Struggling with too much to do? How to free up time and focus on the important stuff…

I don’t think in over 30 years I’ve ever got to the end of my To Do list, nor felt I have enough hours in the day. Making sure I use my time wisely is essential and here’s the best way I’ve found. It comes (for those who like the background) from Stephen Covey’s book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”.

The key concept is moving from dependence to independence, which involves

  1. Being proactive and shaping what you spend your time doing
  2. Focus on the end goal – what you are trying to achieve and ensuring others know that too
  3. Managing your time effectively. How, I hear you ask – I’m too busy?

This model looks at the difference between what’s important and what’s urgent.

  • Important tasks are those that get you towards your end goals, what you should be doing
  • Urgent tasks are those things we tend our time doing
 UrgentNot Urgent
ImportantCrises:
Pressing problems
Firefighting
Emergencies
Deadlines
Last minute requests
Prevention:
Relationship building
New opportunities
Preparation and Planning
Risk Identification
Personal Development
Not ImportantInterruptions:
Most Emails, some calls
Some reports and meetings
Other people’s priorities or omissions
Urgent masquerading as important
Popular activities.
Trivial:
Busywork
Some emails and calls
Time wasters
Pleasant escapist activities
Types of Work

The important and urgent should, and usually does, get focus.

The Trivial is usually the easiest to stop.

The hard bit is moving our focus from interruptions to prevention. Try tracking the tasks you do for a week and putting them into the relevant quadrant to see where you spend your time. More time for prevention by doing less on interruptions is easy to say, but hard to do. It needs great self-awareness and conscious decision making on how we spend our time. Here are the key actions for each quadrant:

 UrgentNot Urgent
ImportantNecessity:  
Key Action: Manage it Now  
Quality & Personal Leadership:  
Key Action: Decide when to do it and protect that time
Not ImportantDeception:  
Key Action: Delegate or use caution
Waste:  
Key Action: Avoid
What to do

A great example for me was realising I was sinking with too much work in the early days of leading a large programme. I took a conscious decision to let some of the interruptions go (very hard for me) and focus on recruiting the team, a top right activity. Writing blogs for me is another top right task. It’s my way of stepping back, reflecting and thinking, I work best when I set my self the time to write things down in this way.

Lastly, if you are using planner in Teams (I can’t do a blog without mentioning Teams) maybe try using the labels feature to tick if a task is important, urgent or both. Then you can filter on the important ones and focus on the right things. If you are still only using teams at its basic level for meetings and messages would learning how to use Teams to its full capability be important?

Want to know more?

If you have access to LinkedIn Learning, then try these short courses

Four Time Management Tips (11 minutes) – basics of time management

Getting Things Done (30 minutes) – methodology to capture, clarify, organise, reflect and engage with tasks.

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