At some time in our lives we've all started a new job or taken on new responsibilities, even more so with the recent shifts in staffing and productivity that organizations have been going through. Often we start out with a deluge of tasks and requests, which makes it very hard to understand what it is we ought to be doing—much less have time to do it. Even listing and prioritizing the tasks can seem overwhelming, so it's easy to fall into a react mode, grabbing a task and working on it because doing something—anything—feels more productive than spending time planning what to do. Unfortunately, although this may make it seem like you are getting a great deal accomplished, not everything you are asked to do is important to your job. So picking tasks at random is probably not the best way to work.
Earlier in my career, I worked at a succession of companies, setting up QA groups or transforming existing ineffective groups. Now as a consultant, working with every new client is like starting a new job. There are a couple of techniques I developed long ago to get past each new opportunity's tidal wave of tasks. Whenever I suddenly find myself facing a quickly growing to do list, one of these techniques has served me well, even in cases where I'm doing engineering work rather than management.
The Three Stacks
Often tasks arrive as email, phone messages, verbal requests from the boss(es), and as notes from meetings. I make a separate piece of paper for each task so I can more easily identify and sort them. Think of this like defect tracking—you don't want to lose any tasks or have to rediscover or reinvent them, so figure out a way that works for you to keep track of your tasks.
By writing down each task on a separate piece of paper, you become more aware of what you should do but are now faced with an ever-growing stack of tasks you don’t have time to do. (This is actually a better problem to have than being clueless about what you should do.) Obviously, I will have to do more than just write it all down. I need some way to sort it. There are always valid tasks we could do; the important question is how to decide what to work on and what to put off or drop—and that's where I've seen many people get stuck, leading to burn out and failure.
As you record and review the incoming tasks, you need to separate them into three categories:
Category One: Just Do It!
These tasks are usually returning calls, responding to meeting requests, one-line email replies, and other quick items. Often they are tasks needed to set up work in Category Two or Three. Work through Category One tasks as you encounter them. If you can't do it now and it'll be taken care of without you (or you'll get another request)—drop it. If you can't do it now and you know when you will be able to do it, put it on your calendar. If the task involves a question you don't know the answer to, either drop it or put it in Category Two or Three. Although these tasks may consume an hour or more a day, trying to evaluate and prioritize them will take more time than simply accomplishing the tasks. Just do it.
Category Two: Critical Tasks
These are the tasks you feel are critical to your job. If you drop the ball on one of these, you're out. Work on (or plan for) Category Two activities as you encounter them.
Be careful, though, not to put everything into this category. This is why you really need to understand your goals and critical success factors. Only a small portion of our tasks truly have make-or-break outcomes. In order to fit into this category, the task really has to be one where you will fail altogether if it doesn't happen. The task has to be that critical all by itself. Usually there are alternatives or only a small part of a task that really is critical. When you're swamped with work, consider first doing only that part of the task that is critical to your job. When you think about it, there may be one or more Category Three tasks hiding inside the bigger one you originally identified.
The tasks in this category may take more than a little effort—frequently on an ongoing basis. This means you aren't necessarily going to finish any given task right away. You'll need to continue to work on these as necessary—I categorize the ongoing tasks as In Progress so I don’t lose track of them.
Note: Something has to give if there isn't time to do all of the Category Two tasks. Take a look at where your time is spent. If it isn't on doing critical tasks, think about what you can do to increase the time available for these. If there still isn't time, try to find some subset of results that will allow you to be successful, while putting the rest of the task and its results into the Category Three stack. If there still isn't enough time to do the critical tasks, you need to have a serious discussion with your boss (a subject for another article). Remember, you can't afford to drop the ball on any of the Category Two tasks, so be sure to work on them first, before studying, prioritizing, or working on Category Three.
Category Three: Other Important Tasks
Look at the tasks in Category Three when you run out of things you can do in the first two categories.
This is where the bulk of your tasks should end up. These should be the tasks that take most of your time. They are important, but you have leeway in how or when they're done.
You need to sort through and prioritize them; otherwise you can find yourself in an ineffective react mode. As you evaluate each task, ask what is the core task and primary result. The tasks often can be broken into several parts, not all of which need to be done at once. Remember the Pareto Principle (80/20 rule), which states that about 20% of the effort returns 80% of the results (assuming the most valuable 20% of the effort is done): You get the most value from choosing the right place to start. Apply this principle to both individual tasks (ask what the most valuable part of the task is) and to ordering the tasks (ask which tasks provide the most valuable contribution to your job.)
Often I can quickly divide the Category Three tasks into three subgroups: tasks that are important and contribute a lot, tasks that are really worth doing, and tasks that aren't likely to get done. The first subgroup needs a bit more attention to identify the core tasks and prioritize them. The second subgroup I can get to later, and the third subgroup I put into a "Tomorrow" file.
When you feel overwhelmed by all the tasks you have to do, don't despair—get organized. By sorting your tasks and plugging through them, you can prevail (or know the reason why you can't). This technique can’t solve all the problems (especially cramming eighty hours of work into a forty-hour workweek), but it can keep you focused on the factors essential for the success of your job and give you a fighting chance to do your most critical tasks. Most importantly, it can keep you from investing heavily in tasks that (in retrospect) turn out not to have been as important as some of those you didn't have time to do.