Time Management

by Di McLanachan

How do I prioritise my workload?

How do you eat an elephant?

One bite at a time...


People who over-eat are often described as having ‘eyes bigger than their stomachs’. The time management equivalent is the person who takes on more and more projects that look inviting and exciting, with a total disregard for existing work commitments. This behaviour is typical of a Type A working style and the end result is ‘plate spinning’ – dashing from one unfinished task to another, putting in short bursts of effort and hoping that none of the plates crashes to the floor. Not only is this a very ineffective way of working, it is also a very stressful.

To regain control over your workload, a reality check is essential. Prioritise everything on your things-to-do list and then estimate how long each task needs in order to be completed. Having allocated a time to each task, double it! Type A people are renowned for under-estimating how long a task really needs, which then impacts on other work.

And finally, apply a little discipline. If your current workload is scheduled with time estimates, it becomes easy for you to see when you will be able to take on the next project. Only if priorities on items in your current workload change significantly can you offer to fit in yet another project.

The scenario of being allocated too much work by a superior and feeling that you cannot refuse is addressed in another page of this topic – The art of saying ‘no’.


Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.


Prioritisation is the cornerstone of good time management. It ensures that the time available to you is being spent on the most essential activities. The mistake that is most commonly made is failing to differentiate between important and urgent tasks.

Important tasks

These tasks directly contribute to the achievement of your job objectives and the functioning of your organisation, in other words, the work that you are paid to do. This often takes the form of project work with short-, medium- and long-term deadlines for completion.

Urgent tasks

These, if not completed very soon, will have a negative impact. However, what often happens is that tasks assume a level of urgency that is inappropriate but that may conform to the culture of the business, so everything is wanted by yesterday. Because these tasks are frequently quick and easy in nature, they get allocated a higher priority than they warrant and are continually put ahead of tasks that are genuinely important but don’t yet have a close-in deadline. The end result is a potential crisis situation, with important tasks, crucial to the functioning of the business, now threatening to cause a major crisis if they are not dealt with immediately.

Work categories

The first stage in learning how to prioritise effectively is to allocate your tasks to appropriate categories.

Quadrant 1 – important and urgent

These are tasks that are essential to the functioning of the organisation and must be done urgently to avoid a potential crisis. These top priority tasks must be actioned ahead of all the rest. For example, you are working at your desk and the fire bell starts ringing. It is not a scheduled fire drill; there is a real possibility that the building is on fire. This is important and urgent; whatever else you were doing, you must now interrupt it and evacuate the building.

Quadrant 2 – important but not urgent

These are the tasks which are defined in your job objectives and which you are employed to carry out. Often, these tasks are projects of medium- to long-term duration and therefore lack urgency. However, you should be assigning regular chunks of time to these activities in order to fulfil your job role and your annual appraisal will reflect how well you have done this.

Quadrant 3 – urgent but not important

These tasks threaten to cause a negative impact or disruption if they are not actioned quickly. However, they may well be outside the scope of your job objectives and the extent to which they contribute to the functioning of the organisation may be questionable. Sometimes, the degree of urgency may have been defined by someone else, whose judgement may be inaccurate, or at least, different from yours.

Quadrant 4 – not important and not urgent

Tasks in this quadrant are not an essential part of your job objectives, neither will there be any noticeable impact to the business if they are not done at all. For example, reading trade journals and newsletters is a useful thing to do if you have time. However, if a pile of these has accumulated, all still waiting to be read, and some of them are now several months old, they could probably be discarded without causing any impact whatsoever.

It’s not so much how busy you are, but why you are busy. The bee is praised. The mosquito is swatted.

Mary O’Connor

By necessity, Quadrant 1 tasks get tackled first. However, instead of Quadrant 2 tasks being next, Quadrant 3 (urgent but not important) tasks consistently jump the queue ahead of the Important Quadrant 2 tasks. An ignored Quadrant 2 task has the potential to become a crisis and move into Quadrant 1, displacing everything else. If, however, the task had been addressed earlier, before it became urgent, the crisis would have been avoided.

If you find yourself firefighting on a regular basis, it may well be that you are not giving Quadrant 2 tasks sufficient importance in your daily work allocation.

The question to ask yourself in order to determine the importance of a task is: ‘Will doing this task move me towards achieving my goals and/or job objectives?’

To determine the urgency of a task, ask yourself: ‘What would be the impact of not doing this today/tomorrow/this week?’

And if all else fails and you feel confronted with and overwhelmed by a colossal workload, ask yourself, ‘What is the best use of my time right now?’ This question cuts through confusion and is a terrific antidote to the inertia that can set in when you have so much to do that you’re not sure what to do next.

Your time horizon

How far ahead do you need to look when assembling your list of tasks and fitting them into the appropriate quadrant?

In your job, you need to consider a time horizon. Just how far out do you look each day? And how far out should you be looking? For someone working on a customer service desk, it is not much further than the next call. For a team leader, it might be a couple of weeks. The higher up the management structure, the more distant the time horizon (and the tasks connected with it) you need to be considering. The CEO of a large corporation might be looking 20 years ahead.


There is a story about a seminar leader who placed a large jar on a table. By the side of the jar he placed a bucket of gravel, a bucket of sand, a bucket of beer, and three big rocks. He then challenged his participants to find a way to fit everything on the table into the jar.

After numerous attempts, it became clear that the only way to successfully fit everything in was to start with the big rocks first. The gravel filled the gaps between the big rocks, the sand filled the gaps in the gravel, and the beer filled the gaps in the sand.

(The moral is that there is always room for beer.)

When it comes to managing our time, it’s pretty easy to get caught up in the daily gravel, ground down by the sand, and swept away by the beer. What can be tricky is finding ways to put first things first – to prioritise the big rocks – those things in our life that matter most.