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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

3 Strategies for Prioritizing Tasks Pt. 2

Behold, The Trinity: Cost, Scope, and Time

When I was a project manager, one of the first things I learned to help me judge which projects were most important or needed the most attention is the "triple constraint," or a triangle with three equilateral sides. Each side represents the cost of the project, the scope of the project, and the time required to complete the project. None of the sides can be adjusted without making changes to the other two sides. The sides you're weakest in help determine the projects that need special attention. This holds true for all things, not just projects and project managers: If someone heaps more work onto you (scope), but insists that you finish in the same amount of time (time), you'll need more resources (cost) to get the job done.

For example, if you want to paint the spare room in time for out-of-town guests to stay over, you can't change the size of the job (scope), but you can control whether you buckle down and do it yourself overnight (time), or get someone else to do it for you while you do something else (cost). Here's how you can use these three principles to organize your everyday to-dos.

  • Time: Work Backwards From Your Deadlines. Time is usually the one variable most of us can't change. Deadlines are deadlines, and often we're not the ones who set them. This is where working backwards from due dates is crucial. Start a spreadsheet, and mark down when each project or task on your plate needs to be finished. Then work backwards to the present day, taking into account everything each specific to-do that needs to be done to get from here to there, and how long it takes to complete. When you're finished, you'll likely see a bunch of tasks that should have started already and others that hopefully won't start for a while if you're going to make the deadline. That list, by itself, is a good indicator of what your priorities are, what you should be working on right now, what you should work on next, and perhaps most importantly, what you should get help with—especially if they're tasks that should have started a week ago.
  • Cost: Get Help from Family, Friends, and Coworkers. Cost means more than just dollars. It also means people who can help you, or services you can call to give you a hand or take the load off. Could you finish faster if someone else worked on it for you? What if a teammate could take part of the job off your hands and you could pick it up later? Perhaps there's a program or application that can automate the process for you, and it's pretty cheap. It may be worth spending money or dragging in friends to help you finish renovating the kitchen before you run out of vacation days, or calling someone to install your new washing machine so you don't have to take time off to do it.
  • Scope: Don't Be Afraid to Make Compromises. If your to-dos have to be done by a certain time and you can't get help, it's time to sit down with the people waiting on you and start making some deals. Let them know what you can deliver by when, and then go on to explain what you can give them later. This is important, because it sends the message that you're not trying to avoid the work you have to do, but you're trying to give them something now that they can use while you keep working in the background to get them everything else on their wish list. The sooner you stop thinking of your to-dos in terms of all-or-nothing, the sooner you'll have the flexibility to say "I'll give you this tomorrow if you give me a week to give you the rest."

 Delegate, Delegate, Delegate

It's easy for us to toil away in obscurity, quietly hating our lives and our jobs and growing more frustrated with every passing minute. All the while, there may be a friend who's willing to help if we had only asked, or a boss who would be willing to help you out if you asked the right questions or gave them the right information.

We've talked about how difficult it can be to delegate, and how to delegate effectively in the past, but however you go about it, it's important to remember that you need to be assertive, not aggressive when asking for help, and you need to make your case with all of the data you have available. By now, you should have your priorities laid out and you have a good idea what you need. Use that information to ask for help and prove you need it, and remember, don't be upset if your friends, boss, or coworkers say no.

Buckle Up, It's Going to be a Bumpy Ride

Using this method to set your own priorities and keep track of your own responsibilities isn't just something you should do when you're starting to feel overwhelmed. If the walls are closing in on you, yes, it's definitely time to take a good, hard look at what's on your plate, what can come off, and what has to give, but waiting until you're already busy and stressed out will make it especially difficult to make the changes you need to get your head above water. Even so, it's essential, and once you do it you'll never look back. Hopefully, you can apply these tricks to your work, at home, and in your day-to-day life. Once you really understand what you have to work on and how long it takes, you'll be able to make smart decisions about whether you can take on that big new project at work, or help your best friend plan their bachelor party.

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