How to Prioritise your Efforts

Having trouble making the most of your time?

Running a business can sometimes feel like a never ending “to do” list.

Would you like to be “the expert” in our weekly Q&A sessions? Get in touch if you’ve got expertise to share! 

Helping people to prioritise their efforts to improve their business is a skill that Drive member Keith Shering employs with his clients. Keith runs the appropriately named Critical Action consultancy and created the award winning Goalstormer Platform.  Keith’s latest product is a diagnostic tool to help sell complex stuff more easily My Diagnostic OnLine 

This is a compilation of the live Q&A in the Ask the Expert hour in the Drive Facebook Group.

Effort v Time

Keith Shering Let’s start with an explanation:
Time has two components – the time it takes to do something (effort) and the time we spend doing it (duration) – these are not always the same… 🙂
Effort can be about different types of cost: money, bravery, relationships, etc.

Estimating the right amount of time and focusing on the task for that time is the trite answer – but that’s not so easy. Do you have the skills needed for the task or will you struggle? Do you need something from someone else (dependency), do you need more info to start with? These are the sorts of things that make duration longer than effort.
Can you work out if there are likely to be any dependencies or distractions around your tasks. Can someone else do them, can you give yourself more time. Do you prefer doing difficult tasks at the start or end of the day, for example.

Profitability, Risk and Differentiation

I use three basic factors to set priority of what I need to put time into – profitability, risk and differentiation – these are the “whys” of improvement…
Profitability is basically the difference between what I put in and what I get out – how much do I need to make that better?
Risk is about “what unknowns might bugger stuff up” – how can I avoid nasty surprises if I spend time learning or investigating more?
Differentiation is “why would people buy from me, not a competitor?” – what could I do to improve this?

These three together usually give a good picture of what matters most, then it’s a case of saying “how much time do I have available, and what split of that time will get the biggest change to one of these three?”

Andrew Hawkins So you use these three criteria to decide what to do and when for the best advantage to your business?
Keith Shering Broadly speaking, yes.
These three are the “why”.
The “what” are people, processes, tools.
The “how (to make change happen)” are ownership, communication and prioritisation.

Timetables and recording time

Katie Johnstone Can you talk about setting timetables and recording time? These are things that I am really bad at. Do you have any advice on how, as a small business going at 100mph, I can separate life and business as there seem to be no boundaries right now?

Keith Shering I force myself to record my time so I can look back on it to make accurate estimates – I always think I can do more than I can! It takes a bit of time and discipline, but it has the benefit of giving you your own facts to argue against yourself about how long things will take.
Another thing I do is think of a week as ten half days – so each is 10% of my week. Then when I work out how much time to block out to different priorities I can quickly see if my diary is consistent with that.
And that then forces me to admit that I can’t “just fit something in” when there’s no space – something has to shift.

On a practical note, I use Outlook and coloured blocks of time (usually 2-4 hour blocks) to visualise my time. It also helps me make sure I’ve got “light green time” – which is family, friends, fitness time.

I don’t keep a list, I book time in my calendar and it looks like this:

I can see by the colours how much time I’m focusing on things – this is sat-nav for my time and you can move things around – it’s the planning that matters, the actual plan is fluid as I move time around.

The colour choices are not random – I picked colours for growth, thinking, action, danger, etc. for my task areas. I can look at a week and know what sort of a week I’ll be having.

Ann Hawkins I know people who do this physically with post-it notes representing blocks of time.
Karl Gjertsen That is a great visual…



Sara Horsfall Has anyone tried Todoist? I’ve found that one useful, easy to use and also good for shared tasks 😉
Karl Gjertsen Hi Sara. Yes, I am using it more and more. I also plan to use it to integrate with my email and calendar
I have been keeping emails, as a reminder to do things. Once they drop off the screen, I forget about them…Hello Todoist app! This also has some great email and calendar integrations, so I can add emails directly to my Todo list.

Katie Johnstone I just have a long list…. then I pick which ever things I think need to happen.
Keith Shering With a long list, perhaps pick three or four “parameters” that matter to you and your clients, and score each task as hi/med/lo in each of these. Anything hi/hi/hi is a priority – anything lo/lo/lo – drop it and tell the person waiting on it that it won’t get done… 🙂
That parameter idea can be good for liaising with clients too – you can decide between you what the prioritisation criteria are for a project, so they “get” the impact of asking for requirements or changes.
Another thing to do with prioritising time, is never to block your calendar out 100% (like I’ve clearly not done this week, you understand… 🙂 ) – I tend to leave at least half a day free so I can shuffle things. My diary is busy this week as I had to accommodate a load of unexpected stuff last week – but everything will be back in control by Friday through shuffling blocks.

Interruptions and Firefighting

Ann Hawkins A couple of Drive members have businesses where they must be responsive to time critical calls from customers – often firefighting. It makes planning really difficult. Any suggestions for these sorts of situations Keith?
Keith Shering Could replies wait two hours? If so, then set an automatic reply, and block out your time in chunks of 2-hours work, 1-hour email; 2-hours work, 1-hour email, etc. It’s easy to say “turn your email off for a while”, but difficult to do…
Or, can they have a higher and lower priced offering with different expectations of support? It’s often worth having that as a conversation with our customers, as a) we don’t necessarily know how they’ll react and b) they sometimes don’t see the impact their expectations have on us.
Lucy Churchill I find it a real struggle to actually make my artwork, given how much time can be involved in promotion. It’s a real ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ situation.
Keith Shering This is where the approach of saying a week is a set of 10 blocks might help.
Forget diaries and planning for the moment, what would feel like the right amount of your time to spend promoting vs sculpting?
50:50? 40:60? 70:30?
Make an initial call, and that tells you your initial balance of time.
Now, see whether enjoyment and money go up or down, and adjust the time until it works best!
The other angle to improving businesses is to say, can I “leverage” or systemise things so that I get the same results with less effort?
As in, what mad, crazy way could you try to promote your work that took half the time? Now, what sensible version of that might be worth a try… 🙂
Lucy Churchill Very thought provoking… I’ll mull on that, thanks Keith.


Keith Shering Final thoughts: Look at the key tasks you do in a day or week. Which frustrate you? Why? What are the root causes of that?
Now try to find a system or person that deals with just that root cause.
Give it a try, does it help?
If yes, great, use it. If not, move on to the next frustration…
You can also take a more strategic approach – i.e. how could my overall business work without me – and work towards that when you pick your quick fix systems.

We’ve just skimmed the surface of this, so we’ve asked Keith to do some blog posts on systemisation and to expand on some of the ideas here, so if you have any specific questions, leave them in the comments below or ask Keith in the Drive Facebook Group.

You can also get Keith’s Guide to Selling Complex Stuff Better

Contact Keith direct at
Critical Action Ltd 
@Critical Action

Ann Hawkins