Call It Priority Management

When I work with organizations, I always pay attention to how problems are talked about. Whenever I hear team members speak about needing to “work smarter” or that they “don’t have enough time,” it raises a question for me. I start looking at whether the team has clear direction and priorities.  

When I work with organizations, I always pay attention to how problems are talked about. Whenever I hear team members speak about needing to “work smarter” or that they “don’t have enough time,” it raises a question for me. I start looking at whether the team has clear direction and priorities.  

24 Little Hours

I’ve never talked to anyone in any size organization who said they had plenty of time to get everything done. It doesn’t matter what the mission is or what kind of work is being pursued, people often say, “I need more time.” Yet the rock-solid fact is that we have already been given all the time we’ll ever have: 24 hours a day.  

So what matters most is how we use the fixed amount of time we have. That’s where time management apparently comes in. 

Unfortunately, time management is often reduced to creating checklists or coming up with clever ways to reduce the number of interruptions we face each day. These are important skills to learn, but it’s vital to make sure that we’re spending time on the most important things. Otherwise, we can manage our time skillfully, only to find we’ve wasted our effort doing the wrong things!  

Priority Management

I suggest renaming “time management” and calling it “priority management.” First of all, we can’t actually manage time. Time just is. What we can manage is ourselves.

Another reason we should talk about “priority management” is that the first step in using our limited time well is to decide on what is most important to do, or – in other words – set priorities. This is why, for me, “time management” raises the question and identifying priorities often provides the answer. 

A Team Effort: Negotiating Priorities 

Another limitation of the way we often think about “time management” is that we focus on (or blame) the individual when things don’t get done. Of course, individuals need to take responsibility and can often find ways to work more efficiently. But we also need to ensure that individuals are getting the support they need to do the job.  

In the modern workplace, people are often pulled in multiple directions at the same time. Prioritizing the work is necessary to ensure that we are concentrating on the most important tasks at any one time. The basics of time management, such as working through a to-do list and negotiating with team members around interruptions, are much easier if everyone agrees to the same priorities. 

Ultimately, the ability of individuals to do a great job managing their work (rather than their time) depends on their teams and the nonprofit having clear direction and priorities. A colleague and I once put it this way:  

For time management to be effective … it must be based on a solid foundation of planning ... [T]ime management depends on setting priorities derived from strategic and operational plans that are grounded by organizational vision and values. Finding better ways to check-off to-do items still begs the questions, are these to-do items truly important, and, where are these activities leading us? (Berthoud and Greene, “Planning for Those Too Busy to Plan”).

For many busy nonprofit leaders and staff, planning can feel like a luxury. But being too busy to plan is like running alongside your bicycle because you’re too busy to get on. (Berthoud and Greene). If your day is generally spent putting out fires, perhaps planning is an essential missing ingredient in how your organization works.  

Questions to Ask Now

Here are a few ideas and questions to consider yourself and, ideally, with your entire team:

  1. Share this article with your team, and discuss how you use your time as individuals and as a group.
  2. Do an inventory of what work is getting done on time and what is falling behind.
  3. What could get done if you better managed your to-do list or had fewer interruptions?
  4. Are you confident that you, and the team, are working on the highest priority tasks for the team and the organization?
  5. Is it clear which tasks and projects are most essential to making progress on the nonprofit’s strategic plan, and, most importantly, how the plan, projects and tasks align with the organization’s mission and intended impact?
  6. Who needs to be involved in discussing how to clear away distractions and reduce interruptions to get the work done?
  7. Who needs to be involved in deciding what tasks and projects are the most important to concentrate on?
  8. When will you meet with your team to discuss priority management? 

What has been your experience with priority-setting and planning in your organization? What do you think about reframing “time management” as “priority management”? What tips can you share for “working smarter”? 

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