Feature Article: What To Do With Low Priority Items On Your To-Do List

You already know you should work on the most important things—duh—but are you doing it? The next big question becomes—what should you do with all the lower-priority items? Here are some questions to get you started thinking about what to do with the rest of your list:

• Can you give it to someone else to do? Your goal is to push the activity to the lowest pay possible without compromising the result. I used to pick up my mail every evening—an important task—and sort it and get it to the right people. Once I relinquished a bit of my obsessive control over the process, trained my assistant Dana how to do it, and resisted the urge to go to the mailbox at the end of the day, I saved about twenty minutes a day. She picks it up on her way into the office, and after several months, there hasn’t been one thing that couldn’t have waited until the next morning for me to see. Part of my learning here was to stop seeing my mail as a present, like a little child dying to open her Christmas presents, and seeing it as simply another task that was demanding my time and attention.
• Can you simplify the process? I give over 100 keynotes and seminars every year on personal productivity topics. Every client needs certain information from our company to publicize the meeting or event. As different staff members handle different areas (travel, logistics, contracts, etc.), the client would receive multiple emails. Instead of sending multiple attachments from multiple people, we simplified the information into a single Meeting Planners guide, which a multi-page PDF, that provides all the information in one place, one email, one person. No more confusion on who the client should ask and who has already provided what. We also upgraded our contact management database to ACT 2007, so any user in our office can see real time what another person just sent to a client.
• Can you become more efficient? Once an engagement was underway, a client might need information (not initially provided in the Meeting Planners handbook), such as a photo of me, a course description, or my introduction. So after receiving call after call and sending this information piecemeal to whomever needed it, we thought—duh—we should put it on our website. Now we proactively let clients know at the time of booking where they can find anything they need. We now have more information than anyone would probably want on the website. If it’s requested more than one time, we add it. Less staff time on our part, and clients can get what they need more quickly.
• Can you stop doing it? Have you ever asked yourself the question, “If I didn’t do this at all, would anyone notice?” Seriously!! That’s a darn good question. I chatted with an administrative assistant who was generating training reports every month for the operations group. She was sure what the customer was using the reports for, but it took her about four hours to create each month. So she called and said, “We generate this report for you, and we’re happy to continue to do that, but we just wanted to check out its importance with you. Do you use it? Is it valuable? Can we skinny it down a bit? Can we stop sending it altogether?” It turned out the user looked at it every once in a while and was fine with changing it to quarterly. It’s important to keep the communication open with your "customer" and find out what really has value. Focus on what you could be doing in that time instead to get greater recognition and abandon things that don’t add value.
• Can you create a checklist to handle repetitive tasks quickly? Before I leave for a speaking engagement, I have to know that certain things are in place: books are shipped, travel arrangements are made, workbook copies have been produced, an LCD projector will be available, etc. So we automated the process of providing this information to me. At the time of the booking, each staff person includes a checklist in the central client hardcopy file and marks things off as they are accomplished and put in the file. I simply have to pull the file and scan the checklists and see what’s been done and any exceptions. It ensures that each person completes all the necessary tasks prior to an engagement, and I don’t have to ask whether things have been completed.
• Can you lower your standards? Does it have to be done perfectly? I worked with the president of a car manufacturing company who called someone in IT to get a figure to put into his talk. The president was thinking the guy would spend 15 minutes on it and be able to quickly ballpark a number to drop in a speech. Turns out the employee spent 10 hours coming up with an exact number to 7 digits, when the president was only looking for was a high-level guess—5 million or 50 million? Both of them are at fault. The president should have said “I’m looking for this type of number, and I’m thinking it will just take you 15 minutes or so to ballpark it + or - a few million dollars. Does that sound reasonable? Then the employee could tell him what it would actually take to create that figure and the president could decide if it’s worth it for that particular speech.
• Can you use a shortcut? How about a standard response template? I found myself providing or replying to the same type of emails over and over again and typing out the same information over and over again, such as replying to media requests for quotes, thanking people for kind feedback to a presentation, sending invoices, etc. I used to keep standard templates in Microsoft Word and cut and paste them into Outlook. But I have saved SO much time by setting up the standard templates as Signatures in Microsoft Outlook and titling them by the type of response or letter. I simply create or reply to the email, Insert, Signature, and pick the name of the signature, customize a couple things like the name, and hit Send. Simple! What a great shortcut.

Hopefully these examples will give you a few ideas on how you can deal with low-priority items on your list. Remember: productivity isn’t how many hours you work or how fast you work; it is how much value you produce.

Make it a productive day! ™

(C) Copyright 2007 Laura Stack. All rights reserved. 

This article may be reprinted provided the following credit line is present: “© 2007 Laura Stack. Laura is the president of The Productivity Pro®, Inc. and the bestselling author of Find More Time and Leave the Office Earlier. She presents keynotes and seminars on time management, information overload, and personal productivity. Contact her at 303-471-7401 or www.TheProductivityPro.com.” The link to Laura’s website must be active.