As practice management consultants, we often ask practice leaders the “magic wand” question: “If you had a magic wand that could change one thing about your job to make your role easier, what would it be?” The answers to this question vary, but one of the most frequent wishes we hear is to have more time to tackle a seemingly endless number of tasks.
Unfortunately, we do not have a magic wand. Time is finite, but the amount of work always seems to increase. The result is that leaders can become overwhelmed. To ease that burden, we’ve found that prioritization skills are essential. You can determine what works best for you and your own situation, but this article highlights several prioritization methods to help define the right system for you.
Make a List
The first step in any prioritization system is to have a written (daily or weekly) task list. At this point, there is no need to rank each task; rather, the goal is simply to list everything on your plate on a given day or week. Similar to any action plan, this list should include the overall task, any related subtasks, when the task must be completed, and who is asking you to complete the task.
Once you have composed your list, it’s time to rank the tasks. In order of importance, here are four key elements to guide prioritization (and related worthiness).
1) Project Is in Line With Practice Vision
As the leader of an organization, it is important to keep the practice’s vision and key initiatives top of mind. Saying “no” is probably the most important tool you have for limiting your list to only those items that are worthy of your time and attention. Opportunities bubble up daily, but only pursue those that are relevant to the vision of your practice.
2) Project Has Greatest Financial Impact
When prioritizing tasks, always consider the potential financial impact. Rarely can a practice implement all projects simultaneously because of time and monetary constraints. When all other project considerations are equal, the deciding factor will be profitability projections.
3) Project Is Easy to Implement
Determine which tasks can be completed with minimal effort. It is always good to demonstrate progress on projects—no matter how small—to keep yourself motivated. Finishing a small project and receiving recognition keeps you committed to the action plan and practice goals.
4) Project Tackles Barriers
Important projects usually involve multiple, progressive steps in order to reach completion. Frequently review your task list to monitor progress and determine why any project may have stalled. For example, the stall may be the result of a staff member needing guidance or direction. Resolving obstacles moves the project forward and reenergizes a team that is likely frustrated by the stall.
Tackling Prioritized Tasks
Once you have ranked your priorities, you still must get tasks done. You probably cannot tackle them as they are ranked—though that would be ideal. In no particular order, below are some common strategies for the most important step in task prioritization: execution.
Complete Biggest Task First
Some may recall the wisdom of Mark Twain, who said, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” If you have been avoiding a big project or task, make it the first task of the day. Avoid procrastination by using the chunk technique of breaking big projects down into segments and blocking time on your calendar to work on each chunk. A good system might designate a consistent day (or half-day) each week to be your “eat a live frog” day.
Find the Low-Hanging Fruit
With this selection process, the goal is to identify tasks that require little time or effort. Better yet, which tasks can be delegated? Practice leaders who are best at completing tasks are usually the ones who have mastered the art of developing people to whom they can delegate projects. As a rule of thumb, if there is a task that someone else can do satisfactorily, let that person take the lead.
Another approach is to select tasks from the list based on deadlines. In the process of determining urgency, look for the following characteristics to identify tasks that require your timely attention:
- Impending due date;
- Serious or negative consequences if the deadline is missed; or
- Many people relying on the task getting completed
Be sure not to put off the most urgent projects in favor of low-hanging fruit items.
As with any new habit, following a system for prioritizing tasks will take time to become part of your normal routine. Block your calendar for 15 minutes at the beginning or end of each day to check in with yourself to ensure you are following your new (customized) prioritization system.
As time goes on, those who remain disciplined will be better prepared to handle interruptions, tackle new tasks, and face setbacks. At the end of the day, everything will wind up back on your plate, but your prioritization system will ensure that it is managed appropriately.