Managing workload and priorities with a journal

One of the most common questions I get asked when coaching people with dyslexia and dyspraxia is how to not lose focus on the important things when swamped with work. This is a really big topic. I try to understand the drivers behind the question in a coaching session and provide tailored advice based on that. This post is one of a series I will write. This post will focus on using a Bullet Journal as a framework to determine priorities and execute against them. I’ve been using this technique for a while to keep me focused on my top priorities and stress less about the things I am choosing not to do.

Determine Priorities

The first step, inspired by Gary Keller‘s book The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results, is to think about the big, important things that must get done. I suggest this is done against four different time horizons: today, this week, this month, this year. It is not uncommon for people not to be able to identify what the big things that must get done are. For the day and the week focus the holiday planning processes can be used: Immediately before going on holiday people often focus on the things that simply must be done before they depart but this ruthless task selection is often not standard practice without the hard deadline.

The book asks the question “What’s the ONE Thing you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” and goes much deeper than I will here.

The holiday process does not work so well for longer term priorities. In the absence of a clear job description or another source of clear tasking for the longer term I pose the simple question “what will you get in trouble for if you don’t get it done this month? This year?” It is quite crude but it often works. I’ll write more about determining priorities in another post.

Capture Priorities

The daily, weekly, monthly and yearly page spreads in the Bullet Journal are used to capture these priorities. How to do this is detailed in the daily, weekly, monthly ritual sections below. Often people are bogged down in the here and now, tending to urgent matters that are detracting attention from the key goals for the month/year. To be effective one must focus on delivering the priority outcomes of a job or role. Peter Drucker states “There is nothing quite so useless, as doing with great efficiency, something that should not be done at all.” 

Confirm Priorities

It is valuable to get a confirmation on the captured priorities. A review with your boss will help ensure nothing big is missed and may also provide guidance on relative weighting of yearly goals which will come in handy later. Peer feedback with colleagues offers another valuable insight.

As a Project / Programme Manager, I use best practice methodologies such as PRINCE2 and MSP to capture and confirm priorities. If the nature of your roles provides this clarity then you have a head start on capturing and confirming priorities. The key check is the priorities must be for you in your role, not those of your team or boss or the later stages of this process will not work effectively.

Schedule Priorities In Your Journal

blank journalI use my journal to capture my priorities but I use outlook to schedule my time (any calendar app will work). Most people just use their work calendar only to schedule meetings, so we will start there. Review the calendar appointments for the week and determine how they contribute to the daily, weekly, monthly and yearly goals. Any meetings that contribute meaningfully to the goals identified get a note in the bullet journal. Meetings that cannot be missed warrant a deeper inspection. It might be that these are actually part of a goal that has not been identified – if so add this goal to the relevant log and the meeting to the journal. It might be that the meeting is an unavoidable organisational overhead in which case it goes in the journal. It might be that the meeting is one you really enjoy, with people you like catching up with. These go into the trade space.  Also in the trade space are all the meetings that have not been categorised “must not miss”. All the meetings stay on the calendar but only the not to miss ones are copied into the journal. The cross check here is: are all the meetings in the Journal the ones for which you would either ask to be rearranged or send a representative to if you were on holiday. The next step is to schedule time on the calendar to work on the identified priorities. Ideally, this would be a solid block first thing in the morning but that is not always possible. This does not have to be precise it is mostly about reserving time as the daily and weekly rituals will manage this on an ongoing basis. Manager Tools has more detailed guidance on the basics of calendar management which I highly recommend as it provides details, actionable guidance on using the calendar for scheduling work against priorities and not just as a dumping ground for meetings. This hybrid approach does add inefficiency to the workflow management but it is worth it.

If you work in a role that is based on meeting people you will need to be more structured around your calendar. It is probably worth looking for industry specific calendar management advice such as this piece on handling calendar management like a pro for fitness and nutrition professionals.

The Monthly Ritual

At the start of the month create a monthly log. The link above provides the official guidance on this. My monthly log is a 2-page spread with the left side being a calendar view. The right side is split into sections for monthly goals (which haven’t been broken into tasks), monthly tasks, and a small section to look ahead into next month. The calendar review process above captures key meetings and from this I’ll schedule the required preparation for those meetings (e.g. compile the quality stats for the quality review meeting) in both Outlook and the journal (monthly tasks). I review my annual goals and determine what contribution I think is reasonable for that month. For some targets this can be easy: if you have 24 widgets a year to make then each month should see you completing two. Other targets require more in-depth planning: exactly what is 1/12th of a new CRM system? A separate post in the series will cover breaking down more challenging objectives.

Looking at the month ahead ask yourself if the focus is just on these priorities is there likely to be enough time to get it all done. If not seek guidance on what to either drop, defer, or get support with. Early warning is always preferred to after the fact notification of missed deadlines. If it all looks achievable I also create the weekly log at this point.

The Weekly Ritual

Every Sunday night I create a weekly log. Mine is a left page spread split into five for the days of the week and the right page spread for weekly goals and weekly tasks. The left page also acts as my daily logs. The human brain is apparently well suited to working in chunks of 5-7 so a week is a natural unit for us to plan in.

To populate the log I look at the monthly goals, tasks, and scheduled events (must not miss meetings mostly). Any scheduled event or task that falls within the week gets copied to the relevant day. I review last week’s log to identify any incomplete tasks or goals. If these are still valid they get copied over. I then determine what contribution that week can make to the monthly goals. In doing so I am likely to break a goal into a series of tasks.  It is these tasks that I’ll capture on the weekly log, not the goal. I also look at what monthly tasks can be achieved and copy these over. I aim for a balance at this point between putting tasks on the daily logs and the weekly logs. I don’t want to tie to a day more than necessary but all the tasks are different sizes so I only want to think once about how much I need to get done every day. Goals do not go on the daily log as the daily focus is on task execution.

Having my daily log as part of the weekly log means I only get 8 lines per day – this helps constrain me to set out a realistic amount of things to focus on. A 200 line to do list is no use to anyone.

The weekly ritual concludes with an achievability review which is essentially the same as in the monthly context.

Daily Ritual

The first task of the day is to figure out what is most important to be working on and give it undivided attention until complete. If this is not possible ensure sufficient time is scheduled. If it is not clear what is most important then review the weekly goals and start to tackle one of those. If you have completed all the weekly goals look to the monthly goals. If you are just starting out with the journal it is more likely there is more to do than the day will allow (as you are unlikely to be looking for advice such as this if you are going home every night with all your work done and time to spare). Review meeting commitments, left over priority tasks from yesterday’s daily log, and the identified priorities for the day. If there is too much to do the non-essential meetings are first to go. If there is still too much to do identify if any of it can be deferred to tomorrow. The achievability reviews in the weekly and monthly contexts should have provided forewarning of peaks of workload. If there is genuinely more to do than can be done and no help is at hand then work on the most important thing first. Working on priorities is mostly about deciding what not to work on.

I reflect at the end of the day, comparing task achievement to what I set out to do and try and determine what I can learn from that. Are some things taking longer than expected, are there lead times I am not accounting for – basically what can I learn to improve going forward.

Returning Focus in Chaos

Experience tells me starting the day with a clear set of priorities and must do items is no guarantee things will pan out. The unexpected happens, systems go off line, people call in sick, the boss rushes in with an urgent must do from her boss, all sorts of things can and will happen.

At any point in the day that I feel I need to regain focus I review my daily and weekly logs to remind me of what I have already decided is important. I might change this in light of new information but that becomes a conscious act. I’ll then get on with the most important outstanding task. this keeps me working towards my priorities rather than responding to my inbox.

End Note

My Bullet Journal is not the engaging work of visual art that you will find on Pinterest as my dyspraxia impinges my fine motor skills, it is, however, an effective tool for remaining focused (or more often returning focus) to the things I have said are important to me. It’s not the only tool I use for managing multi-million-pound programmes or complex projects but it is the tool that keeps me on top of such endeavours. It’s not a silver bullet that gives you extra hours, it will not solve cases of genuine overwork. It will help bring focus to priorities.

The Bullet Journal is an analogue system, with quite a lot of longhand copying things from one place to another. I like this friction, it forces me to reflect which is not something I naturally do.  The Get It Done Guy recently podcasted/wrote on how sometimes technology can sabotage your success. Paper is truly the killer app.

If BuJu does not fit the bill for you why not try Kanban, time boxing or my advice on time management for the neurodiverse?