Workload management – how to prioritise workload

It’s not about how hard you work, it’s about how productive you are – and that means being selective about what you focus on. Workload management effectively means you can prioritise the tasks that are essential to complete while sidestepping distracting busy work that drains your time and energy.

Starting a new business is hard work. Juggling different tasks can mean long hours, lost weekends and a non-stop daily rush to get things done. While being busy may seem the inevitable cost for entrepreneurs, becoming snowed under with excessive work commitments can put your health – and your business – at risk.

Rather than working harder, it’s better to work smarter. Prioritising workload can help reduce stress, allow you time to recharge and take a physical and mental break from the demands of running a small business.

Adopting a handful of productivity techniques can help you focus on the most essential tasks and help you successfully manage your workload.

1. Make a to-do list

While there are countless to-do apps, task managers and online tools to help you manage your time, sometimes it’s best to start with pen and paper. A basic to-do list is easy to create and is best written either first thing in the morning or at the end of the day for the day ahead.

Write a list of all the tasks you need to complete and by when. It can be a mixture of short-term items such as calling a client and long-term priorities such as planning an event or implementing a new IT system. Rank tasks according to their importance or urgency to help focus your mind.

2. Use free online to-do tools

Once you’ve got into the habit of regularly creating a daily or weekly to-do list, explore some of the free to-do tools available. Smartphone owners can use Google Tasks on Android phones or Reminders on Apple iPhones.

Task management tools such as Wunderlist, Todoist, Trello and ToodleDo have free basic versions of their task management tools. They can be accessed via apps on Android or iPhones, or via a web browser.

Free to-do tools include handy features such as setting sub tasks, assigning priorities and deadlines, and sorting tasks according to importance.

3. Focus on key tasks for workload management

Even with a to-do list, small business owners can trip up by treating all tasks as important. The next step is to prioritise tasks so you can focus on what’s crucial – and stop wasting time on less important jobs. The trick is to assess tasks and ask yourself how urgent it is, and how important it is. Here are some techniques to help you decide:

  • The Urgent-Important Matrix – Known as the Eisenhower Matrix, this helps you filter tasks according to how important or urgent they are. To create an Urgent-Important Matrix, draw a cross in the centre of a sheet of paper, dividing it into quarters and effectively creating two columns and two rows. Label the left column ‘urgent’ and the right column ‘not urgent’. Label the top row ‘important’ and the bottom row ‘unimportant’.You can now allocate tasks into each box, deciding if a task is urgent or not-urgent, and important or not important. Tasks that fall into the urgent-important box are the ones to prioritise on. Tasks in the not-important-not-urgent box can be safely postponed.
  • The Pareto Principle – Also known as the 80:20 rule and named after the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, it’s a straightforward principle that 80 percent of our work contributes to less than 20 percent of its value. Basically, don’t waste time on jobs that have little value to your business. Instead, identify the tasks that will have the biggest impact on your business’s performance.To help, ask yourself what will be the outcome if the task isn’t done; what resources and inputs are required to complete this task? And should it be on the list in the first place? This doesn’t mean not completing the other 80 percent of tasks. However, if you’re spending a disproportionate amount of time on trivial activities such as photocopying, filing and admin work, you need to assess whether this could be outsourced. Offloading this work to another can be more cost-effective if it means you’re then free to find new customers and win more business.
  • Avoid the small stuff – It can be easy to dash through a series of small tasks rather than tackle a big, difficult task head on. Yet, completing easy tasks might not be the most valuable thing you can do for your business. Instead, don’t delay putting off significant tasks if they have the most impact on your business.
  • Simple categorisation – If you’re looking for a simple approach to focusing on key tasks, then simply allocate each task a number from 1-3. Number 1 tasks are high-priority, do-now tasks. Number 2 tasks are tasks to be completed soon, while number 3 tasks are tasks that can be completed at leisure.

4. Break big tasks into sub tasks

The thought of taking on a big project or task can be so overwhelming that it’s often tempting to put it off for another day. In this situation, it’s best to divide large projects into smaller parts that you can work through one at a time. This way tasks are more manageable, you’ll make visible progress, and be more motivated to complete the entire job.

For example, if you need to create a company website start by breaking down the project into chunks such as finding a website designer, brainstorming ideas of how your website should look, registering a website address, and writing copy for the pages of your website.

Add mini deadlines to each part of a larger task to help keep you on track. If a project requires several months to complete, create weekly and monthly milestones detailing what needs to be achieved by each milestone. Regularly check progress is being made against each milestone.

5. Be realistic with your time

Estimating how much time a task requires to complete will help you manage your workload and organise your priorities. Being realistic about how much you can possibly tackle in one day is essential to managing your workload successfully. New business owners can suffer burnout if they take on more tasks than they can realistically complete.

When estimating how long a task will take, consider your normal working pace, and allow extra time for breaks or interruptions that are an inevitable part of your daily work life. That way you’ll avoid feeling like you’ve failed if things take longer than the unrealistic deadlines you’ve set yourself.

6. Avoid multitasking

It sounds counterintuitive but multitasking doesn’t always get the best results. Trying to do too much at once can reduce productivity and increase the likelihood of mistakes. You’ll get better results by focusing on one task at a time. By giving it your full attention, you’re more likely to make better decisions.

7. Learn to delegate

Delegation is one of the hardest parts of growing your business. Not only do you have the added task of finding someone to delegate to and getting them up to speed, but you’re having to relinquish control over certain aspect of your business. Yet some tasks are obvious candidates for outsourcing, and new business owners should look to outsource bookkeeping, filing and activities such as social media updates as soon as budget allows.

8. Avoid distractions

Distractions come in many forms – email, telephone calls, text messages, app notifications, meetings and chatting with colleagues. They are the enemy of productivity. Each distraction takes your focus away from the task in hand, and as it takes time to re-engage with an previously abandoned task, you’ll be less productive when you pick it back up.

If you have an important task to complete, find a quiet location in the office or work from home. Turn off notifications for emails, voicemail, apps, instant messages, text messages and attend meetings only if they are absolutely necessary. Prepare for meetings with a written agenda and clear outcomes so meetings are productive.

9. Save time with repetitive tasks

Look for ways to streamline tasks you regularly face, so you’ve more time for other jobs. For example, you can save time by using templates for budget, reports, accounts and letters. Creating boilerplate standard responses for emails and using rules to sort your emails into specific folders can save hours lost spent sorting and replying to emails.

10. Record task time

Maintaining a diary or planner will help you understand how long a task takes and how you spend your time. Many free task management tools include the ability to record how much time you spend on a task. This allows you to more accurately plan your time in the future, which will help you better manage your workload.

11. Be flexible

Even with a prioritised list of tasks in hand, be aware that things can change at a moment’s notice, throwing your well-laid plans into disarray. Shifting priorities may increase your workload, putting you under pressure to meet new deadlines. Clients may require work completed in less time or you may receive a large order or a job may be cancelled.

Stay flexible so you can navigate changing demands. Keep calm and seek to understand new or changing requirements so you can prioritise your workload.

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