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I’m indebted for today’s blog to business adviser and author Peter Bregman.

Prioritising is a key skill for time-management and I’m guessing you have our own strategies. But how often do you reach the end of the day and feel your list is just as long as when you started? Here’s a few pointers which may help you make your to-do list an effective tool, instead of simply a constant reminder of what you’ve failed to achieve.

First of all, you need to establish your focus. In your busy life, you experience constant distractions – emails, phone calls, colleagues’ queries etc. – so it’s very easy to lose sight of what you’re aiming for. ‘Focus’ is one of my ‘business buzzwords’ and, in this context, it should be one of your overall aims. Ask yourself questions like ‘What will move me forward in business? In life? Where do I want to be in one year’s time, in five years’ time? What will give me happiness – or a feeling of success?’  There is no right or wrong answer – this is about you – but some possible focuses might be ‘I want to spend more time with my family’, ‘I want to expand my business to achieve £X turnover’, ‘I want to achieve peer recognition, or a qualification’.

To keep it manageable, centre your focus on say the next 12 months and work out what your five most important areas are.

Next step – create a table of six boxes – that’s right, six – and label five of the boxes with the areas you’ve decided to focus on. Now look at each of the boxes and think of tasks that you need to do, either today or in the next few days. Where a task will help you achieve one of your focus areas, add it to that box. Where a task does not fit in any of the boxes, put it in the sixth box.

The point of this is that you’ll tend to spend a lot of time carrying out tasks which do not add anything to your planned focus. Why? Because it’s human nature to put off more challenging things in favour of easy tasks which give us a ‘quick fix’ of achievement.  Aim to spend 95% of your time on the tasks in the first five boxes and only 5% on the tasks in the sixth box.

Now of course the next challenge is that you almost certainly won’t be able to fit all the tasks into your working day. Work out what really needs to be done that day and also check to see what categories you’ve been neglecting (including those in the sixth box – they must be important otherwise you wouldn’t have put them on the list!).

Allocate time slots in your diary – it’s usually a good idea to schedule the hardest and most important tasks at the beginning of the day before you get distracted (or at times when you operate at your best level). Then work from your diary rather than your list – you’ve already made the decision about what you need to do that day.

Finally – this is a working document that you should be updating every day. If you don’t, in six months it will be a guilt list!

Peter Bregman says that finding and keeping your focus takes no more than 18 minutes a day, five minutes in the morning to choose the most important tasks from your six boxes, a minute each hour (8-hour day) to ask yourself whether you’re doing the thing that most needs to be done, and five minutes at the end of the day to consider what you’ve learnt.  You can all spare 18 minutes, can’t you?

I always plan my day on the day before. This gives me focus on the next day. Sometimes I might plan in the morning before I start work. Over the years I’ve come to realise that I’m able to get a lot more done if I have my day planned out. I’m sure you’ll benefit from doing the same if you’re not already doing this!

You may also wish to take a look at Stephen Covey’s time management matrix – please Google it!

Do let me know how you get on or what other strategies have worked for you!