We probably all know the type: despite having oceans of projects and huge responsibilities, they manage to solve all their tasks effectively and quickly. For some people, prioritisation seems easy – for the rest of us, there is still hope: We hereby present the central dynamics and factors on how you can get stuff done effectively.
Changing the way you prioritise starts by reflecting on it, which you are probably already doing right now. It is our hope that this article will outline some core perspectives regarding prioritisation, and hence you can use this opportunity to ask yourself: how can the content of the article help me reflect on the way I work and prioritise? Let’s begin within the world of research.
What does research have to say about prioritisation?
Prioritising effectively is basically about reflecting actively on the way you prioritise themselves (Tripoli, 1998). Research can help us get a hold of the fundamental dynamics:
- Timing is everything. The most effective prioritisation strategies typically require you to solve the most difficult tasks first (Delrose et al., 2015).
- Self-control is like a muscle. It takes self-control and discipline to solve the most difficult tasks first, and you can practise this by staying focused. At the same time, your “self-control muscle” will tire during the day, and the difficult tasks therefore become harder to solve the later in the day you get started (Baumeister, 2007).
- We all have different ways of prioritising, and a crucial factor in prioritising effectively is the ability to plan tasks based on their importance. It is therefore important to set aside enough time for the important tasks (Tripoli, 1998).
- In a reality of complexity and change, there is a need to focus on communication, relationships and interactions (Stacey, 2002). Prioritisation therefore always happens in an unpredictable context of interactions.
Based on our experience in organisations and with educational programmes, research and practice can be combined in the “Prioritisation Compass”, which gives us a framework for reflecting on our own – or the team’s – strengths and areas for development.
The Prioritisation Compass’s four points for better prioritisation
The Prioritisation Compass has the following four points, with associated questions:
- Goals and purposes. How do your tasks and prioritisation help you solve your core task? What is the purpose of your organisation?
- Personal preferences. When are you must successful at being effective and using your time wisely?
- Planning and managing. How good are you at managing and planning your time?
- Navigating the unpredictable. How do you respond to unexpected interruptions and changes on a daily basis?
The compass’s four points should also be viewed in light of your organisational context, which can be regarded as a dynamic and changeable framework of time, place, tasks and people. In other words, there are “contextual magnets” at all times that can affect the compass needle. However, you can also stop right now and place yourself on a scale from 1 to 5: to what degree do you succeed on each of the four parameters?
Goals and purposes
First off, you should consider: what is my core task and what purposes should my prioritisation first and foremost fulfil? The most successful planners keep returning to goals and purposes in an interactive process when solving their tasks (Reither & Staudel in Tripoli, 1998). Goals and purposes are thereby not only a point of departure – they ought to be a common thread throughout your daily prioritisations. Are the most important tasks getting enough time? Are you spending too much time on tasks that don’t create value in relation to the most important tasks? (Tripoli, 1998). Think about your job over the last week, for example: were the most important tasks given the most time? What tasks took an inappropriate amount of time?
The skilled navigator of the Prioritisation Compass should have an idea of how to prioritise time in relation to the importance of tasks. In addition, the second point in the Compass is reflection upon how personal preferences affect your prioritisation. You could consider which of the following metaphors best captures your personal preferences:
- The Viking: A Viking typically ventures into unknown waters with great initiative and vigour and with great knowledge of the waters. Tasks are typically solved effectively in the moment and with great commitment – but often at the cost of the big picture and the importance of the tasks.
- Titanic: The Titanic model is very planned, structured and thorough. Initially, everything is prioritised according to a clear purpose, from which no deviation is made.
- Columbus: The Columbus-inspired navigator is capable of planning his journey and also of adjusting to changeable circumstances. The Columbus navigator is hence goal-oriented and flexible, but with no guarantees in relation to speed or end goals.
Even though the metaphors are caricatured, you might recognise yourself in one or more of them? Skilled prioritisers typically reflect on how their personal preferences shouldn’t be overused, but rather used accordingly. Furthermore, there is naturally a wealth of personal traits and preferences that we could benefit from reflecting on, such as circadian rhythm, energy, the need for structure and much more. You should therefore consider when you have the best experience solving tasks effectively as well as which factors enable you to do so.
Planning and managing
There is an abundance of analogue and online tools for managing and planning your time. Regardless of whether you use checklists, strict calendar management or prioritisation tools, there is a clear strength in being able to plan your work. Two popular prioritisation tools (that can easily be found on Google) are Stephen Covey’s Time Management Matrix, which divides tasks according to their importance and urgency, and the “should/shouldn’t do model”, which rates tasks based on whether you should/shouldn’t do an activity and whether you should/shouldn’t solve it. Planning is a crucial prioritisation tool, as it provides an overview and can have a calming effect. On the other hand, planning can also be viewed as “preparation, which is typically challenged”, which brings us to the last point of the compass.
Adjusting to the unpredictable and complex
Even the most fervent planners probably recognise that everyday prioritisation and solving of tasks can be challenged by unpredictable events and interruptions that, in a split second, can overturn even the most meticulous plans. In that way it is a paradox that the only predictable thing is unpredictability, which emphasises the need to constantly build a reflective practice regarding our prioritisation.
In this regard, complexity theories can provide perspectives on how to manage ourselves. In brief, Ralph Stacey (2002) emphasises that we must pay attention to small interactions and communication between people while paying attention to the balance of power and interpersonal dynamics. In our opinion, these attention points can nuance our planning strategies and strengthen our ability to prioritise wisely and reflectively.
The compass in practice
With our introduction to the Prioritisation Compass, we want to encourage you to relate to your prioritisation practice on a regular basis. We are not looking for perfect execution and efficiency above all, but we believe that targeted, flexible and reflective prioritisation brings about better balance, so that you are the one managing your work life, not the other way around.
Roy Baumeister (2009), “Self-regulation as a limited resource: Strength model of control and depletion”, in Psychology of self-regulation: Cognitive, affective, and motivational processes.
Julie E. Delose, Michelle R. vanDellen and Rick H. Hoyle (2015), “First on the List: Effectiveness at Self-Regulation and Prioritizing Difficult Exercise Goal Pursuit”, in Self and Identity.
Ralph Stacey (2002), Complex responsive processes in organizations: learning and knowledge creation. London: Routledge.
Angela M. Tripoli (1998), “Planning and Allocating: Strategies for Managing Priorities in Complex Jobs”, European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology.