Expecting Unexpected Tasks

Last week I introduced the key to peak productivity via the Ivy Lee Method. Following the technique may help you prepare a plan to tackle the most important tasks for the day, but what about unexpected tasks? There will inevitably be something that demands your attention that will require you to change your plan at the last minute.

Let’s run through a scenario to see the decision making process works.

Setting the stage

Here are the six things I identified and prioritized yesterday:

  1. Complete slides for next week’s training workshop
  2. Rehearse presentation for 11 am meeting
  3. Respond to that important email from yesterday
  4. Spend 30 min on the training backlog
  5. Spend 1 hr drafting next week’s blog post
  6. Submit sessions to a conference

It’s 10 am. I’ve completed #1 and I’m working on #2.

Unexpected tasks: A colleague asks if I can give a brief presentation for an agency that afternoon

I’ll need time to prepare for this unexpected presentation. Due to the timeliness of that request, it can’t be bumped to tomorrow. As a result, my list needs to change. What should I postpone? The last one. It’s the least important and doing it tomorrow won’t be a problem.

Where should I put it on the list? Since it’s 10 am and my 11 am meeting is coming up, I need to do #2 right away. Depending just how important #3 is, I’d be inclined to put this there since the meeting is just a few hours away.

Now my list looks like this:

  1. Complete slides for next week’s training workshop
  2. Rehearse presentation for 11 am meeting
  3. Prepare for afternoon agency presentation
  4. Respond to that important email from yesterday
  5. Spend 30 min on the training backlog
  6. Spend 1 hr drafting next week’s blog post

I keep working and it’s now 3 pm. I’ve made great progress and this is what my list looks like now:

  1. Complete slides for next week’s training workshop
  2. Rehearse presentation for 11 am meeting
  3. Prepare for afternoon agency presentation
  4. Respond to that important email from yesterday
  5. Spend 30 min on the training backlog
  6. Spend 1 hr drafting next week’s blog post

Unexpected tasks: My boss pings me on Slack and asks if he can have an hour of my time

I like my boss a lot and I appreciate that he asks for my input. Unfortunately, it’s clear that I’m not going to have time to do everything that remains on my list before it’s time to stop working for the day.

I could say something like, “Sorry, but that’s not on my list of six things I’m working on today.” There’s a time and place for a statement like that, but in this case, it’s overly inflexible (and kind of rude).

Instead, I’ll reply, “Is this more or less important than finishing the draft for that blog post?” By being flexible, I can weigh the work I have today and even show respect to my boss by letting him decide which is most important.

Or, since I already feel good about the blog post and know I can finish the draft tomorrow, I’ll postpone #6 to make room for this new request. Now we’ve got this:

  1. Complete slides for next week’s training workshop
  2. Rehearse presentation for 11 am meeting
  3. Prepare for afternoon agency presentation
  4. Respond to that important email from yesterday
  5. Consulting with the boss
  6. Spend 30 min on the training backlog

The rest of the day goes as planned and everything gets accomplished! Not every day goes this well, but at least I can end my day knowing that I accomplished the most important things I could have done.

Conclusion

Without a list we’re all inclined to be reactive, leading to a never-ending stack of “things to do.” As the stack grows so does our anxiety and our feelings of hopelessness. With the Ivy Lee method, we’re armed with a clearly defined and prioritized list that you can use to make better decisions when the unexpected happens.

Do you deal with a lot of unexpected tasks at work? How do you cope with it? Leave a comment and share your experience.

 

David Needham