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Putting a Priority on Your Time

Where does all the time go? Long hours. Late nights. Snatched lunches. Some people boast about their overwhelming work schedule as if it’s a badge of honor: “I start work at 7:00 a.m. and work right though until 8:00 p.m.” Often their Herculean claims border on the absurd. “Last night I went to bed at three a.m. and had to get up two hours earlier to finish a report.” Or, “I used to eat lunch at my desk. But I need to save more time, so I’m giving up eating…”

The problem is NOT that there isn’t enough time. Time doesn’t expand. The problem is that people burden themselves with too many activities. The key to success is how you allocate your time to the important ones. In research we’ve conducted for clients, average employees spend about 50% of their time on A and B priorities. But among the top performers, time spent on A and B priorities approaches 60%. That’s an increase of 5 hours per week that can make all the difference.

Here’s how to think about setting priorities. “A” activities are those that influence long term results. Ask yourself, if you had nothing else to do tomorrow, what would you do to affect your results one month from now? Those are your “A” activities. For sales people, this means selling, which usually only amounts to 23% of their time. For managers this means supervising people, (18% of their time) and planning (7%). What should you be doing? Your top priority items should take up 15-30% of your time.

When you think of your high priority activities, don’t just say, “I’ll work on the budget” or “I’ll work on my recruiting plan.” Be specific by listing activities you can complete today. You can’t do the entire budget, but you can set up a spreadsheet for salaries. You can’t recruit a new hire today, but you can review and update the job profile.

“B” priorities are the activities in your job description that must get done today. These are the things that keep you busy. Depending on your job, they might include providing customer service, running monthly meetings, preparing reports, designing products, inputting data, supervising staff or shipping products. For most people, “B” priorities represent 30-50% of their time. These are the activities most people do well in their job. But they’re also the things that prevent them from getting to the “A’s”. That’s why you need to plan the “A’s” first.

“C” priorities are those unplanned or unwritten aspects of your job that have to be done. Whereas “A” activities are planned by you, “C” activities are often planned for you. They include department meetings, routine requests from your subordinates and inquiries from other departments. They also include administrative activities such as filling out expense reports, reading reports, filing and sorting through e-mail. Our research indicates that administrative tasks take up 20-25% of the time. Within this, paperwork alone can take 5 hours per week. If you’re spending more than that, the system is bogging you down.

Travel is also a “C” priority. It has to be done, but isn’t a key factor in the success of your job. And, let’s not forget lunches and breaks. It’s ironic how people will plan a lunch meeting or coffee break to the minute. Yet they never get around to planning their major projects. Breaks are necessary, and incubation time away from work can help you solve problems better. But breaks are still just “C” priorities.

Finally there are “D” activities. This means delete, delay, delegate or drop. Get rid of them. They include reading the paper, handling tasks that should be delegated, and excessive Internet surfing. Some of them are technological time hogs; fixing a photocopier paper jam, waiting for a computer to boot up or recording a new voice mail message every day. Beware of them. Miscellaneous time can be as much as 5% of the week.

So how do you spend more time on for your high priorities? First, take the time to plan for them. Set aside the same time every day to plan your daily activities. Choose a quiet time when you can review past accomplishments, as well as future things to do. Then write down a list of A, B, and C activities that relate to your goals. Write your list in your time planner, on a Palm Pilot or even on a Post-It note. Include specific activities, such as “Prepare exhibits for monthly report,” rather than vague tasks such as “Work on report.” Later, when you’ve completed an item, check it off. Doing this gives you a sense of accomplishment, even for small tasks.

Block your time. Schedule time for your “A” activities first. Plan to do them when you’re at your peak and when interruptions are least likely to occur. Make an appointment in your planner, and allocate that time for high priority activities. Then, if someone asks you to meet during that time, say “Sorry, I have an appointment.” No one will ask whom it’s with. It’s an appointment with yourself.

Then it’s time to start by working on your A items. They should always come first. Don’t work on a C just because it’s easy to do. And if you find your A tasks are overwhelming, or if you don’t think you have enough time to do anything on an A priority, the activity is too broad. Break your A priorities into small manageable chunks, so they’re easy to accomplish. Even with just five minutes left before lunch or before an appointment, you should be able to make some progress on an A priority. Your time is worth it