Feeling overwhelmed? A little time triage may help

Time is part of a measuring system used to sequence events, to compare the duration of events and the intervals between them, and to quantify the motions of objects. (Or, time is a concept we invented to keep everything from happening at once.)

Triage is a process of prioritizing based on the severity of condition. This rations the subject of triage efficiently when resources are insufficient for all to be dealt with immediately. From the French trier, meaning to separate, sort, sift or select.

In the coming months, this column will look at various aspects of time management as it effects your everyday productivity and sense of accomplishment.

Ok, so why are we feeling so overwhelmed? Many people are complaining about it. Most people are dealing with it from time to time. And some feel like they have to run full tilt just to keep from falling behind. It all adds up to the sensation of being a hamster on a wheel – running all day long, and basically getting no where fast.

We don’t have to look very far to identify some of the contributing players. By all accounts, we spend up to an hour a day just looking for what we need, and most of us take up to three hours trying to deal with our email inbox.  That means half the day is already gone. Additionally, some studies indicate that we could easily be spending between 30 and 90 percent of our time in meetings.

This math does not work for me. We have accounted for over 100 percent of our workday, and we probably haven’t even begun to tackle our most important tasks.

Most time management books, articles and courses focus on getting more things done. Much of the emphasis is on ways to prioritize tasks to identify what is most important (and not necessarily most urgent). While some suggest delegating, my experience indicates that many entrepreneurs and solo-preneurs are missing this piece.

Getting through every single thing on your list of to-do’s doesn’t really matter much if the entire list is made up of items that ought to be delegated to someone else. You will have spent your whole day without focusing at all on what are the most important things you should pay attention to.

Instead of looking for ways to get more things done, you must begin to shift your focus to getting the right things done. This is absolutely critical for entrepreneurs and managers (and for everyone, really).

What are the right things? And how do you identify them in the face of the swirl of life and work and the never-ending flood of errands, phone calls, emails, and tasks?

That’s where time triage comes in. You can develop a quick and reliable way to review everything on your list to identify what you need to focus on and decide when you are going to give it your attention.

Make no mistake – if you don’t determine the when, the what is probably not going to happen.  Part of being overwhelmed is not carving out a specific day and time to get things done.

Let’s get to the triage. The first step is to figure out what you are going to use as a standard to determine the relative importance (the severity of the condition) of the myriad demands for your time and attention.

There are two standards I encourage my clients to use all the time. First, is this task going to move my goals forward?  Second, if the answer to the first question is yes – is doing this task the best use of my time?

You might think that if the answer to the first question is yes, then the second question must be yes, but that is not necessarily so.

For example, keeping the database of contacts up-to-date definitely forwards the goal of being in regular communication with clients, colleagues and prospects, but doing the work to keep it up-to-date is not a good use of your time at all.

Obviously, to use this method, you will need to know your goals and will need to determine just what is the best use of your time. And that is the single most powerful place to start.

So, here is an assignment for you. Take a little bit of time, and figure out what is the best use of your time. What is the unique contribution you make to the business – the one that no one else can make.

Maybe you are the face of the business, which means networking, creating contacts and building relationships is the best use of your time. Perhaps you are the creative force of the business, the idea person. In that case, having time to think and create is the best use of your time.

Many of my clients are working women, and spending high quality time with their kids is something that they identify as the one of the best uses of their time.

There is no right or wrong here – just the most effective allocation of your resources to produce the results you are committed to. And time, by far, is one of your most limited resources. You must use it wisely.

Just because something has to be done doesn’t mean you have to do it!

Terry Monaghan is CEO of Organizing For Your Life, LLC, a consulting firm specializing in productivity issues, and can be reached at terry@organizingforyourlife.com

(c) 2010 – Washington Business Journal. Used by permission.


  1. Hi Terry,

    Organizing is often an overlooked part of the system, but it really makes the difference between thriving and scrambling to get by.

    Since I’ve organized my life, I have experienced huge shifts and transformations.

    Thanks for your inspiration

  2. trudy says:

    Excellent post Terry – I love it all but this is my favorite “Just because something has to be done doesn’t mean you have to do it”.

  3. Lisa Manyon says:


    Kudos for being published and thanks for sharing this valuable information with us.

    I know that I often need to get my time management skills in order. 🙂

    Write on!~


  4. Awesome post, Terry. Hoya Pride! ; )

    And, congrats that you Wash Biz Journal published it. They chose wisely!!

    I especially like what you said about getting the right things done, and just because it has to get done, doesn’t mean you have to do it!! So true. So true!!

    You rock! ♥

  5. Ding, ding, ding, you rang my bell Terry! I’m sure you were inside my head. Triage, good word. I’m going to look at all my tasks each morning as they lie broken and bleeding on a gurney in the ER and triage them! Deligate, deligate, deligate!!!

  6. Mitch Tublin says:

    Organization and the choices of how to spend – how much time and on what – the entrepreneurs daily dilemma!
    Good write up,

  7. Sue Painter says:

    I like the focus you put on not just “doing something” but making sure you are spending your time doing the “right something.” Delegating things one use to do for one’s self is the KEY! Great article, thanks.

  8. Phil Dyer says:

    Terry – Great article. One of the first things I advise almost all new clients to do is to take a “time out” – either in the form of a “Me” day or a “Personal Strategic Retreat” to figure this type of thing out!

    Also, “open loops” have a way of preying on our sub-conscious…so the more open items we have…the more unfocused we tend to be. Taking your advice to focus on that “higest and best use” is so important.

    Phil Dyer
    America’s Entrepreneur Strategist™

  9. zynga chips says:

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  10. Tim Monaghan says:

    Well done. Looking forward to more articles.

  11. Well… that’s quiet interessting but frankly i have a hard time seeing it… wonder how others think about this..

  12. This is exactly what the doctor ordered especially since Monday is almost here again. My “to-do” list has shrunk drastically by focusing on getting the right things done. Thank you!

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