How do I decide what to do first?

When you have recently graduated you are familiar with the feeling of everything-is-new. There is the first job, the first client, the first tasks, the first feedbacks. Although you had internships in the past, this is another level. All of a sudden you are responsible for what you are doing and which quality you deliver. A feedback is not a nice-to-have-heard-thing anymore but bonus and career relevant.

Having this in mind I would like to comment on a question I got from a colleague several weeks ago: How do I decide what to do first?

My answer will reflect a certain mindset on how I approach work. It might severely differ from your superiors – which is why you should check on their thoughts as well so that you don’t get into trouble when following some of my ideas.

How do I decide what to do first?

The question implies a classical scenario: you have several to dos for the day/week/month and now it is your responsibility to get the job done.

When it comes to prioritization the first thing on every manager’s mind is the classical Eisenhower Principle. Categorize each task in a matrix with urgency versus importance and prioritize your to-do-list accordingly:

  1. Important and urgent.
  2. Important but not urgent.
  3. Not important but urgent.
  4. Not important and not urgent.

For this prioritization the importance and urgency needs to be known – and it usually is set by your superiors. So make sure you have asked them! It is your responsibility to ask for a deadline if you get a task.

In addition, I would like to propose some questions and categories that might be interesting to consider.

Which task adds energy to your reservoir?

We all have our favourite to dos. Find out which ones are yours. Do you love Excel-Spreadsheets? Is Powerpoint always on your quick-access-bar? Do you rather call people than writing emails?

Start assessing your own working behaviour and find out what you really like to do. And then do these tasks whenever you need some energy.

Here is an example: I need interactions with colleagues. If you want to kill me, put me in a room alone. Nevertheless, sometimes I need to work alone – at the client, in the office, while travelling. It’s just part of the job. Since I already know that I am not good at this, I am scheduling necessary calls during those days, so that the lonely working period doesn’t get too long.

Another person might feel only satisfied when the progress of getting things done is visible – then write yourself a checklist and check off everything that has been done. Or someone prefers to start with everything that is hard to do – so that the worst is done quickly.

Whatever it is: check yourself, define your own metric and go with your gut. It is your (working) life and you should own your timing and tasks.

This also implies that you can ask your team lead for work you enjoy. Maybe you like stuff that he/she hates.

Here is another example: I like discussions. I thrive in negotiations. For me an argument is a playfield. At the same time I had a lot of team leads who almost feared conflict or discussion. They tried to avoid them whenever possible. Today, I offer my strengths in this area openly – and usually people who are not fond of discussing are quite happy to have someone in the team do the talking. It’s a win/win.

When are you most effective?

When is your “high” of the day and when are you ‘brainless’? Examine your concentration during the day and put tasks that need high concentration in times when you can focus best.

In my team we call some tasks “brainless execution”. These tasks are scheduled for times of the day when all creativity is gone anyway. Each team member knows these tasks and lets the others know: hey, I am going to do some brainless execution. Good thing: that presentation gets the cosmetic review while the team hasn’t invested the most effective hours of the day.

What do you enjoy doing?

This is quite similar to the energy-question – but not in total. Whilst the energy-question is focused on to dos that are given to you by an external person, this question is focussing on additional tasks that you choose on top with purpose.

Yes, you are reading correctly: find yourself tasks that exceed your have-to-do-list. And choose them wisely.

Find out what you really like doing that is not yet covered by your day2day work: Organize events? Write articles? Research? Programming? Train people? Talk to people?

These topics have the potential to extend your network and train different skills so that you become a more diverse person. Ideally you find them in your workplace because they have the potential to fuel your career. But you can also find them within social engagement or a sports club.

Over time you will get more experienced in organizing your tasks. Make sure that you always own your stuff. Owning in terms of having as much freedom as possible so that you can plan your week. And owning in terms of taking responsibility for your successes and failures.

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