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Time Management and Workload Prioritisation

What is Time Management and Workload Prioritisation?

To me, time management involves making best use of my time, maximising efficiency and productivity. I have always striven to be well-organised and work in a structured, logical manner - others can judge whether I succeeded!

To prioritise workload means to assess tasks to be carried out and set them in order of importance.

To prioritise also means to give a particular task the highest priority - but in this article I'll be using the first definition.

Where do I start?

First – I consider how much time I have. If I have little time, for example, catching up on my emails during the evening when overseas on a business trip, I use the following principles:

I skim through the work - emails, letters, reports and so on. I can get a good idea from the Sender, the title, whether it has a red exclamation mark next to it (don't rely on this) which are likely to be the major items for further consideration.

I then prioritise my work by selecting the most urgent and important thing to do first. The thing that absolutely must be done now. Everything else can wait. Then I go on to the highest priority, the next most urgent and important. And so on.

Don’t forget that things may be important - they can't be ignored - but if they're not urgent I leave them for now or delegate them to someone else.

Other things may be less important but urgent – I leave them too. These are what delegation was invented for. Even though they need to be done in a hurry, they come further down my list of priorities.

If I don't have people to whom I can delegate work then I have to decide on the relative urgency and importance to come up with a prioritisation of my workload.

I am looking for tasks that have to be done now and which only I can do.

I definitely ignore those things that are unimportant and not urgent – I actually may never get to these! If, by the passage of time, they become more important then they will be prioritised higher on my list of things to do.

In general terms that is how I prioritise and manage my workload. You may have different ways of doing it - this way works for me.

If I have all day….alas, I never have all day. If I start the day thinking I hypothetically have all day, I use the same general principles to manage my time but with a few tweaks.

However, there are differing views on what one should do first. Some believe one should always deal with the important and urgent first and leave all the trivia for later. I don’t agree with that approach to managing my workload because I would never get to the quick and easy, less important stuff. So, as I review all the things I have to do, I deal with some of them during the review. This is a bit like dealing with spam - I know from experience the ones that I can delete without even reading. Someone wants to give me $3 billion? Again? Delete.

Prioritising Workload - An example

Taking a break from work is important. I can concentrate for an hour or two on a single task but then I like a break, even if it is for a couple of minutes to make a cup of tea.

When I start my day’s work I am rested, so a break is prioritised as important but not urgent. Therefore, it is left for now and I am not going to delegate it! However, as the morning progresses, I re-evaluate my priorities and the urgency for a break increases in relation to other tasks. Eventually, it is prioritised as urgent and important and, if there is nothing prioritised higher, I take a break!

Risk Assess Your Work

Many organisations have a risk management process. I find it useful to risk assess my work. I have sometimes found that I my intuitive assessment of the priorities is different to that derived from a risk assessment. I have written an article about this called Risk Assessing Work. Suffice it to say here that risk assessments are a great way to ensure I focus on the important stuff.

Only handle an email once - Read it and deal with it or delete it

I have always tried to get my email inbox down to zero emails. A target only rarely achieved!

When I pick up a letter or open an email, I read it and then consider whether I can deal with it there and then. I just spent time reading it and probably thinking about it, and, if I put it aside, I only have to read it again later and deal with it then. I may as well deal with it now. My intention is always - deal with it now - unless it is truly going to take too much time to manage now. I want to get it off my desk onto someone else’s as expeditiously as possible - the ball will then be again in their court.

I have seen this called "The Two Minute Rule" - if I can do it within two minutes, do it now. There's a good article by James Clear about it here.

I can do one of five things with each item:

1 Delete it now

2 File it now

3 Delegate it now

4 Reply to (or forward) it now

5 Set it aside for action later

Those things I have set aside should only be the things that I believe that I must handle myself.

Once I have got to the end of the first pass of the pile of paper and emails I start on prioritising what remains and then working through them. As above, I pick the most urgent, important thing to do first and, so on, through my inbox.

Of course, life is seldom that stable and organised, so interruptions, meetings, phone calls and so on will mean the plan is constantly being revised.

I try to be pragmatic and realistic in taking decisions about workload prioritisation. Even though I may enjoy working on a particular, “urgent and important” topic, I try to be honest with myself to change to another more urgent and more important item (but one that I’m not so keen on), if such work comes along. And I do that one instead.

Make a plan

Making a plan is another useful tool in the workload prioritisation process. I certainly helps me keep the order of tasks logical and driven towards the goal.

When I was training to be an air traffic controller we were taught to assess the traffic situation and make a plan to allow all the aircraft to get to where they wanted to go, preferably without hitting one another!

As the plan was being executed and the aircraft were climbing and descending among those that were cruising it was important to keep re-assesing the situation to ensure the plan was still going to work. In other words, that the aircraft were performing as expected. If an aircraft was climbing slower or faster than expected which might have resulted in two aircraft getting too close, then the plan would be changed. Trying to force a plan to work when the situation had changed unexpectedly would only end badly.

The moral of the story is: Don't be too proud to change a plan that isn't working.


In a perfect world I will be working in a team with adequate numbers of staff, people I trust to do a good job, and who are all equally strong at every skill needed in the office. Yeah, dream on...

When delegating I think about who has the skills, knowledge and expertise to deal with task at hand. For example, if I am under time pressure and the deliverable is a letter then I go to the person who can quickly write good letters.

If there is little time pressure I will go to the person who is going to give me the best content and rely on the team to vet it before it goes out so that the technical content, grammar, spelling etc are correct.

We all like to think we can do any task best. The old adage, "If you want a job done properly, do it yourself" is not far from the truth. However, most of us have more work than we can handle and have to prioritise our workload to cope. Therefore, if I ask someone else to write a letter for me, I have to accept that it may not be written in my style. Then it becomes a case of, "Do I have time to edit this so it reads the way I would write it, or shall I just sign it and send it?"

Some of us are lucky enough to have staff to whom we can give our work. And they have to do it! This is delegation. Don't forget, they may be responsible for doing the work but I am still accountable for the quality of the work.

In my previous role I considered myself to be technically competent in some areas of the work of my Division. However, I never used to use that expertise unless there was none of the experts around. I did use that expertise to challenge the experts when I considered it appropriate.

Ring me

I have a rule that I think many people also follow:

If you have something for me that is really urgent and important, ring me.

If I can answer my phone, I will. If I can’t answer my phone, leave a message on voice mail.

Don’t send me an email expecting that I am constantly monitoring my emails - I’m not. As soon as I can listen to the voice mail message I will assess what you want me to do and prioritise it - it may well not be prioritised top of my workload list.

He who shouts loudest…

I am not persuaded that the person badgering me with multiple phone calls and emails ranks as the highest priority for me. I decide on my priorities, not him/her.

Against the clock?

If I’m really under the cosh to deliver on something and someone comes to talk to me I’m not afraid to say, “Sorry, I have to get this finished, please excuse me, I’ll come back to you at (time)”. I then always try hard to get back to them when I said I would (or before).

Activity versus Achievement

Don’t confuse activity with achievement. Activity is such things as clearing out emails from my inbox - an important task but one which must be done at the correct time. Working on trivial and inconsequential tasks is only an achievement when there is nothing more important and urgent to do. If I have something more important and urgent to do then doing the trivial tasks is keeping me active but I’m not being as productive as I could be and I’m not managing my time wisely. I try to prioritise my workload so I achieve my targets.

Set targets

I always find that if I set myself targets with deliverables and deadlines - “do this task by that date” - it drives me to prioritise my workload. In that way I can manage my time to ensure that everything got done by the due date.

Like a lot of people, I use Microsoft Office. In Outlook there are a four functions that I find handy in managing my time and workload.

The first is Tasks (see below). To open a new task in Outlook either click on the Tasks button at the foot of the screen or go File > New > Task. A box will appear and complete the details. Don't forget to set a reminder.

The second is in the email itself. My system is to leave an email showing in bold font i.e. unread, until I have read it. This sounds a little obvious but some settings in Outlook will allow an email to change to "Read" automatically when it is shown in the Preview Pane - I deselect that setting. The bold font indicates I haven’t yet read it. I have set the preferences so that an email only shows as 'Read' when opened in a new window.

Once read, I deal with it (delete, forward, reply, file) using the Two Minute Rule if I can.

If I need to come back to it or there is something I have to wait for before dealing with it, I leave it in the inbox showing as unbold text. The fact that the email is in the inbox and not bold means I have read it and I still have to do something with it.

The third method relates to an email which I must deal with and which is important. I use the Follow Up feature within the email and allocate a date/time as a reminder. I set myself a reminder that is early enough before the due date that I can still complete the work by the deadline. When the reminder pops up, two things are then true; one, I still have time to complete the work and, two, I must now prioritise this task as urgent and important and get it done!

To do this, click on the email and click on the red Follow Up flag at the top. Select Add Reminder and complete the date/times.

The last feature of Outlook can be used if the item is really important and my diary is getting full around the due date. I schedule some time in my diary to do the work - not forgetting to place a copy of the email in the diary booking so I know what the time is set aside for. This method has the double benefit of not only giving me a reminder but also allocating time in which to do the work which nobody else can book without checking with me.

SMARTER Target/Goal Setting

There are many articles about target or goal setting on the internet. Mine is called 7 Steps to SMARTER Goal Setting.

In short, I find it helpful to set SMARTER goals. I also find it useful to set the members of my team SMARTER goals - it helps them stay focussed and it allows me follow their progress more easily.

S = Specific - goals should be well scoped and the description accurate and explicit.

M = Measurable - The goal must quantifiable. It must be possible to know when the goal has been achieved.

A = Achievable - Setting a goal which is unachievable is just setting oneself up to fail. It is important to be able to achieve the goal but, equally, it must not be too easy - there is little satisfaction in achieving an easy goal. However, one which stretches and challenges us will be much more rewarding when it is completed.

R = Relevant - A goal must be pertinent to the overall task or objective and should be within your control.

T = Time-specific - A critical aspect of a goal is to set a time by which it must be completed. This has a great significance on making the goal challenging but not impossible.

E = Evaluate - It must be possible to assess the progress towards the goal. That evaluation will allow the plan and goal to be revised, if necessary.

R = Revise - As I said before, don’t be too proud to revise a plan which isn’t working.

Listen to your body

It isn’t always possible for me to decide what I do at any particular time: meetings, phone calls, being called to the boss’s office and so on, all impact on how my time is spent.

However, given a choice, I like to do certain things at certain times of the day.

I concentrate best on textual, computer-based work, letters and so on, in the morning and late afternoon. Like most people my body’s circadian rhythm or body clock has a lull early in the afternoon. As the National Sleep Foundation put it, "adults' strongest sleep drive generally occurs between 2:00-4:00 am and in the afternoon between 1:00-3:00 pm".

Therefore, during that lull period in the afternoon I try to schedule such things as phone calls and visits around the office/building to discuss tasks with other people. In this way I am working with my body to stay active not struggling to stay awake working on a boring report.

By the way, staying fit and healthy helps concentration. According to Neel Burton MD in Psychology Today, developing a healthy lifestyle is one of his ten ways to improve concentration and memory.

And Finally….

Simplify everything.

10 ways to manage time and prioritise workload

Pick the most urgent and important thing to do first if time is short.

Only handle an email once - Read it and deal with it or delete it.

Plan your workload.

Delegate what you can.

Don't be afraid to send people away (politely) if you are busy.

Don’t confuse activity with achievement.

Set yourself targets and use technology to help you achieve them.

Set targets that are SMARTER.

Stay healthy and listen to your body. And did I mention...

Simplify everything.

Peter Cromarty

Peter Cromarty is a former air traffic controller and pilot. He spent 27 years as a safety regulator of ATM/CNS, airspace and aerodromes. View his Linked In profile

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