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Triage Your "To Do" List

I bet this happened to you this morning. It happens to us all. We get back to work following a wonderful weekend, or a glorious holiday, and our Inbox is overflowing and glowering at us; determined to make us pay for the rest and respite we've just enjoyed.

Our “Inbox” can be read in the literal sense, i.e.: 1563 emails since we last logged on, a burgeoning “In” tray on our desk, 14 car services to complete this week, or a laundry basket of biblical proportions - and the chores to match. Your Inbox is anything which makes you shudder at the prospect of facing, but worry not because help is at hand; all you need to do is employ a triage system.

As you know, triage is generally referenced in the medical sense, but it's an effective productivity tool for us all to deploy when our Inbox gets ridiculous. Triage is an assessment of urgency, a ranking system, which helps prioritise the order in which tasks are attended to. I'm really not teaching you anything new here. I'm certain you're all well aware of how the triage process works, but I'm here to remind you to use what you already know. I'm here to reactivate what's possible and what you're already capable of.

It's incredibly easy to see a mountain of work, or a huge challenge of some kind, and begin to sweat blood at the prospect of getting it done; often in a tight timescale. The first priority is to breathe and not panic. Falling into a flat spin will help no one, nor will it achieve anything, other than expend valuable energy unnecessarily. By taking a couple of deep breaths, you're reducing the likelihood (or severity) of your mind going into fight or flight, and sending a surge of adrenaline through your body. Stay focused, grounded and remain calm, because this is how to get the best results from yourself. Even if you're i.e.: a firefighter or paramedic saving lives and being incredibly courageous, you still need to be focused, grounded and calm; what use would a flappy firefighter or medic be?! So if these rules apply to them, they apply to you!

The next thing to do is triage your task list. Everyone's workload/challenge is different, so you will need to find your own system, but here is a starting point...


Tasks that have to be done immediately, if not sooner. The completion of these tasks is critical in some way, i.e.: lives are at risk, health and safety is somehow compromised, there is an element of danger or unacceptable risk.


These tasks must be completed i.e.: within the hour or before a designated time. These tasks are urgent and require your attention quickly. Distractions cannot be permitted whilst you focus your intent. Conscript assistance wherever necessary so you may deliver on this task.


You are afforded more breathing room now as these tasks should be attended to today, but they can wait behind Critical and Important, without undue risk of adversity. Is it possible to delegate these tasks to a trusted and conscientious colleague?


These tasks must still be done and not forgotten, but can generally be diarised for future completion – if not delegated entirely.


This is when you must fire up the B1N file and be ruthless with time and energy vampires. Do not waste your valuable resources on anything/anyone that doesn't add value to you or your goals. Your time and energy is finite, so don't let them be diverted away from what's important to you.


This is an interesting question, and one I have been able to help a large number of mentees with in the past. One case in particular stands out, which I will share with you, by way of example...

I first met Gareth when he arrived slightly late to our appointment. He presented initially as a high energy and chaotic energy. He spoke quickly, his thoughts were disjointed and he'd interrupt his own thoughts and sentences, before hurtling off onto yet another tangent: he had a “million and one” things to do and didn't have time to do any of them. All there was for me to do at this juncture was to listen, learn as much as I could, and wait for his stream of consciousness to come to a natural end.

Sure enough Gareth got it all out of his system and settled down. Whilst smiling reassuringly and making eye contact with him, so he knew I was present in the moment, I took a long pause and a noticeable deep breath before I began to speak. This calmed Gareth further and slowed the process down. I was never going to access Gareth's best thinking and ideas whilst his mind was racing at 1000mph, so he had to be encouraged to decompress and breathe.

We drank some coffee and I placed my notepad on the table for him to see, still barely saying a word. Next, I calmly asked Gareth to tell me about the “million and one” things he had to do, because I was going to make a list. Gareth spoke a lot, but when we cut it back to its essence, he had five tasks to do – five, not nearly a million and one. The issue here however is that they felt like a million and one tasks to Gareth, because he was in a flat spin, wasting energy on a panic setting, and not focusing his resources on what was truly important.

We then discussed each task in turn, triaged their level of urgency and agreed upon the date and time they had to be completed by. Long story short, none of Gareth's tasks required longer than 45 minutes to complete, and none of the tasks overlapped or produced a conflict of scheduling. Once we had applied timescales and suitably scheduled the tasks, they could all be completed by 7pm the following evening; leaving Gareth the remainder of the week for enhanced productivity, now his mind was clear.

As I said before, I'm not teaching you – or the likes of Gareth – anything new, we all know how to triage and prioritise; but how many of us forget to do it? We are only human and can easily get caught up in the prevailing energy of panic or disarray. It's also very easy to be swept along in an illusion of busyness, but you must stop and ask yourself: busy doing what?

Gareth sat looking nonplussed for a moment or two once I had revealed his “million and one” illusion – but we've all been there. An illusion can only exist in the minds of those who wish to believe it's true. Strip it away and it's all smoke and mirrors – but sometimes you need an objective third party to bring clarity to the confusion and disarray. I am happy to report Gareth did indeed get all of his tasks completed within a combined time of about 2½ hours, and before 7pm the following evening. He now remembers to breathe and triage, whilst making full use of his B1N filing system.


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