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How to prioritize your time. A framework for managers.
I meet a lot of people who grumble about being in back-to-back meetings all day and not being able to get any “real work” done during regular working hours.
I used to have the exact same problem until I learned how to prioritize my time. Here’s the framework I’ve used for the last 15+ years.
Focus on outcomes instead of outputs
When I got my first management job I believed that being busy meant I was being productive. I worked long hours, went to lots of meetings, wrote lots of emails, created lots of decks. I measured my contribution by my outputs.
As time went by I realized that results (both good and bad) were the only true measure of making an impact on the growth of the company. I started to filter out the issues in front me that didn’t drive results and concentrate only on those that moved the needle, which naturally led to focusing on outcomes instead of outputs.
Filter issues into one of 4 types
The framework I use for filtering issues is based on the principle of the Eisenhower Matrix—that there are 4 types of issues competing for your time:
While there are multiple ways to define importance and urgency, I use the following:
An issue is Important if it can be directly tied to a company KPI, because moving a company KPI is an outcome rather than an output.
An issue is Urgent if there is a negative consequence of it not being resolved in the immediate term (e.g. <30 days at a large company, <15 days at a small company, <7 days at a small startup).
Have a strategy for dealing with each type of issue
The key to filtering issues effectively is to have a strategy for dealing with each type:
Important + Urgent = Delegate
The reason to delegate these issues (rather than doing them yourself as the o.g. Eisenhower Matrix suggests) is that they are the best opportunities to develop and motivate your team members.
There’s no better way for someone to learn and grow than to work on a pressing issue that directly impacts the success of the company, because you are taken out of your comfort zone. And given how visible these issues are, working on them creates the opportunity to be recognized, which is a great motivator.
As the manger, your role is to pick the right person and set them up for success by defining the problem and timeframe, making the right resources available, requesting a plan, providing feedback to improve the plan and working behind the scenes to remove friction during execution.
I’m huge a fan of delegating these types of issues because doing so builds a high-performing team which in turn creates leverage to take on more responsibility and make a bigger impact on the growth of the company.
Important + Not Urgent = Analyze
The reason to analyze these issues is to prepare for the day that they become Urgent.
Spending time analyzing an issue from different angles enables you to put the right parameters around it so that you can delegate it effectively in the future. The things to figure out include defining the scope of the problem, the impact of solving it, the priority relative to other initiatives, the skills needed to solve it, the framework to apply to solving it and the likely friction you will run into during execution.
Doing this analysis well takes time, which is why you need to allocate as much of your time as possible to working on these issues—by not working directly on issues of the other 4 types. The pay-off is that when it does become Urgent you will be able to delegate it and set the person up for success in solving it—and you will continue to develop your own problem-solving skills.
Not Important + Urgent = Wait Out
The reason to wait out these issues is that you want to assess whether they are likely to become Important (in which case you can delegate them) or Not Urgent (in which case you can ignore them).
You always get a ton of these issues flying around when you are in a middle management role at a larger company, or in an executive team role in a company that is not doing well. The key is to pay attention but not commit resources. This is easier said than done but I’ve found the best way is to ask the requestor for more information and seeing what they come back with.
In my experience, most issues of this type end up going away because they are actually not urgent—the requestor just had to reach that conclusion in their own time. This is also why I don’t like to delegate them. Having had these types of issues delegated to me earlier in my career, I know firsthand how they are neither motivating nor opportunities to develop.
Not Important + Not Urgent = Ignore
The reason to ignore these issues should be clear but its surprisingly easy to get sucked into them, especially if they are things you like doing. For example, I like analyzing data sets (don’t judge me) but without a clear goal in mind I can easily burn a couple of hours going down a worthless rabbit hole.
Get Started Today
Making a behavioral shift like this can seem overwhelming but the results are worth the effort. From my own experience, I was able to go from working 60 hours a week to getting my job done in 25-30 hours a week while still hitting all my goals. The best way to start is simple: take your existing to-do list, categorize it into the 4 types of issues using the criteria mentioned above and follow the relevant strategy for each type of issue.
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