Published June 21, 2020 by with 3 comments

The Art of Prioritization

The Art of Prioritization


Do you feel like putting in a lot of effort, and yet unable to make any progress? By the time you finish the work at hand, another high priority task shows up, that needs your immediate attention? When you begin, everything seems to be on track, but somehow you consistently miss the deadline? If so, then the art of prioritization can help you out.


In simple words, prioritization is a technique, which helps you rank the items in your to-do list, in the order of their relative importance and urgency. Higher the urgency, higher the priority.


But, what if all the items in your list are equally important? That's where the art of prioritization becomes useful. The idea is to combine prioritization with tools and techniques, that can help you become more effective in achieving your goals.


Why Prioritization is Important?


Context switching is one of the main productivity killers. Research has shown that although the cost of context switching might seem small, but when done repeatedly, can have a long-term compounding impact on our focus. Prioritization can help you focus on one task at a time, and thereby reduce the occurrences of context switching. Let me explain with an example.


I was working on an important presentation, for an upcoming event. I worked for hours and finished up the presentation. While I was drafting an email to share the presentation with my management, a colleague reached out to me, needing my help with a critical problem. Considering the criticality, I left my email there and started helping them out. After spending an hour with them, we were able to solve the problem. I came back to my desk, completed and sent the email, and left for home. It felt good on completing the presentation, and at the same time helping out my colleague. Next day when I woke up, I was surprised to see the reply on my email. It said, "You forgot to attach the presentation". All the hard work put in to finish the presentation on time went in vain.


Now, it might seem that context switching in this case was just a coincidence, and I would have forgotten to send the presentation in any case. Even if that's true, what we should try to understand is, context switching helped increase the chance of this happening. Most of the times, that's all it takes to lose focus. And the result? A delay of few minutes resulted in lost productivity for not just me, but for the management as well, who had planned their day assuming they would receive the presentation the same day.


Learning the Art of Prioritization


You must be wondering why I am referring to prioritization as an art. Prioritization may seem pretty straight forward, if you think only from the perspective of scheduling your tasks in the order of criticality. While that may work in some cases, it cannot guarantee optimal utilization of your time and achieving effective results. When combined with patience, analysis and good judgement, you turn prioritization into an art, and thereby make the most out of it.

 

Below are a few techniques I have been using to achieve effective prioritization.


Maintaining a To-Do List


This had to be the first one in the list, right? Although it may seem quite obvious, but I know only a few people actually go about maintaining such a list. More often than not, we try to maintain the list in our mind. There isn't any problem in doing that, just that it's an additional thing our mind has to worry about, apart from obviously completing the task at hand.

 

I remember my school teacher once telling the class that while reading a book, never try to see how many pages the book has. If you do, you will feel there's a long way to go, and you will never be able to finish the book. Instead just keep reading, page by page.

 

Similarly, if you maintain the To-Do list in mind, it keeps reminding you there's a long way to go and you tend to lose focus under that pressure. Instead, simply maintain a list on your notebook, or your mobile phone, or your laptop. Keep adding new tasks to the list as they come, and continue focusing on your task at hand. I personally use Notion for my To-Do list.


Time Blocking


Okay, so you have your list of tasks for today, in the order of priority. You start working on the first task, and before you realize, the day is about to end before you could go to your next task. Sounds familiar? Sure, it does. And when that happens, we start to think, "Where did all my time go?".


Parkinson's law says, "Work expands, so as to fill the time available for its completion". So, what does that mean? It means, if for a 1-hour task you give yourself 1 day, you will actually end up taking a 1 day for it to complete. This is where time blocking technique comes to the rescue.


Time blocking means allocating a fixed time period for each of your planned tasks. This helps in two ways. First, by allocating time of each task, you would know your goal for that day. Second, you would keep a check on how much time you should be spending on a task, as otherwise it can impact your remaining tasks for the day. Once the time period elapses, you can review the task status, and if it's still not complete, you can decide whether to continue working on the current task or move on to the next task. It's like maintaining small checkpoints for the day to review the progress.


This technique is also helpful in managing the unknowns. A lot of times we come across tasks for which we don't know the completion time up front. If we don't decide a time block for such tasks, we could very well go on working on them, thereby ignoring other important tasks. Time blocking in such case gives us an opportunity to review our approach towards solving the task.


Big vs Small Tasks


In the world of computer programming, there are numerous scheduling algorithms. Some works on first come first serve basis, whereas some tend to process critical tasks first, irrespective of the task duration. In real life also, we come across situations where we have a critical task which is time consuming, whereas there's another not so important task, which is of shorter duration.


What I have learnt is, a single approach cannot work in prioritizing such tasks. If you prioritize the critical task first, chances are, you may not be able to start on the other tasks. Whereas, if you pick the smaller task, it may delay the critical task. Here, apart from time blocks, the deadline for each task also becomes important.


Suppose, the deadline for the smaller task is midday, whereas the deadline for the critical and longer duration task is next day. If you start on the critical task, and there is a chance you might not be able to finish it before smaller task's deadline, then it would make sense to prioritize smaller task first so as to meet the deadline. This also makes sure you will get enough time to finish the critical task before the deadline.


On the other hand, if the deadline for both the tasks is same, then it might be a good idea to start on the critical task first, so as to get it out of the way early. Once done, you can then freely focus on the easier task.


Not Jumping Into the Act


Many a times, when a critical ad hoc task comes in, we tend to take it up right away, leaving the task at hand. This has the ability to disrupt our plan for that day, and gives us a feeling of not being able to achieve anything.


In such instances, what we need to do is take a step back and add it to our To-Do list, just like any other task. We should also try to get an answer on what is the deadline for this task. Should this be completed as soon as possible, or we have a time window for it? We shouldn't be assuming the deadline, even though the task is critical. Additionally, it's also important to understand the impact of this new task on our existing planned tasks, and judge whether the criticality is high enough that we can bear the impact. Only when we have answers to these questions, we should entertain such task.

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