Mastering time-management and priority-setting processes are fundamental to achieving personal and business productivity. These skills are even more crucial in start-up environments, where management is regularly confronted with conflicting demand for its time and attention.
At the commencement of any large undertaking, it is rare that there will be a logical or apparent path forward. This is especially so in the case of a typical start-up environment, where there are competing priorities, including product development, staffing issues, customer briefings, cash-flow management, fundraising and meeting with advisors.
Deciding how to allocate management resources can be tricky, but there are some guiding principles that may assist you in setting priorities.
An important starting point is to recognise that not all priorities are equal. In business, according to the Juran Principle (so named for its coiner, Dr J. M. Juran), it is important to distinguish between the “vital few” and the “useful many”; that is, business has yet another 80/20 rule: 20 percent of efforts are responsible for 80 percent of the results.
The key, then, is to make sure you identify and focus your efforts first on doing those 20 percent of activities that will produce the most results. This is an important concept to grasp, as different individuals will have different definitions as to what constitutes a priority.
For some it is the issue that is causing them the most stress or anxiety. For others, it is the task they are most behind on or which they are most embarrassed about not finishing. Not all of these factors are relevant to determining the true priority of a task in a business context (the squeaky wheel shouldn’t always be the first oiled!).
Getting your house in order
There are any number of different approaches to time management and task prioritisation, but all of them seem to adhere to a universal process:
- Collect – Create a list of each task or activity you need to monitor, initiate or act upon; from short-term issues, like returning emails, to long-term issues, like planning the next round of product development.
- Process – Deal with those tasks or issues that can be handled immediately and quickly (e.g. within five minutes). For the remainder, either delegate to an appropriate person or defer it for later action.
- Organise – Compile a list of deferred tasks that can be used to keep track of items awaiting attention or action.
- Review – Determine the priority of each item. It is useful to perform what is called an ‘ABC analysis’: categorise each task into groups marked A, B and C, with A being for those items with the highest priority, and C for those with the lowest.
A variation of this analysis is to use the categories to divide tasks that must be completed within a day, week or month.
Consider the time, resources and effort each activity will require, and rework the priorities (if necessary) to optimise the requirements of each task with the resources (time, financial, attention, etc.) available at that point in time.
- Act – Having created your prioritised task list, put it into action.
Structure and flexibility
There are, of course, some caveats with respect to any process for time management or priority setting.
The first invokes the laws of diminishing returns. Some people prone to procrastination invest too much time in managing and restructuring their lists (according to some estimates, up to 30 percent of list-makers spend more time managing their task list than they spend on tasks!). Others clutter their lists with mundane or routine activities that should be excluded, or merely incorporated into everyday activities.
It is equally important that you do not allow your schedule to become overly rigid. Start-up environments are inherently dynamic – important or unexpected events may arise at any time, and you will need to be flexible in your approach so as to allow adaptation and rescheduling.
Finally, it is important that your prioritisation approach adequately cater for both long-term and short-term goals. It is easy to fall into the trap of managing for day-to-day requirements and not devote enough time to long-term goals. Depending on the timescale you adopt in your prioritisation process, it may be useful to conduct regular (weekly, monthly, bi-annually, etc.) reviews of the system to ensure that time is being used efficiently and that the business is still headed in the right direction.
Mark Neely is a lawyer, technology commercialisation consultant and author of ten books, including The Business Internet Companion. You can read his blog at www.infolution.com.au. You can view his LinkedIn profile at www.linkedin.com/in/markneely