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How Do You Eat An Elephant?

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Someone, sadly anonymous, once rhetorically asked ‘How do you eat an elephant?’ Their answer? ‘One bite at a time’. The inference being, that all tasks, no matter how large and daunting, if broken down into bite-size chunks, can be successfully tackled. However, when faced with the whole elephant, it can understandably be difficult to decide where that first bite should be. Enough of the metaphors, the idea of eating elephant is making me feel a little uneasy. Today I want to look at how to prioritise when faced with mammoth tasks (pun intended) or large workloads.  

Everybody has the same number of hours in the day, yet some appear to have more time than others. This is where prioritisation comes into play. Prioritisation is all about time management. It’s what ensures that the time available is being used to the best effect. A common mistake people often make is failing to tell the difference between importance and urgency. 

Important tasks are those which have a direct contribution to you achieving your objectives. They can have varying deadlines for completion. 

Urgent tasks are those which require immediate attention, but which don’t particularly work towards your overall goals. 

Urgent tasks can be tricky to identify at first. They tend to be quick and easy to complete and therefore often get given priority at the expense of important tasks whose deadlines may be a little way off yet. This, however, can lead to a crisis situation whereby important tasks keep on getting pushed back in favour of urgent ones. Then suddenly, the important task’s deadline is looming, and you’re stressed due to ‘lack of time’. 

A useful tool that I employ when deciding which tasks to tackle first is called the Eisenhower Matrix. Here’s an example of this:

  • Important AND urgent – Tasks essential to the job and must be done urgently to avoid a potential crisis. These tasks need to be dealt with first ahead of all others. This could be something as simple as the fire bell ringing. The building could be on fire.  This is both important and urgent.  Whatever else you might be doing, stop and evacuate the building. 
  • Important but NOT urgent - Tasks often of medium to long-term duration. Whilst not their deadlines may not be on the immediate horizon, you need to dedicate regular chunks of time to their completion in order to avoid the rising panicky feeling of a deadline looming ever nearer. Especially as you never can predict when that fire bell may ring. 
  • Urgent but NOT important – Tasks that may have a negative impact if not dealt with quickly but probably don’t add much if anything to achieving your overall job goals. These often, mistakenly get pushed up the priorities ladder, ahead of more important tasks.
  • Neither important nor urgent – Tasks that aren’t essential and there’s no noticeable impact if they’re not done. Some people complain that they have no free time yet seem to have ample time to post on their personal social media pages, chat about what their friends are getting up to and always have one eye on their phone, waiting for the next text organising their social life. 

By implementing the use of the Eisenhower Matrix into your day to day life you will quickly be able to see where you should be concentrating your energy.  It will help you to see the wood, despite the trees, and to make better use of your time. You’ll get more important tasks done, on time and with less fluster and fuss. 

 To end, here’s a quote from Mary O’Connor, from the smaller end of the scale of the animal kingdom: ‘It’s not so much how busy you are, but why you are busy. The bee is praised. The mosquito is swatted.’   

Zoe McCabe


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