Facing Leadership Challenges: Priority Setting and Time Management

This entry is part 16 of 17 in the series Management Moments

Better priority setting and time management practices offer public health professionals the tools to address the challenges of “too much to do and not enough time to do it.”

In our recent experiences in leadership coaching, teaching at schools of public health, and consulting with a range of health organizations, we have heard a consistent message: “We have too much to do and not enough time to do what we think we should be doing.” In many instances, public health professionals face a daily challenge of identifying their top priorities and then managing their time accordingly. In this JPHMP Management Moment column, we provide a few guiding principles and best practices for use by busy public health leaders and managers which may assist them as they clarify their top 3-4 priorities, communicate those priorities to others, and then allocate their time accordingly. As a result, these leaders may find that they have an enhanced clarity of what is really important and also that they can take control of events rather than being controlled by external and internal forces and thereby reduce stress and enhance job satisfaction.

We suggest that each of us can begin the process by “getting up on the balcony” in an attempt to reflect and gain a better perspective on work realities. By asking a few basic questions, leaders may reconnect with their core values and passion for the work to which they are committed. Two questions from our column are good examples:

  • “As I reflect on my recent past, what am I proudest of?”
  • “When I’m at my best, what am I thinking and doing?”

Along the way, leaders must commit to the mindset that “everything is not equally important”. As a result, leaders must then determine whether a task or project is a “Must Do,” a “Good to Do,” a “Nice to do” or a “Not to do” (or at least a “Not Now”). By applying this format to existing activities and to new requests, you can develop your own top 3-4 priorities for the coming weeks and months. We suggest that you consider a concrete time period (eg, a few months) during which these priorities should shape the way you deploy your time and energy. At the end of the time period, you may wish to look back and celebrate successes for yourself and your team. A few other questions may help as you select your top priorities:

  • “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” projects?
  • “Can this request be deferred to a later time?”

Then, by comparing one’s calendar to your top priorities, you can then help determine retrospectively the extent to which you are actually managing your time in keeping with these top priorities. This exercise in “calendar surveillance” can help to identify enablers and barriers in time management in relation to those top priorities. A common challenge relates to meeting attendance in that all too often one is invited to a meeting with a limited relationship to their top priorities and in which they have little to contribute. In these situations, one can refer to 2 other columns in the Management Moment series (recommended below) which offer best practices for effective meetings and also offer suggestions regarding ways to “uninvite yourself” to a meeting of marginal value.

Read our article in JPHMP

Finally, our recent column offers concrete tactics for better time management which include tips on how to handle email and drop-in guests who are asking for your time. Some have found a technology tool (www.todoist.com) useful in time management by creating an integrated system for assigning priorities and tracking how time is spent.

In summary, better priority setting and time management practices offer public health professionals’ tools to address the challenges of “too much to do and not enough time to do it.” As a result, they may find the work experience more satisfying and contribute to more effectively serving the health of communities across the nation.


About the Authors

Susan A. Murphy, PhD, MBA, has an extensive background that combines the three worlds of corporate leadership, academia & management consulting. Susan has written 11 books including Maximizing Performance Management and co-authored In the Company of Women that was selected as Harvard Business School’s “Book of the Month.” Passionate about Leadership, Mentoring and Gender & Generational Differences, Susan thrives on serving as a catalyst for break-through team performance. Her educational background includes an MBA, MA, in Organizational Development and PhD in Organizational Systems. Visit her website: www.DrSusanMurphy.com

Edward L. Baker, MD, MPH, MSc, currently teaches courses on the practice of leadership at Harvard and UNC Schools of Public Health while serving as a leadership coach and as column editor for the Management Moment series in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice. In the past, he served as a CDC center director and as an Assistant Surgeon General in the US Public Health Service.

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