An exercise in Personal Prioritisation

Of all the coaching-y conversations I’ve had, one topic has come up far more frequently than any other:

I have all these things to do, but so little time to complete them. How can I possibly find the time to achieve what I both want and need to?

Photo by Mille Sanders on Unsplash

As much as we would all love to hit a magic button and create more time for ourselves, that simply isn’t possible. There’s only so many hours in the day.

What we can do is reflect on the activities we spend our time on, and whether we have these balanced in the right way.

Over the last few years I’ve fine tuned a simple exercise that I call Personal Prioritisation for tackling this problem. It gets conversation flowing around what we do, the changes we can make to excel in our job role, and even to consider whether we’re in the right role to start with. Here’s how to do it (either for yourself, or when coaching somebody else). All you need is 45 minutes to an hour, and either: two different colours of sticky note, a board / large piece of paper, and a pen; or your favourite collaboration tool like Mural or Miro.

Write down everything you are currently doing

Grab a pad of sticky notes, or open up your favourite collaboration tool. Spend 5–10 minutes writing down — one item per sticky — everything that you currently do. I’d always recommend going more granular over broad “catch all” items, but what matters most is a statement on each sticky that makes sense to the person who wrote it. At the end, put all of your notes to the side.

Write down everything you aren’t currently doing, but would do / want to if you had the time

Now use a different colour of sticky note. This time, spend 5–10 minutes thinking of everything you want to be doing, but don’t have time to. Write these down, again using one sticky for each item.

Draw up a Personal Prioritisation Scale

Draw up a simple graph scale. Along the x axis, write “Relevancy to Role”. Along the y axis, write “Desire / Enjoyment”.

Position the sticky notes on the graph

Take all of your sticky notes — both the items you currently do, and the items you want to do. Spend 5–10 minutes positioning them on your graph based on how much you want to be doing them, and on how relevant you see each item as being for your current job role.

Step back and reflect on patterns

Now take a look at what’s been created. As a coach, it’s an opportunity to ask inviting questions on the patterns that have emerged. I like to divide the graph into 4 sections:

An example of Personal Prioritisation, showing the four quadrants of categorisation

Relevant and Desired (top-right)

This is the real sweet spot for where you want to see “currently doing” activities — it means they’re enjoyable and relevant. However, any “not doing” items here suggest something that needs to be picked up quickly.

Irrelevant and Undesired (bottom-left)

A pattern of “currently doing” items here would be worrying to see. I’d be questioning whether the individual is actually able to focus on the role they’re meant to be occupying, or whether they’re being forced to cover multiple different roles.

Relevant but Undesired (bottom-right)

It often isn’t possible to have a job where you enjoy 100% of what you need to do. There always tends to be something that brings less enjoyment. Seeing a handful of “currently doing” items in this quadrant is OK if balanced out by the items we enjoy. However, a pattern of items may suggest that the job role isn’t the right fit for what the individual enjoys.

Desired but Irrelevant (top-left)

A few “currently doing” items here is probably OK, so long as they aren’t stopping relevant items from being completed—it’s healthy to work on things that we enjoy and aren’t directly part of our role. However, a pattern of “currently done” items suggests a trend to work on irrelevant activities that perhaps needs addressing. Similarly, a pattern of “not doing” items could suggest that the individual’s interests don’t align with the requirements of the job role — is there a different role that fits these items?

Set actions

Once we’ve seen patterns, it’s possible to create some actions. Maybe there’s a “current doing” item in the bottom-left that could be handed to somebody else, or just stopped completely? This might open up the opportunity to start something in the top-right that isn’t currently being done — how could we go about making a start on that? From experience, the discussion on the patterns usually steers straight into coming up with sensible actions. The main responsibility here as a coach is to keep the individual on track with trying to solve the original problem — using their time on the things that matter most.

Hopefully you find this exercise as useful as I have. The beauty of it is that it can be repeated over time to find new opportunities for focus.

Let me know any thoughts in the comments. I’d love to hear of any success stories (or otherwise!) from anybody who tries it out.

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