Many of us struggle to manage and deal with the intense demands on our time.  Bosses and colleagues who expect us to be available 24/7, team members who want us to address their problems and concerns, an overflowing inbox with messages from people we know (and even more from those we don’t), and a seemingly endless to-do list. And that’s just at work!  At home we have to integrate these with making time for our family and friends, and sorting the more mundane day to day tasks (housework, shopping, washing etc), oh and I forgot – time for ourselves too!

When faced with these seemingly endless demands we are told that we should ‘work smarter and be more productive’ or ‘prioritise more effectively’.  However, does this advice really work?  At one level, this is sound practical advice and no one will argue against doing these things, but these things alone are not enough for two key reasons.

Firstly, our time and attention are finite resources, and once we reach a certain level of responsibility in our professional lives, we can never fulfil all the demands we face no matter how effective we are or how long and hard we work.  The reality is there will always be another demand to replace the ones we have just dealt with.  So no matter how effective you are you will never get to the bottom of your list.

Secondly there is a weakness in the act of prioritising work.  Prioritisation is a process of ranking things, activities, tasks, etc in order of importance, with, in theory, the most important items at the top.  However, the issue here is that after we prioritise, we act as though everything merits our time and attention, and we’ll get to the less-important items “later.” But of course later never really arrives, and the list remains without end, compounding the problem above!

So what do we need to do instead?  Ed Batista recently wrote an HBR article on this subject recommending the practice of triage to deal with demands on our time and attention, which is something he has borrowed from the medical profession.  For example in Accident and Emergency wards, medical staff must decide who requires immediate assistance, who can wait, who doesn’t need help at all, and who’s past saving.

Batista points out that taking a triage approach to managing the demands on us means that it will help us not to just focus on the items that are most important and defer those that are less important until “later,” but actively ignore the vast number of items whose importance falls below a certain threshold.  This is not about making a list but deciding where the cut-off point is and sticking to it’.

So how do we achieve this?  How do we ‘triage’’ the demands on our time?  Batista suggests a number of ways and argues that the key to it is being aware of and addressingthe emotional aspect of triage.  This is because it’s not merely a cognitive process, but an emotional one too

Actively ignoring things and saying no to people generates a range of emotions that exert a powerful influence on our choices and behaviour. An emotional response is entirely understandableand this is exactly why we devote time and attention to people who don’t truly merit the investment.  It’s because there is such a fine line between effective triage and being perceived as being difficult and unhelpful and as a result so many of us are so worried about crossing that line that we don’t even get close.

Batista points out that this is precisely what makes triage so difficult, and thereforewe need to enhance our ability to manage these concerns and other related emotions. When confronted by overwhelming demands on our time, we may feel anxious, scared, resentful, or even angry, but we’re often not sufficiently aware of or in touch with these emotions to make effective use of them. They flow through us below the level of active consciousness, inexorably guiding our behaviour, but in many cases—and particularly when under stress—we fail to recognize their influence and miss opportunities to make the choices that will best meet our needs.

Batista recommends the following actions to improve our emotional management and decision making:

  • Adjust our mental models to reflect emotions’ importance and the role they play in rational thought and decision-making. Our beliefs shape our experience.
  • Take better care of ourselves physically. Regular exercise and sufficient sleep demonstrably improve our ability to both perceive and regulate emotion.
  • Engage in some form of mindfulness routine. Meditation, journaling and other reflective practices enhance our ability to direct our thoughts, helping us sense emotion more acutely, and provide a new perspective on our experiences, helping us make sense of those emotions.
  • Expand our emotional vocabulary—literally. Having a wider range of words to describe what we’re feeling not only helps us communicate better with others, but also helps us to more accurately understand ourselves.

Batista concludes that the ultimate goal is to expand our comfort with discomfort.  We need to be able to acknowledge the difficult emotions generated by the need to triage so that we can face our endless to-do list, our overflowing Inbox, and the line of people clamouring for our attention and, kindly but firmly, say ‘NO’.