How to decide the priority of a task and where to spend your time?
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How to decide the priority of a task and where to spend your time?

Written by :
Aashish Dhawan

Learning effective time management is only half the battle, and it will not do any good if you keep filling your calendar with tasks that generate low returns for you. You could be busy all day but accomplish too little. You could be following all of the best time management practices, like calendar blocking and batching tasks together, but if you are not focusing on the right work items, you might not be able to deliver much. Therefore, deciding which task to focus your energy on is also crucial.

To be highly productive, we need to choose which tasks are more important than others, which tasks should not be done, and which one should be delegated, automated, or which you need to stop working on. Without an effective framework for task categorization and prioritisation, everything seems urgent, important, or both. We are unable to find time in a day to complete all those things we planned while being super busy, and yet, we feel nothing was accomplished in the day, which moved the needle while all the energy was drained from us.

Here is a simple framework to decide which category a task belongs to and what priority should be given to it. This Framework is called the MARIGOLD Framework of Task Categorization and Prioritisation. To begin with, let’s study the nature of the tasks we do in a typical day and try to decide which category they belong to.

M: Maintenance

Maintenance tasks are those that need to be done to keep the system running. These tasks cannot be eliminated because if you do that, the system starts to fall apart. For example,

  1. Maintaining your house or your car is a task that cannot be eliminated and has to be done periodically. If you stop doing that, the condition of your asset starts to deteriorate quickly.
  2. In our workplace also, we might be doing many tasks that fall under this category, like running payroll for employees, managing invoices received, creating reports, doing meetings to check the status of work, taking care of machinery, doing review meetings, etc.
  3. On a personal level, travelling to the office for work, shopping for groceries, or doing household chores can be considered maintenance tasks.

Since you cannot avoid these tasks and they have to be done regularly, the goal should be to spend less and less time on maintenance tasks because these tasks have a low ROI overall. These tasks should be automated, delegated, or outsourced if possible and should be given low priority over others.

I have seen a lot of people spend disproportionate amounts of time on maintenance tasks. This not only gives them a false sense of productivity since they feel like they are busy all the time, while in reality they are only working on low ROI tasks and moving at a very slow pace towards their future.

A. Amusement

These are the tasks that we do for fun. For example, watching movies, team-building activities, and dinner outings with friends or family. These are necessary for long-term mental health and overall well-being and should never be ignored.

When it comes to how much time we should spend on amusement activities, a balance has to be created. If you spend too much time on these activities or deprive yourself of them, both will have a negative effect in the long term. Our goal should be to spend limited time on high-quality activities. People generally miss the second part, i.e., choosing high-quality amusement activities. All amusement activities are not equal. For example, spending 2 hours watching Netflix is not equal to spending 2 hours with your kids and family. Additionally, if you need a break from your work after sitting all day on your laptop, you do not want to do an amusement activity that makes you sit for another hour in front of the screen.

How much time you spend on amusement activities and what kind of activities you do will have a great effect on your productivity. Do not forget to block some time for yourself, no matter how busy you are. Do things you love. Enjoy the little victories and sweet moments of life as they come by. Just create a balance.

R: Risk Analysis and Mitigation

Ever wondered that you had a plan for the day ready and the day was progressing as scheduled, but then, suddenly, a crisis came along and your plans were derailed? This situation is very common and is one of the main reasons we fail to accomplish our day-to-day goals.

This happens because we failed in the past to do a risk analysis and take the necessary steps to mitigate it. That risk of the past has now come to us in the form of a crisis. When we are aware of a risk, we can take the necessary steps to mitigate it on our own time, whenever we feel comfortable; but when a risk becomes a crisis, you will be forced to leave everything else and pay attention to that crisis. That’s how your plans are derailed. The common symptoms of poor risk management are the following:

  1. You feel like your day goes into firefighting, and you are trying to control one crisis after another.
  2. You feel like instead of you being in control of your day, your day is running you.
  3. You feel like your team members consistently need you, either because you are afraid they will create issues for you or because they are not able to work independently.

Everyone is aware of these tasks, consciously or subconsciously, that should be done that are not urgent but very important to break the cycle of crisis and crisis management. These tasks can be categorised into risk analysis and mitigation categories. The problem is that people do not sit down and proactively work on them. Reserve some of your time to identify risks and plan action items to mitigate them. We do not have to treat this as an urgent activity, but we can do it periodically. These tasks should be given medium priority.

Some of the risk management question you can ask yourself are as follows

  1. What if my largest paying customer leaves? What is my action plan?
  2. What if my top performing sales person leaves? How am I going to manage things?
  3. What if there is cyber attack on the organisation which severely affects day to day operations?

I: Investment

Irrespective of what traditional definition you have of investment, for sake of argument, let’s consider investment as something that you do to create something that you do not have right now. For example,

  1. You put some money aside to buy a house, a car, or maybe plan a vacation.
  2. It can be investing in education to earn a degree, adding new skills to your team, or building a new manufacturing unit.
  3. You could be investing in your health either through nutrition, meditation, or exercise.
  4. You could be trying to set up a new business unit, or you might be searching for an opportunity or actively pursuing it.

Our goal should be to spend sufficient time on this to build a better future. People generally spend too much time in a day either doing maintenance tasks or spending too much on amusement. And to make things worse, they spent a considerable amount of time on activities, which can be considered a pure waste of time. This leaves very little time for them to be used in investment activities.

Failing to make investments will make jobs, positions, teams, or even companies irrelevant in the future. Therefore, we should prioritise doing those activities that can be categorised as investments. Whenever you do a review of your day or week, check how much time you are spending on investment activities. You might discover the reason why you are not growing much.

G: Growth

You grow something that you already have, be it expanding your team size, increasing the output of existing business units, your bank balance, or your personal relationship with your spouse.

At first glance, both investment and growth might look similar to you, but remember our definition: investments are something you do to create something you do not have right now, while growth activities are those you do to expand what you already have.

Our goal should be to spend sufficient time on those activities that enable growth; for example,

  1. Training existing team members, building handbooks, creating a knowledge base in the company, etc.
  2. Running an up-skilling programme for yourself and your team members to increase their productivity
  3. Increasing the capacity of your people or departments so they can deliver more or handle more volume.
  4. Setting up systems and processes in your team will enable them to handle more workload and set them up for growth.

Failing to spend time on growth activities means you probably cannot scale operations beyond a certain point. Overall, just make sure to devote your time to either growth or investment activities. These tasks generally have higher priorities.

O: Obsolete

A lot of us keep doing those tasks every single day, which we wouldn’t be doing if we were to move forward in our careers and lives. They would become obsolete if we were to grow into a bigger role. Imagine there is a receptionist sitting at the hotel entrance handling customers, but she wants to be the hotel manager one day. She has to do something different to achieve her goal. She can be highly efficient or productive in her current job, but to move further in her career, she needs to learn new skills required to become a manager. And if she were to become a manager, she would have to let go of her receptionist identity because she has to look after many other things as well.

We can apply the inversion principle here, and we assume that as long as she is busy doing receptionist activities without preparing for a manager role, she will never be a manager. The day-to-day tasks of being a receptionist have to be obsolete for her.

Like that receptionist, we also keep doing those tasks, which will be obsolete for us in the next 1-2 years if we were to grow. Imagine yourself in the future, 2 years from now. If you were to achieve things you wanted to, after 2 years, your day will look nothing like it does today. Your tasks will be different, and the things on which you will be working will be different. The people around you will be different. This means you will also be a completely different person in the future. This also means what you do today is going to be obsolete for you in the future.. You need to stop doing what you are doing today and start changing yourself in line with your future goals. If you do not remove obsolete tasks and if we get stuck on those tasks and keep doing them repeatedly, this will stop our growth. Again, the inverse logic implies that we will not be able to grow in the next role if we keep spending time on the obsolete activities. We need to identify these tasks, which are going to be obsolete anyway, and start making a plan to delegate them or give them to someone else through building leverage. This has high priority.

L: leverage

Leverage are those tasks that, if done, will remove many other tasks from your list. For example, if you were to hire a household helper, he or she would take care of many chores for you, like washing dishes, shopping for groceries, cleaning, and maintenance. This is called leverage.

Let’s take another example from the workplace. Let’s say you spend too much time hiring and onboarding new team members. If you were to hire a recruiter and a senior consultant or HR manager who can take care of interviews and onboarding, this would remove tasks like building interview questions for tests, scheduling, managing, and conducting interviews, building training material, and doing onboarding and training sessions. This will give you huge leverage while freeing up your time.

One of the top questions that you should ask yourself is: Who can I hire who will remove the dozens of tasks I am doing right now? This is a “who” question, and being properly hired gives you huge leverage with a lot of free time.

Building leverage should be one of our top priorities, as it unleashes our true potential by freeing up our time, which can be used for other activities like investments, growth, and risk management. Therefore, focus on that one item, which, if finished, will remove a group of items from your to-do list.

D: Delegation

Once we have identified obsolete tasks from our to-do list, we now know which ones we should not focus on. These are the tasks you need to give to someone else. This is also a first step in building leverage or delegating to team members.

Delegation is the art of getting work done by your team members. When we delegate tasks to someone, we need to be aware of the expectation that the delegated task is still our responsibility and we are accountable for its delivery. Most people forget that while delegating.

The better delegation skills you have, the more work you can get done and, hence, your productivity as an individual. This is also true for a manager or team leader. The output of a manager is the sum of the outputs of its individual team members.

Our goal should be to spend the majority of our time perfecting the art of delegation, and this should be one of our top priorities.

Till now we have established that the tasks we do in a day can be categorised with the help of the MARIGOLD framework, i.e., maintenance, amusement, risk analysis and mitigation, investment, growth, obsolescence, and delegation tasks.

Out of these, identifying obsolete tasks, building leverage, and delegating should be our top priorities. These are activities that, if executed properly, give disproportionate results and generate a multifold improvement in productivity.

Investment and growth get second priority; these can be given to your team members who are competent enough. Although sometimes you do not have people to hand over these tasks, in that case you have to do them yourself. But, as mentioned above, make leverage and delegation your top priorities.

Risk analysis should be done periodically to remove the need for crisis management in the future. Remember the golden rule: we can mitigate risk on our own time and schedule, but if a risk becomes a crisis, it will make us dance to its own tune.

Amusement activities are also important, and there should always be a balance between work and life. Never ignore them for your well-being.

Maintenance tasks should be removed from our to-do list as much as possible. It can be done through automation or by delegating to our team members. Here is a quick priority list of our activities.

Task CategoryTask Priority
Obsolete, Leverage, and DelegationVery High Priority
Investment and GrowthHigh Priority
Risk Analysis and MitigationMedium Priority
MaintenanceLow Priority
AmusementA balanced approach

Whenever you do your daily or weekly introspection, you should do a review of your time and see in which of the above categories you are spending your time. If you are spending a disproportionate amount of time on maintenance, amusement, or obsolete tasks, you should make proactive efforts to make leverage and delegation your top priorities, and this is where you should spend most of your time. Then pick the investment and growth task and give limited time to maintenance and amusement.

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