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Mar 28 2014

This Article is Late, For Good Reason: Taking control of your workflow

Work is aptly named. If you’re doing a good job, it isn’t easy. More is involved than the basics of your official job description (if you even have one). Depending on the size of your company and where you fall within it, there are secondary job functions, red tape, housekeeping, reporting, etc.

All those extras can become overwhelming and your productivity can drop to nil if you aren’t able to juggle everything like a pro. I use a system of prioritization to control my workflow and juggle everything. I think it can be helpful for you — whoever you are and whatever you do.

"If you can’t finish the heavy task in that moment, you might as well finish the lighter one, and lessen the overall load."

Prioritization has always been important, but it is often missed in favor of its preoccupied cousin, multi-tasking. The buzz about multi-tasking tends to drown out the chimes of prioritization.

I am writing to tell you that it is okay to stop working distracted.

The case against multi-tasking is a short argument. Open this link in a separate tab. Now, read that story and this article simultaneously, while humming the Jeopardy! theme.

Case and point.

Prioritization is strategically choosing the order in which you will complete tasks and setting guidelines for when you are willing to change that order. With prioritization as the overarching theme, here are four ways to take control of your workflow.

1. Take time to gather information, and don’t waste that time

Prioritization is built on a foundation of good planning. In order to plan your workflow efficiently, you need information. That information will vary based on the tasks and the type of work you do, but some common essentials include:

  • Identify and date the tasks that need to be started/completed
  • Estimate how long each task or part of a task should take
  • List who else should/could/must be involved
  • Learn how their schedule will impact the task
  • Determine what background/follow-up work is needed

That sounds like a lot, but after just one or two info-gathering phases, it will become second nature. And, most of it is repetitive, even for complex job functions.

Be sure to get this information right, but don’t overthink it or worry about minutiae. If you need an in-person meeting with your entire department of 17 people on a project, “inconveniently” is a good enough response to the scheduling impact bullet. There is no need to list the individual components of that, because all that’s important to know at this point is that the schedule will be difficult and out of your control.

The purpose is to make yourself aware of what could go wrong — it is not to resolve hypothetical problems.

Remember, planning is what you do before your tasks begin, don’t let it become its own task.

2. Weight your tasks and schedule them accordingly

You are probably aware that some of your tasks are more important than others. For example, if you are the Operations Manager at MojoTech, following up with a client who had a question about his invoice, or helping a new team member understand her healthcare benefits are clearly more important than ordering more plastic forks. But, it’s not always that simple — and sometimes, forks might weigh a ton.

Weighting the tasks is not the same as ranking them from most important to least important. If it were that cut-and-dry, we’d never have any forks at our office, which would dramatically increase our budget lines for napkins and replacement keyboards.

To accurately weigh your tasks, you need some information about them (refer to item #1). If tasks have no deadline and no significant drawbacks to untimely completion, they can be light, even if they are important.

3. Pick your favorite time management tool(s), and be consistent

Human beings are creatures of habit. If you are reading this, you are most likely a human being. You are most likely a creature of habit.

There are many tools that will help you prioritize. Many more than I have used or care to know about — but the specific tools are not at issue; habitual use of them is.

Some people will find one tool that covers everything they need, others may use several. The trick is remaining consistent in all facets.

If you use one tool, consistency is easy — put everything into that tool, every time.

If you use multiple tools, like I do, you need to be sure that you are consistent with where you put which information. If you aren’t, it will slow you down and non-existent reminders/cues/etc. might be expected, causing you to miss some deadlines.

Here is how I use two tools to schedule my workflow:

To-Do tasks are added to my “reminders” app, with the scheduled time. These have a specifically-defined milestone moment — either to start or complete — and are relatively quick and can be completed in one fell swoop without interruption. Examples include: Send XYZ email to Howard Wolowitz at 10:00am on Tuesday; Submit paperwork for flux capacitor patent next Thursday at 3:30pm; etc.

Calendar Blocks are scheduled on my Google calendar, which is synced with my phone. These are tasks that are ongoing and/or that will take more time than I can devote in single chunk. Typically I book more time than will be necessary so that I can remain a little flexible (see below) for emerging needs. I have the default reminder set for one minute, and I add others as necessary.

It’s a relatively simple solution, but to be most effective it demands complete consistency. Knowing that I will be prompted when to switch tasks or that something needs to be done in the moment allows me to focus on the task at hand without worrying about what else I needs to get done or having the constant fear that I’m missing something.

However, that fear does linger on occasion — because I sometimes miss an entry, hit snooze, get sidetracked or ignore the rules below… I'm human, too! And I’m getting better.

4. Make rules about how to break rules

Projects change. Life happens. Fires must be put out — or started.

If you ignore those facts and chug forward regardless of the environment around you, your productivity train is likely to get derailed. If you allow anything and everything to jump in your way, you’ll never get anywhere.

Set guidelines for yourself, and for your tasks, that will allow you to manage secondary and tertiary responsibilities without jeopardizing your timeline. Like weighting, these rules will vary significantly for different people and different tasks, but here are some important things to take into consideration:

  • The weight of the task on which you’re working
  • The weight of the emerging need
  • The time it will take to complete the task
  • The cost of that time on your prioritized schedule

I am able to maintain good control of emerging issues by building little buffers into my prioritized schedule. I schedule events in my calendar with about 10% more time than I actually think I will need to devote to that task. That way, I can hit a few of the curveballs rather than letting them all collect at the backstop.

If something comes up that will actually put me off schedule, I let that pass by. Unless of course a quick scan of the emerging weight is significantly heavier than my current tasks.

If the emerging issue cannot be resolved in the time I am able to make available, I schedule it for a time that it can be. This is true even if something is far more important and timely (read: heavier) than what I’m doing. If you can’t finish the heavy task in that moment, you might as well finish the lighter one, and lessen the overall load.

It’s a circular process… Rule-breaking just takes you back to a hurried version of the first three steps.

Get good at these steps, and your work will flow.

Bonus advice: Unless you are paid to write them, blog posts are very light weight.

- Jacob (@jacobsnbrier)