Triage: The New Time Management Skill©
We live in an era of endless connections, interruptions, distractions and time demands. New tasks come at us at an alarming rate from multiple sources: emails, texts, tweets, calls, friends, fans, family, pings, rings, and vibrations via all sorts of devices. Over the years we’ve developed many ways to cope, capture and conquer the onslaught including urgent and important matrixes , decision-making trees, and prioritization strategies
I would like to propose that the era of endless requires a whole different take on managing our time and tasks, something I call “triaging.”
Triage is a disaster management term. I am a Community Emergency Response Team graduate, which is a civilian disaster preparedness training program. We learn that if adequate resources are available (first responders, medical equipment, trained personnel, etc.), you try to save everyone. But if resources are scarce or limited, ‘triage’ is the process used to quickly sort injured people into groups based on their likely benefit from immediate care. In a hospital emergency room, the people who scream the loudest do not get care first, nor is it allocated on a first-come, first-serve basis. A triage nurse quickly assesses who needs urgent care and who can wait because there are never enough resources to treat everyone at the same time.
In the Era of Endless, we need to act like the triage nurse. To some of us triage comes naturally. All day long we’re able to volley the bombardment of incoming messages vying for our attention and mentally shuffle our to-do deck, deciding on the run “do this now,” “this can wait,” or “ok, I was going to do that, but this new thing is more important so now that comes next and I’ll move that other thing lower on the list.” Triaging is based on emotions and intuition. First-responders to a disaster scene will tell you they don’t do a lot of analysis. They simply know how to allocate their resources for maximum effect for the greatest number of people. If you don’t have the triage instincts of a first responder, here are some triaging tips:
Go with your gut
David Allen, the productivity expert, observes, “Prioritize [or in this case, triage – JK] according to energy, mood, intuition, and emotion. Learn to listen to and trust your heart. Or your intuition, or your gut or the seat of your pants or whatever anatomy is the source of that mysteriously wonderful ‘still, small voice’ that somehow knows you better than you do, and knows what is better for you than you do. LISTEN to it…take the risk to move on your best guess, pay attention to the results and course-correct as you keep moving along.”
Verbalize your to-do list
Say what you are thinking out loud. This can be very clarifying. If a task sounds important as you say it aloud, there’s a good chance you’ve made the right call.
Alleviate worry and guilt
“I make a careful To-Do list. I prioritize it every day. I assign A, B, and C to each task and integrate new tasks as soon as I learn of them. Then, when I wake up in the morning, I totally ignore my list and do the two tasks that immediately alleviate worrying whether they’re on my list or not,” a client tells me. Dispelling worry is a great use of your limited time. It clears the head and frees you from emotional drains that will thwart all your other work. Like assuaging worry, doing tasks that free you from guilt will also allow you to focus on other work.
Stop the bleeding and open up the airways
Disaster victims in need of complex medical attention beyond available resources are tagged or located to a special area until more medical help arrives. But first their bleeding is stopped and their airways opened. In organizing terms, stopping the bleeding and opening up the airways means doing the most effective thing possible in the time available to you. You won’t be able to complete a complex project all at once, but there’s always something you can do to be effective. That might mean initiating a meeting, developing an action plan, holding a brainstorming session, or doing something as simple as sending a well-crafted email or making a concise phone call.
Triaging incoming messages, time demands and information is not a perfect analogy to the kind of triaging done in disaster management, but I think it begins to move us to another model of time management better suited for the times we live in.
If you want to learn more about how our world has changed into one full of infinite information, constant distractions and boundless stuff, I recommend my book Getting Organized in the Era of Endless: What to Do When Information, Interruption, Work and Stuff are Endless But Time is Not.
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