Defining an overflowing plate of to-dos
Let’s start by defining what we mean by an overflowing plate of to-dos. At its most basic, it is what seems like an endless daily to-do list that needs checking off. Our challenge is in trying to get it all done! Often, it becomes a juggling act leaving us feeling overwhelmed, stressed, or anxious.
Leadership, both personal and professional, requires us to develop strategies effectively to handle the pressure that comes with our position by learning to prioritize tasks. Essentially, we need to learn to become ruthless with our time.
To prevent an overflowing plate, three time-management skills are important:
- Awareness: understanding that time is a finite resource to use wisely
- Plan: designing our day, organizing goals, activities, and tasks to most effectively use our scarce time
- Adjust: assessing how we are using our time to perform (against the plan) and adapting to emerging changes and interruptions
So how do we do that without burning bridges with others?
Managing an overflowing plate
There are several techniques for prioritizing tasks. Perhaps the most common approach is the Eisenhower Matrix, also known as the urgent important matrix. The Eisenhower Matrix model was designed by Dwight D. Eisenhower, however, entered the mainstream through Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
The matrix consists of four quadrants (Figure 1):
- Do it now (urgent and important)
- Schedule it (not urgent but important)
- Delegate it (urgent but not important)
- Don’t do it (not urgent and not important)
By making a conscious decision on which quadrant a task or activity belongs right now, it is much easier to prioritize, schedule, delegate, or ignore things!
An important caveat to the decision matrix. Tasks in the green “to do first” box are the ones that are often the source of stress. This is compounded if we fail to effectively act upon the activities in the orange “to schedule” and blue “to delegate” quadrants. The impact: insufficient time to do what needs to be done and, therefore, more stress.
Other techniques to manage an overflowing plate
Scheduling time in the calendar
Email is a significant source of distraction yet has a level of importance we cannot ignore. Scheduling two or three short periods throughout the day helps us manage email distractions. For instance, reading and responding to emails at 9:00 and 15:00 is an effective approach to reclaiming time. Scheduling also works well to help us leave time within our day for emergencies. By scheduling meetings, appointments (including workout time), and time-consuming activities in the calendar, there are no surprises.
The new boss stress test
When we are in the middle of a period of feeling overworked, it is easy to lose perspective and self-sabotage. The new boss stress test is a helpful approach to counter this. Start by reviewing your to-do list, priorities, and activities. Ask yourself: “If a new boss reviews this list today, how much would be retained? How much stopped? How much delegated?” By managing our priorities through this lens, we identify the value from the noise, and pushing back becomes easier.
As the saying goes, time is money, and it is far too easy for an individual to overload themselves with work. With demands on our time from every facet of our lives, any new task can seem important, and things can quickly get out of hand. Preventing an overflowing plate becomes a vital leadership and survival skill! Through awareness, planning, and adjusting skills we have a foundation for managing increasing demands by focusing on:
- what needs to be done,
- by when,
- and by whom.
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Cartoon credit: author unknown