Which Task Do I Do First?

I’ve probably covered this before, but since the U.S. is now on the Monday of the first full week of the new year, some of you might need a little help sorting out your inboxes. You’ve got a large pile of tasks to go through: which one(s) do you tackle first? I will share my version (along with some caveats) for your benefit. I’m helpful that way.

Ask

If my manager is in the office before me, I would more than likely drop by his/her office/cubicle, say good morning, and ask if there was anything new or pressing that needed to be addressed first. If so, I would take that on first. If not, I’d go back to my desk and sort things out my own way, starting with the emails themselves.

Is Email Really Necessary?

I’ve seen some organization gurus suggest waiting until end of day to check your email or only opening it in the morning and then closing it until a designated time later in the day. However, that approach just isn’t feasible in some offices, especially if your leadership wants to keep you informed about what’s happening in the organization and expects you to react to it as soon as possible. That’s part of the “joy” of having all that electronic communication, right? Instant (management) gratification.

Anyhow, yes, email is necessary, and yes, it’s useful to keep it open throughout the day. You don’t always need to read everything in detail right away, but if certain topics come across your desk that require your attention, it’s good to know about them. And as I learned in some offices, if you don’t at least acknowledge an email right away, you’re likely to be texted or called by the author for follow-up. Sometimes the response is, “I saw this, but I cannot respond right now. I can respond at X time.” That way, you’ve shown yourself to be responsive; have bought yourself a little time (don’t forget to follow up later); and at the very least, you can save yourself that phone call.

The Big, the Little, the Important, and the Unimportant

You can more or less sort out your tasks by size and importance. Small tasks are short, simple, and can usually be accomplished somewhere between a minute and an hour. Beyond one hour, you start getting into time that can affect your performance of other tasks. As a helpful guide, I’ve sorted some sample tasks in the table below to give you an idea of what I mean.

Task Importance

Minor

Major

Task Size Large
  • Large project planning, organizing, writing, and editing for secondary clients
  • Internal annual reports
  • Cleaning up your desk
  • Internal newsletter articles
  • Large project planning, organizing, writing, and editing for primary clients
  • Career planning
  • Responding to long emails
  • Any documents or situations with legal consequences if (not) done
Small
  • Professional interest training
  • Office party emails
  • Lunch requests
  • Minor domestic issues (e.g., calling to schedule a medical checkup)
  • Compliance training
  • Domestic emergency texts (doctor’s appointments due to illness/injury)
  • Project/document status requests
  • Small (one-page), “priority” tasks
  • Reading/scanning email

Small tasks are things you can usually answer with a short text, email, phone call, or in-person discussion. Minor things (in an office context) are usually social or personal because you’re there to work. However, “small” tasks can become major if you get a text from your significant other asking you to call home, only to find out that the house is flooding, a child is ill, etc. A task changes in importance from the minor to major depending on the potential consequences if you don’t address it. Email and text are tricky, however, because they condition us to respond immediately. My suggestion is that you read electronic messages immediately, but don’t respond immediately, unless the issue is major. (Mind you, that doesn’t mean interrupting a face-to-face conversation to read the text, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

Large tasks are usually the ones where you make your money–what they pay you for–such as designing, writing, or editing documents. Some projects are larger or more important than others. You are usually given guidance by your employer(s) about which deliverables are considered important, and the variables affecting the level importance include:

  • Deadline
  • Document size
  • Level of detail/difficulty
  • Document audience (who will be reading it?)
  • Document customer (who’s asking for it?)
  • Number of people participating in production (you or the entire technical  department?)

And I would love to tell you that these features will stay constant and unwavering, but that is not how the world works. You might take a great deal of time to respond to an email from the company president only to discover that the message was sent to you in error or that the priority of the task has changed due to other issues. You might think a short internal newsletter article can wait, only to discover that it’s now going to be the lead story on your company website.

Bottom Line

Shifting priorities and multiple inputs, both large and small, are part of any professional’s daily life. You don’t always need to respond to the small things (texts), but you at least need to keep an eye on them so something larger doesn’t catch you off guard later. The trick is knowing which box you can file them into and, if you don’t know where your priorities lie, think or ask.*

[* If you’re a freelancer, you have to make the decisions, and the importance you place on task will be determined by the same variables as those listed above.]

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
Quote | This entry was posted in clients, Office Politics, peers, personal, Technology, workplace. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Which Task Do I Do First?

  1. I ask my wife. Or my cat.

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