A Step-by-Step Guide to Prioritising Tasks

Priorities! What is the best way to choose them? How do we execute them? Do you have trouble getting others to appreciate the priorities you have? We all come to work with a bit of a game plan relating to what we would like to achieve. Once you throw in other peoples’ game plan, that never-ending line of scripts, helping everyone else with their priorities, vaccinating and not to mention claiming for your CPA entitlements, the time in your shift to complete your priorities becomes substantially reduced. Often, this also scrambles our thought process and we lose sight of where we’re headed.

When I think of priorities, I think along two different tangents. One, priorities concerning the big picture, the goals that need to be met and the actionable steps to get there. Two, the everyday priorities. These are more operational or logistical in nature, such as what needs to happen during the day to ensure that the store runs smoothly, we’re compliant or meet a deadline. The truth is, without a vision of the big picture and a plan on how to get there, the everyday priorities can suck you into being ‘busy’ doing things that don’t necessarily serve a higher purpose.

A ‘big picture’ question

If you walked into your Pharmacy and saw the ideal day happening before your eyes, what would it look like? What would it sound like? How would you feel? What might the staff be doing? How might they feel?

Beginning to think about the big picture and how you would like your store or your role within a store to look is the first building block in optimising your time and resources for the optimal wellbeing of yourself, your store and your staff.

Prioritising your daily work

When you have many things to do, taking a moment to take stock of what needs to be done can distil focus and provide clarity to the day. Though there are many effective ways to do this, I will show you one tool called ‘The Urgent/Important Matrix’. Working through a process such as The Urgent/Important Matrix helps to minimise the risk of becoming busy being busy.

Read on to find out more about the concept and how it helps clarify your priorities.

What is The Urgent/Important Matrix?

Interestingly, the Urgent/Important Matrix was inspired by Former American President Eisenhower who was touted as being extremely efficient and productive. He used this grid to organise his tasks and was quoted as once saying in a press conference. ‘What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important’. I’ll leave you a minute to ponder that… In the meantime, I will use Dr Stephen Covey’s explanations to explain why and how to use The Urgent/Important Matrix. Dr Covey actually needs the credit for taking this concept to the masses (Read his book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ if you’re interested).

The Matrix

As you can see, the matrix is divided into four quadrants:

Quadrant 1: Urgent and Important tasks to be completed immediately.

Quadrant 2: Not Urgent and Important tasks to be scheduled on your calendar.

Quadrant 3: Urgent and Not Important tasks to be delegated to someone else.

Quadrant 4: Not Urgent and Not Important tasks that should be deleted.

In reality, the distinction of what task falls into what category can be a bit more ambiguous but stay with me, I know this will help you.

How do I identify if something is ‘Urgent’ or if something is ‘Important’?

By Dr Covey’s definition:

Urgent matters are those that require immediate action. These are visible issues that pop up and demand you attention NOW. Often urgent matters come with clear consequences for not completing tasks. Urgent tasks are unavoidable, but spending too much time putting out fires can produce a great deal of stress and could result in burnout! 
Pharmacist note: HA! Did you scoff at that? That's our day! EVERYDAY! The beauty of this Matrix is that it helps us identify where we are spending our time and then helps to adjust 'the norm'.  
Important matters, on the other hand, are those that contribute to long-term goals and life values. These items require planning and thoughtful action. When you focus on important matters you manage your time, energy and attention rather than mindlessly expending these resources. What is important is subjective and depends on your own values and personal goals. No one else can define what is important to you. 
Pharmacist note: Do you feel more calm when you read that? In the context of a Pharmacy, consider important matters those that will lead your store towards the big picture, that 'ideal' day. 

What are some Pharmacy specific examples that fit into each quadrant?

Quadrant 1: Urgent AND Important Tasks (the burnout zone)

Urgent and important tasks could also be considered ‘crisis’ tasks. They may happen because we have delayed so long that we’re now under pressure or, they can also come from external forces within the business that makes them time-sensitive. In a community Pharmacy these may be:

  • Submitting your claim for CPA entitlements that you have left to the final day to complete
  • Getting your order in before the cut off time
  • Responding to a customer complaint
  • Check a change to a Dose Administration Aid
  • Counselling patients
  • Dispensing
  • Administering vaccinations

As you can see, by the nature of our work we spend a lot of time in this quadrant. This exposes us to feelings of burnout and stress. That said, we can always reduce our time here by making improvements. Keep reading, we’ll get to them soon.

Quadrant 2: Important and Not Urgent Tasks (The place where magic happens!)

Consider this your growth zone! Aim to hang here more often, this is the place to be!

Coming back to Eisenhower, ‘the important things are never urgent’…This quadrant is where we place the goals that move us towards our big picture. In Pharmacy, examples of these may be:

  • mapping the path towards the big picture
  • conducting a performance review that focuses on increasing engagement of a staff member
  • completing your vaccination accreditation
  • conducting a skills audit
  • upskill a staff member that could allow you to delegate more easily
  • streamlining your workflow
  • having ‘that’ conversation with your manager that would give you the opportunity to increase your job satisfaction
  • conduct a staff meeting

These things are important to the big picture. They have the ability to improve your jobs satisfaction and your Pharmacy, but, they are not urgent. In other words, there will be no IMMEDIATE crisis if they don’t happen.

When hanging in this space you tend to be calmer and feel more in control. So why do we resist time planning and preparing? In my experience, people feel if they’re not ‘doing’ they’re not productive. This is so far from the truth! Make time for these things, put them in your diary and put them on the store ‘to-do’ list. It’s unrealistic to expect to get hours a day in a Pharmacy to do these things but ask for half an hour of limited interruption. That may mean the Dispensary Technician dispenses and your staff tell people there will be a 15-minute wait instead of 10 minutes. Investing time here will improve everyone’s work life. It’s how you convey this to your staff that will be the key to your success.

Quadrant 3: Not Important and Urgent (the tasks that you’re doing that you probably shouldn’t have to)

Quadrant three is interesting and I encourage you to have a good think about this one. Identifying what YOU, as a Pharmacist need to do is the key to identifying something that is ‘Important’. Generally, no one else can complete the important things on your list, you have to complete them. With this knowledge, do you think there are some things in quadrant one that could be moved to quadrant three?

In a Pharmacy, things that may fit into quadrant 3 are:

  • Dispensing prescriptions (do you have a Dispensary Technician who could shoulder more of this load?)
  • Dealing with a customer complaint (could the Retail Manager deal with this one?)
  • Checking prescriptions (is there another Pharmacist that could cover you for half an hour to an hour?)
  • Checking emails (could someone flag for you what you need to read?)
  • Answering the phone
  • Answering a question from a staff member that may be answered by someone else

Minimising your time in this quadrant and prioritising what is important (quadrant 1 and 2) will without a doubt free up some of your time. If you find yourself spending a lot of time here, I have an exercise for you. Keep a log of all the interruptions you experience in a day and come up with an action plan on how you may best mitigate at least some of them.

Quadrant 4: Not Important and Not Urgent (time wasters! Delete!)

Quadrant 4 is a no go zone for productivity. Consider these distractions and possibly things that you inadvertently do to procrastinate. In Pharmacy these may be:

  • Excessive or irrelevant emails
  • Emptying the rubbish bin
  • Long-winded discussions about ‘nothing’
  • Dusting shelves
  • Re-alphabetising the ‘scripts on file’ draw

While there is no way that you can be productive for an entire day, week or month without a mental break, acknowledging these subconscious things you do that detract from your time is a great way to find minutes (or hours) in the day to do other things. The tasks in quadrant 4 are not necessarily ‘bad’ in themselves. If you have a task that you do when you need a mental break during this day, by all means, do it, but do it consciously. Set a time to engage with it then get back to your tasks in the other quadrants.

Ready to execute? Here’s the step-by-step guide!

Step 1.  Write a list!

Write everything that you want or need to achieve, no matter how menial, everything goes on the list! Also, add the tasks you do in your day so you can also place them in the appropriate quadrant to address.

Step 2. Next to your list make two columns, title one ‘urgent’ and one ‘important’.

Step 3. Identify the importance of completing the task and the urgency by assigning a number to each task in both columns. (Low = 0, High = 10)

Step 4. Using the information you have identified above to put your goals onto the matrix. This will give you a clear picture of how to prioritise your work. Remember, work on urgent AND important tasks (Quadrant 1) first.

Step 5. Double-check that nothing in Quadrant 1 is actually something that could be in Quadrant 3.

*in time you may be able to skip steps 2 and 3 but for now, I suggest you use them to ensure you’re really thinking about what is urgent and what is important.

There are pros and cons when dealing with priorities in teams.

Con: In the context of a community Pharmacy there are other staff using the same, finite amount of time in a day to complete their priorities.

Pro: There are other staff that can complete priorities using the same, finite amount of time in the day!

It’s all about perspective!

I know that some of you are thinking, well this is all well and good but what about my team’s priorities? They will have tasks that are important to them that aren’t important to me! I hear you…this is where having the foundation of trust within your team allows you to put leadership skills into action. By bringing your leadership soft skills to the table in this exercise you will improve your success, engage your team, streamline your workflow, and nurture your relationships.

Involving your team in prioritising work with The Urgent/Important Matrix

To involve your team and improve your success you could:

Step 1: Ask your staff to complete steps 1 – 4 for their day too. Please explain it to them, don’t assume they understand by shoving a piece of paper in front of them (nurture the relationship!).

Step 2: Collate their list onto a ‘master store urgent/important matrix’ with the other members of your team. (A whiteboard may be great for this if you have one handy.)

Step 3: Acknowledge that it is not possible to complete everything in one day. This is okay! You can keep adding, adjusting, and building on this as the days go by.

Step 4: As a team, delegate tasks to the most appropriate person to complete the task.

Step 5: Confirm that the person to who you have delegated accepts and is capable to action the task.

Step 6: Carve out time in the day for people to be able to execute the identified tasks limiting interruption.

One final tip…

Make time at the end of the day for everyone to complete this task so you can hit the ground running the following morning. This is simple and great for optimising your time! While this may seem long-winded to begin, the more it is practised, the quicker it gets and the more you will prioritise things appropriately without having to go through the whole process. The Urgent/Important Matrix may become a weekly or even a monthly fixture just to ensure you’re still on track.

Happy prioritising Pharma’s!!!!

written by Chantelle Turner – TURN Pharmacy Leadership

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