This article first appeared in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice (Sept/Oct 2023) and has been edited for length.
Health care practitioners are navigating a time of significant change and uncertainty. Many feel burned out and exhausted after surviving the pandemic and are seeking help to set priorities and manage time more effectively.
Get up on the balcony!
Practitioners may benefit from taking a step back from day-to-day demands and “get up on the balcony” to reflect on fundamental questions:
- As I reflect on my recent past, what am I proudest of?
- When I’m at my best, what am I thinking and doing?
- What gives me the most positive energy?
- How am I contributing to the growth and development of myself and others?
- What are the key success indicators of my job?
Busy professionals may feel that they do not have time for this, but doing so can set the stage for determining what is most important. This exercise may save time by focusing on top priority areas and reducing time spent on less important activities.
The priority-setting mindset: must do, good to do, nice to do and not to do
Central to the process is to establish a mindset that “everything is not equally important.” Leaders should select a few priorities (typically no more than 3-4 items) that constitute a “must do”. These top priorities should connect with your underlying goals, job description and your unique talents. Consider:
- Which activities contribute to accomplishing your organizational goals?
- Which activities “fuel your fire” and provide you with positive energy?
- Which activities focus your energies on what you do when you are at your best?
By considering these questions, you can begin to formulate a set of three to four top priorities. If appropriate, review with colleagues. Identify specific tasks for each top priority. Characterize tasks as “must do,” “good to do,” “nice to do” or “not to do.”
Linking priority setting to time management
Once priorities are established, compare them with how you manage time. One tactic is to end each day listing the three most important “must do” tasks for tomorrow. Start the next day by reviewing that list and comparing the “must do” list with the ways in which time is spent during the day.
Next, begin to refine ways to focus on the “must do tasks” and less on the “good to do,” “nice to do” and certainly not on the “not to do” tasks. Practice new ways to say “no” or “not now” to new requests or even to existing commitments. Asking the right questions will help:
- Is this something that I should be doing in view of my core strengths and goals?
- How important is a new request in relation to my current “must do’s”?
- Can this request be deferred to a later time?
- What will happen if I don’t agree to take this on?
- If I say “yes,” how do I reduce my existing workload?
By adopting techniques for linking priorities to time management, you create a framework. To establish these new practices, commit to adopting these new processes over several months. By celebrating successes and sharing with coworkers, you can form a “community of practice” to provide mutual support and insights in setting priorities.
Time management tactics
Next, consider concrete tactics to manage time.
- Once you have analyzed where your time is spent in 15-minute increments, cut out nonproductive activities ASAP.
- Become a “meeting expert”. Have an agenda, invite only people needed, stay on track, learn how to deal with run-on discussions, interruptions. Distribute minutes within 24 hours.
- Learn how to handle drop-in visitors. Stand when they enter your office, stay standing while you talk with them. “I can chat for four minutes and then I need to focus on the project. How may I help you today?”
- Manage phone calls and drop-in visitors—quickly get to the purpose of the call; others may be taking your time so they can take a break.
- Unsubscribe from useless mailing lists, subscriptions.
Setting priorities and managing time can provide many benefits. Setting clear boundaries and saying “no” may lead to improved work-life balance. You may rediscover the joy that you once experienced. By clarifying what is important, anxiety over “not doing enough” may be mitigated. Ideally, the process of better priority setting may lead to a clearer sense of purpose and fulfillment at work.
In summary, begin the process by reflecting on your core strengths for insight into “critical success factors.” Then, adopt a vocabulary of “must do,” “good to do,” “nice to do” and “not to do” to examine how you spend time during the workday. At the end each day, identify the three to four top priorities (the “must do’s”) for the coming day. At the start of that next day, begin by revisiting these three priorities to set the stage for the day’s activity. By reviewing the daily calendar and categorizing each block of time as a “must do,” “good to do” or “nice to do,” you can gain further insights that may assist in the process of better time management. In doing so, your important work can become more productive and fulfilling in service to the health of the public.
Dr. Murphy is a best-selling author, business consultant and speaker specializing in relationships, conflict, leadership and goal-achievement. Dr. Edward Baker is a former Assistant Surgeon General in the US Public Health Service and former Director of CDC’s Public Health Practice Program Office. He currently serves as Adjunct Professor at School of Public Health, Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Harvard University’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health.