One of the most difficult things to learn how to do as you grow your career is manage your time. That is because your responsibilities change with the roles that you serve in, the value you bring to the team, and the expectations put on you by various managers.
When you are just starting out, the expectations are often clearest. Someone else is setting your priorities, or at least defining clear goals. So the most difficult part about managing your time is learning how to do things correctly in the shortest amount of time.
But as you move up from that first position, more will be asked of you. You may serve on different teams, and wear different hats. You may have competing priorities, in service of different, but equally important company goals. Here, it is important that you learn how to prioritize your time on the most important matters. And often that means learning how to automate, delegate, or eliminate lower-level tasks.
If you are lucky enough to move into a management role, where you are presiding over a team of people and have more of a say in your company’s strategy, this skill is critical. You will fail unless you know how to set priorities. And you will be expected to help others set priorities as well.
Unfortunately, this is a skillset that is not taught in any class. It’s one that you are expected to learn on your own. If you’re lucky, you have a manager or mentor who can help.
If not, let me offer a simple 2x2 matrix you can use to determine where your team should focus it’s time and energy.
What you need to do to start out is create a full list of all the projects you are considering. Usually, this list is far too long for the size of your team and the resources allotted. That’s a good thing – a sign of an ambitious agenda. And it’s the precise reason that we need the matrix, to help us prioritize.
For each item on the list, then you are going to rate it’s potential impact and its level of effort required. For both, you are either going to list them as High or Low. For example, if you think a project is likely to lead to big gains in revenue but take your whole team six months to complete, you might rate it High for both impact and effort.
To construct the matrix, we need a sheet of paper with four quadrants. On the vertical axis, we are going to put “IMPACT”. On the horizontal axis, we are going to write “EFFORT”. Then divide them up into High and Low, so that you are left with something like this:
Once you have everything on your list categorized into one of the four quadrants, you are ready to prioritize.
High Impact/Low Effort
Always start working on projects in this quadrant. These are your easy wins. That you expect high returns for low cost, or low effort, is a sure sign that these are the projects where you will get the greatest “bang for the buck”.
Focus on these first and ignore the others until everything here is done.
High Impact/High Effort
We always want to maximize our impact. With that in mind, though some might argue to focus next on the other projects that don’t require much time or resources, I would recommend jumping to the high impact, high effort projects. These are those priorities that will require a significant amount of investment, but when all is said and done, your company will reap the rewards for your expenditure.
Low Impact/Low Effort
Low impact projects may not mean that much to your company in terms of improvement on the grand scale, but if it doesn’t take much to achieve incremental gains, they are still worth doing. These projects may make even more sense if your team is under pressure to produce short term wins, or lacks the resources to complete your higher impact projects.
Getting these items done checks a box and moves you in the right direction, even if it is in smaller steps.
Low Impact/High Effort
Anything that winds up in this quadrant should stay off your to-do list. It’s going to cost a lot to get done, without providing significant benefits to your team or your company. This is grunt work, and if you find yourself working on grunt work, you are ignoring potential successes elsewhere.