Personal Effectiveness

Dealing with multiple priorities – making time for sales

(By David Tovey)

The most common feature of the people I work with is that they are very busy people. If they could be granted one wish most would be asking for more time. The demands of clients, business development, management, administration and keeping up to date with technical knowledge means the juggling of priorities on a daily basis.

Unfortunately I can’t give you any more hours in the day, or stop the next call from a client in crisis. I have never run a time management workshop because I don’t believe you can manage time; but you can manage priorities.

Self-management includes being able to prioritise workload in a way that contributes most effectively to the success of the organisation. Put it another way. If you were the managing director, who would you want to promote to positions of influence? Those people that seem to run round like the proverbial ‘headless chickens’ or those that calmly and effectively prioritise their activity to best contribute to the firms’ success?

 The priority matrix


The priority matrix is a simple but really effective tool that helps us to prioritise our activities.

The matrix can be used as both a business tool and a personal tool that helps us achieve a more balanced life.

Quadrant 1 – Urgent and important.

 Quadrant one activities are those tasks which are the ‘do it now tasks’. The problem is that some professionals behave as if everything is a do it now task. If this is a real belief then life becomes one crisis after another. People continuously in quadrant one are fire fighting for most of their day.

Most readers will know a colleague like this. Most will also recognise that some people enjoy crisis, they thrive on crisis! Dealing with crises is for some people very rewarding, it also gives them a buzz. That ‘buzz’ is a real feeling that comes from when the brain releases endorphins that dull pain and give us a short time ‘high’. Of course the way to repeat this high is to keep on having crises! The down side is that it can also be a very exhausting and stressful existence; for the individual and everyone they work with.

The priority matrix only works if you know exactly what your objectives are. The objectives we mean are the objectives you have that are linked to the objectives of your team or firm. Deciding priorities is easier when we know our ultimate goal which in turn is linked to the goal of the team or firm. The tasks we undertake that contribute most to the achievement of goals and objectives are the important tasks.

When you know your goals and objectives, quadrant one decisions are easier. They are the tasks that, if we don’t do them now, will have a significant negative effect on the achievement of our gaols and objectives. As you begin to understand the other quadrants you will realise that sometimes we confuse what is important with what seems urgent.

Do situations arise that make some things become instant quadrant one task, absolutely? A panic client call because of some catastrophic event. A client threatening to take their business away if not dealt with “NOW”, will become quadrant one tasks. We also accept that sometimes a task is a quadrant one activity because the boss makes it one!

 Quadrant 2- Urgent not important

 Three items of technology have become really effective at making things that are not important seem urgent. The telephone e-mail and social media.

The telephone is intrusive and many calls received are not ‘do it now’ quadrant one priorities. However they are dealt with as though they are even when we were working on a real quadrant one task when the phone rang. E-mail and social media has the ability to keep anyone occupied for hours opening and reading ‘broadcast’ messages.

Ever have those people appear at your desk asking, “have you got a minute”. Don’t you just know they mean ten minutes or even more while they share their quadrant one priority – which you quickly realise is a quadrant two for you? If you happen to work in an open plan office and your desk is anywhere near the coffee machine will know all about the social calls to your desk. The time these visitors stay at you desk is proportional to the temperature of the coffee. The hotter the drink the longer they stay!

Quadrant 2 activities are often interruptions. The y are interruptions that, if not managed, eat up huge amounts of time and distract us from the quadrant one tasks which are the activities we decided were the ones most likely to help us achieve our objectives.

Learning to deal with interruptions whilst maintaining good relationships is a key self-management skill. Simple things like letting colleagues know whether you are interruptible, using voice mail appropriately, finding a quiet office with a door are all conscious actions we can take to protect our time. Take care though not to build a reputation for never being interruptible. Colleagues will not respect your privacy if you do not let them know when you will be available.

As for the “have you got a minute”? The conversation could go something like:

Colleague: “Have you got a minute”?

You, looking at watch “Yes, I can give you a minute”

At this point the colleague ignores your comment and proceeds to introduce a topic that will clearly take 15mins of your time. When they stop for the breath pause (everyone has to) you say.

 This sounds important and worthy of more than the minute or two I can spare to give it my full attention. If you come back at 5.15pm I can give you 15 minutes then

 What we are trying to do is manage and protect our time whilst maintaining good working relationships. After all you might need your colleagues help tomorrow.

In organisations where there is a wide understanding of the priority matrix you will find people agreeing not to interrupt colleagues unless they really believe the interruption is a quadrant one, “this needs doing now task”

 Quadrant 3 – Important not urgent

 A n exercise I often run in workshops is to get the participants to list all those activities that they are not doing now, but if they did do them, would help the m and their organisation achieve their objectives more rapidly.

The list is usually full of actions that are important but not urgent. They are important because they are actions that contribute to achieving objectives but not urgent because there seems no immediate pressure.

For example take planning. Most people agree that planning is important. Yet we are often surprised how little planning goes into business development. Often we see significant growth targets set but rarely can a firm point to the detailed plan for achieving that significant growth. At an intellectual level professionals will agree that planning will help to focus minds and action, whilst the reality is that because it isn’t seen as a “do it now” plans often don’t get done.

One accountant pointed out recently that if he and his colleagues were a little better at planning client work, they wouldn’t have so much quadrant one fire fighting to do.

Another example of a quadrant 3 activity is holidays. Now we recognise that for some holidays are urgent and important! Unfortunately there is a trend for some professional not to take their holiday entitlement.

This undoubtedly leads us to the law of diminishing returns. Professional that do not take time to fully recharge their batteries will not be as effective as professionals that feel energised because they take breaks from work. Indeed a recent survey into how FTSE100 companies perceive legal advisers, a number said they were fed up of working with overworked, stressed and tired lawyers.

Take some time to make your own list of quadrant 3 actions. You can do this for your business and personal goals. List all these things that you are not doing that if you did them would help you achieve your organisations goals, then do a separate list for your personal goals. The results can make interesting reading.

This is not rocket science and the professionals we work with quickly realise that more time spent in quadrant 3 is an effective way to work. But – they ask, “How do you find time to do quadrant 2 activities”? You get really good at controlling interruptions and controlling quadrant 4.

Quadrant 4 – Not important not urgent

You already know that holidays are not in this quadrant, so what is? Anything that you get involved with that wastes time – and that means anything that is not targeted at achieving your goals and objectives.

Undisciplined socialising and gossiping at work could come into this category. There is absolutely a place for some socialising during the working day, it aids communication and building of relationships. Sometimes it does get out of hand if not managed. Surfing the Internet might be another.

More serious time eaters are meetings. Thousands of hours are used up in meetings where attendees leave wondering what the meeting was about and why they had to be there. It is one of the most common complaints we hear, “there are too many meetings”. Ironically another thing people complain about is not being invited to meetings! If you ever wonder what is going on in meetings when you are not there, believe us, it’s exactly the same as happens when you are there.

When invited to attend a meeting, simply asking why you are needed can save your hours of wasted time and frustration. You may not be able to avoid every meeting but even two one hour meetings a week is a gift of over nearly 100 hours a year. In one firm, just getting meetings under control freed up 15 hours a month for each professional. That 15 hours is a significant contribution to quadrant 3. Even if you use some of that time to recharge your batteries it is more useful than being in a meeting that doesn’t need you to be there.

What about the time professional tell us they spend responding to invitations to tender when they are 100% sure they are invited just to make up the numbers and they have no chance of winning?

How about the tendency to seek perfection in everything? There are undoubtedly times when, as a professional, seeking perfection is required. This is normally in the technical work undertaken. No engineer, or for that matter client or user, wants a bridge, dam or tunnel to be “about right”. The laudable characteristics that make a professional a brilliant technician can be characteristics that kill effectiveness in other aspects of their business.

Business development, management and leadership are not exact sciences. I have watched sales people, marketers and professionals in endless discussions, seeking perfection in a business development campaign which should have been started ‘yesterday’. I have heard about long debates over a staff appraisal system when staff reviews were already months late.

Sometimes action is needed now. Sometimes a 95% solution is good enough.

Perhaps the most controversial waste of time is the time spent on the things you like to do even when in reality someone else should be undertaking the task. This is particularly so when one is in a position to delegate the task. It is often the case that a professional will get involved in a technical issue because that is what they enjoy doing. It also avoids having to spend time on the tasks they enjoy less, such as selling or managing.  In your personal lives consider all the things you might do that detract from the achievement of your personal goals and objectives. If a goal is to learn a new language or to play a musical instrument, don’t say you haven’t got the time if you spend endless hours channel hopping in front of the TV!

The priority matrix is a tool to help you make more conscious decisions about how you allocate your time. We have never worked with any one who could not benefit for managing this aspect of their busy lives more effectively.