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Spinning Plates – how to prioritise

by Rob Cross on April 9th, 2010

Too many things to do – Not enough time!

Often in professional life, whether it’s when your finishing University or when you’ve officially started working, you find yourself feeling like there’s too many things to do and not enough time.  I call this feeling like you’re spinning plates – you’re trying to keep momentum on too many things and you feel like if anyone of them drops, it will break.

For anyone trapped in this cycle it’s a dangerous place to be – why? Well, to put it simply, it’s dangerous because we’re all only human and there are only so many things that we can keep moving at anyone time. And, if you spin plates for too long, you will burn out!

What do you do if you’re spinning plates?

When you find yourself feeling like you have too many things on and not enough time to complete them all – feeling like you’re spinning plates – there are 3 things you can do:

1.  Be honest with yourself – Recognise You’re Spinning Plates!

The first and most critical thing to do is to be honest with yourself and recognise that you’ve taken on too many things. It’s widely understood that the human brain can handle 5 +/- 2 things at any one time. Trying to take on any more than this and you’ll feel over loaded. This feeling of being over loaded is what you need to recognise, and with that, it’s important to be honest with yourself that you’ve taken on too much.

2. Prioritise What You’ve Taken On

When you’ve got many plates in the air, it’s often difficult to step back and look objectively at all the things you’re doing. The reason this is difficult is because you feel that if you step back there’s a chance one of the plates might fall. Despite this feeling, once you’re honest with yourself that you’ve taken on too much you have to step back and prioritise. One simple way of prioritising is to use the Importance v’s Urgent Matrix (see wikipedia for an example).

Using the four quadrants of this matrix, you assess each of the tasks you have to complete against their importance and urgency. In doing this, it’s critical that you assess each task against each other so you avoid seeing them all as important and all as urgent. As you do this prioritisation, you will start to see that some of the tasks are less critical than others. You should also make sure that you only focus on a max of 3 Urgent and Important at any one time. More than this and you’re back to where you started.

3. Take Action

After you’ve prioritised all the things you have on, you need to take action. This action must include the following:

  1. STOP doing anything that isn’t both important and urgent. You should let people know that you’re doing this, but it’s important that you stop it because it just isn’t high on your priority list.
  2. RE-NEGOTIATE that which is important but not urgent. These things must still be done, but you should re-negotiate their completion date.
  3. FOCUS on that which is important and urgent. Even as you do this however, it’s important that you prioritise these against each other also, and that you allocate the time needed to get them done.

A Last Thought on Prioritising…

When you feel overwhelmed with too many things on, it’s really important that you’re honest with yourself about this. Struggling on, without prioritising and taking the right action will only lead to the feelings intensifying and ultimately you burning out. When looking at the actions you need to take once you’ve prioritised, I always find the ’stop’ doing the non-critical tasks as most difficult. And, usually this is due to me not wanting to let people down. However, it’s important to remember that you’re only one person and you can’t do everything, so sometimes you just have to say no!

For further tips like these, see Grad Expectations - the essential guide for all graduates entering the work force.

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