me not having authority to demand anything. Also, I have missed very few deadlines.

The first step of my process is to assign a deadline one day prior to the real deadline of work with deadlines. Not everything has a deadline to get done for example, in most cases filing can sit for a while without consequences. The earlier deadline ensures that the work is done by the real deadline and gives you a cushion for unexpected problems. It provides time to double-check your work for accuracy, and it also impresses people who see that you usually have your work done early.

Second, arrange all the work according to the deadline. This differs from the A-B-C method in that a very important task with a later deadline would be lower on the list than a low priority task with a deadline today.

Third, take a realistic look at the workload to determine if everything can get done on time. Estimate how much time each task will take and map it out according to the time available. Be careful to estimate real time with allowances for unexpected events and not ideal time with nothing going wrong. You need to be realistic for this to work. For me, this is usually where I can stop. If I can see that everything can reasonably be accomplished on time I do no further planning and get to work. However, there are times when there is too much work for the time available given the estimates.

Fourth, if it looks like there is too much work to accomplish everything, look at the politics. If your work is for the CEO of your organization, you want to make sure it is done on time. Even if some work is for the CEO, work for a customer may take (in my opinion should take) a higher priority your own office politics will have to provide the answer. Work the political items into the schedule so that they get done on time. Next speak to you supervisor or those expecting the work which may miss deadlines to see if the other deadlines can be re-negotiated. Who you speak to depends on your office situation. Most people are reasonable if you explain that the work taking the place of their work is for the CEO or customer. Let them know when you expect to be able to meet the deadline. Alternately, see if you can get help to meet the deadline or have the task assigned to someone who can meet the deadline. The negotiations at this point are the same as they are in the A-B-C method when there are time conflicts.

Taking the above steps will likely help you get all your work done more timely.

Another trick to getting everything done on time is to take a good look at the steps involved in each task. Every task can be broken down into smaller steps. Many times those steps involve contacting other people, requesting information from an outside source, or starting something where you need to wait for results (for example, one program I work with requires something to happen overnight in the computer system before the data can be used). Do the steps which may slow you down by having to wait as early as you can so that by the time you are working on the task in general you will have everything you need.

There is also the trick of filling in short periods of time. There is usually some reading, filing, sorting, brainstorming, etc. which needs to be done at some point in time. Use these task to fill empty time such as when you are waiting for a meeting to start, on hold on the telephone, the few minutes before lunch or quitting time if you are on the clock, etc. Even filing only one piece of paper in this time will eventually get the job done.

If your current prioritizing method is not working for you, give this a try. Again, it has enabled me to complete almost every task on time for over 30 years. In fact, I think I have missed less than 20 deadlines in that time.

I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving and enjoy your December!