You have a presentation to give at work tomorrow morning, an important meeting to set up with a client at the end of the week, and your son needs help building a diorama for his Monday science class on top of a number of other deadlines you have to juggle. It’s easy to prioritize when you have one or two tasks that are extremely important and time sensitive, but what do you do when you have 12 tasks that different constituencies are demanding that you get done now? More importantly, how can you prevent yourself from being trapped in these stressful situations again and again?

Plan Ahead Now, Stress Less Later

Planning ahead and prioritizing your tasks, both professional and personal, is important. It not only saves you time and energy; it can help reduce your stress, improve the quality of your work, and increase your free time both in and out of the office.

An unplanned day usually results in a reactive response to both unexpected and anticipated tasks rather than planned and proactive actions that have intent and purpose. Without prioritizing, an entire workday can be wasted to playing catch up and clean up when urgent projects come up instead of working efficiently and productively. Planning for the work you know you have and allotting yourself leeway time for unplanned projects can help you utilize your time intelligently and appropriately.

A Method to Avoid Madness

Before you begin prioritizing your workload, take some time to figure out what you really need to work on.

1.  Get organized. Layout everything you have to do by creating a list or a spreadsheet of tasks. This can help you visualize what you need to accomplish and properly plan ahead. Sometimes, when your to-do list is writtenout in front of you, your workload can seem like a lot less than you initially thought. Even if your workload is just as daunting as it seemed before you made your list, the act of listing all of the things you need to will make you feel more in control of the situation.

2.  Determine your timeline. Talk to others.If you’re working on tasks that involve other coworkers, employees, or team members, find out exactly when they need your help. If one persondoesn’t need your help until next week but someone else needs you tomorrow, you know where your time needs to be spent.

3.  Delegate. If a superior asks you to handle a project for her, don’t assume that you personally need to complete the project. Management often simply wants a given result – a presentation created, a report produced – and leaves the process for completing work to you. If somebody else on your team can handle the assignment, or a large portion of it, delegate it to her. Review the work product for quality or intervene at the stage where your set of skills and experience is needed. Delegate what you can so your attention can be turned to essential duties.

Triangulation

The project management triangle is one of the best tools for determining your schedule and planning ahead. It includes three characters, one for each side of the triangle: cost, time, and scope.

Triangulation

By I, John Manuel Kennedy T., CC BY-SA 3.0.

The triangle works well as a prioritizing tool because it helps those who utilize it understand that, when one side (or characteristic) is altered, the other two sides must be changed to compensate. For example, if the time constraints of a project are changed and you are given less time to work on something than initially predicted, you will have to increase the costs of the project to produce output of the same quality. Alternatively, costs can remain steady, but the quality of your output will decrease.

Another way of formulating the project management triangle is to change the labels to “fast,” “good,” and “cheap.” If you imagine that your project can only have two of these characteristics, you’ll see that the third characteristic is sacrificed. If a project can be done quickly and to a high standard, it will likely not be cheap. If it can be done quickly and inexpensively, then the quality will likely take a hit. If a project is done quickly and with a high quality outcome, it will take a longer period of time to complete.

Use the project management triangle to help identify options for tackling a project:

1.  Scope: If you have multiple, imminent deadlines, one solution is to see if you can narrow the scope of one or more of the projects at least in the near term. For example, you may have a marketing project that involves preparing marketing copy and creating a presentation outlining strategy. It may be the case that your graphic artists are waiting on the marketing copy to do their work, but that you can buy yourself some time to create the presentation outlining strategy.

2.  Cost: Don’t think of cost in the narrow sense – cost includes the human capital needed to get a project done. One of the ways to handle multiple, imminent deadlines is to bring in more human capital, i.e., getting help. If you can, team up with colleagues on a project to divide and conquer. If there are apps or software you can use to automate certain duties, use them as well.

3.  Time: We all like to get projects done within the time given to us by the person for whom we’re working, be that a supervisor or a client. However, sometimes the person to whom you’re accountable has simply overloaded your plate. Use the project management triangle to convey the situation. For example, explain to the client that, to give each of the projects that he’s assigned you the time they deserve, you’ll need an extension for one of them. The alternative is getting the client the a less polished product.

We all know good work takes time, resources, and effort to produce something substantial, but sometimes our busy schedules don’t always allow for all three. Figuring out which work needs your immediate attention can be made easier by taking a little time to prioritize, plan ahead as best as possible, and make compromises when necessary.