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8 Ways to Triage Your Work

Between A Rock & A Hard Place

Many managers find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place.  The ‘rock’ is a growing list of priorites, projects and tasks. The ‘hard place’ is tight budgets, busy calendars and overflowing inboxes.

But what if that ‘hard place’ – the metaphorical wall was a menu of options rather than a pile of bricks! So, rather than being faced with an unending volume of work (calendar invites, emails and tasks) you had a means of prioritizing the work that mattered most. You had the ability to triage your priorities, projects and tasks.

There are 8 ways to triage your projects, priorities and tasks. Some are about getting the most important and urgent work done, the rest are about managing and even avoiding what is less important. Let’s examine them next.

8 Ways to Triage

Let’s continue with our triage metaphor. Imagine you have 100 people queuing but can only treat 20 now. How will you decide who gets treated and when? You might apply the following protocol:

  1. Treat – it is important and/or urgent and deserves your immediate attention.
  2. Top of the queue – it will get the next available slot in the diary/resources. 
  3. Refer – send somewhere else for treatment
  4. Defer – schedule a future check up
  5. Assess – Gather / await more information
  6. Scrub from the list – the patient is either cured, incurable or dead!
  7. Automate – Optimize, Systemize & Automate
  8. Prevent – Intervene Earlier / Tackle it at source

There are 8 Ways to Triage your projects, priorities and tasks.  It is the means to transform a long list into a priority list.

Numbers 1 and 2 are labelled ‘do it’ – these must get done and are colored green for ‘go’. But the motto certainly isn’t ‘Just Do It’ – the next 4 are about avoiding doing it – they are labeled ‘refer’, ‘defer’, ‘assess’ and ‘scrub from the list’. The last two involve longer term thinking – this is something that can be difficult when you are busy, but has the potential to break the cycle of constant busyness. Here are some examples:

  • It might be quicker to do certain work yourself, but unless you invest the time in getting others up to speed with a task it will be yours forever.
  • The templates used for proposal generation are dated and need of improvement. To save time you keep using the old ones making tweaks here and there, but if time was spend updating the templates it would boost results and save time in the long run.
  • Generating certain management reports requires a lot of copying and pasting of information from various systems. This makes the task tedious and also increases the risk of error. You decide that the next time you are generating a report you will document the process and approach the data team to explore automating database queries to the different systems.

The items listed 7 and 8 are easy to put off, but they shouldn’t be. It is a kin to working in the system, while also working on the system. These are examples of what Demir and Carey Bentley refer to as ‘leveraged priorities’1).

What is Triage?

Executives are getting busier and busier, with an endless procession of meeting invites, emails and IMs. But what happens when an ever-expanding list of tasks, projects and priorities meets with a constrained (indeed sometime shrinking) pool of available time and resources? Well, two things can happen:

  • Spread yourself and your resources thinly across everything
  • Focus your efforts and resources on those areas that are most important

If we try to do everything we will fail, or at least get frustrated. Not everything can be done and certainly not at the same time. Saying ‘no’ or ‘not now’ to certain tasks, projects or priorities is essential. Deliberate choices and tradeoffs need to be made. That is what Triage is about.

Triage is an elevated form of planning, where choices, decisions and tradeoffs are grappled with up front.

The process is informed by the key criterion of Importance, Complexity and Urgency (ICU).

You can also add ‘Messyness’ and ‘Dependencies’ into the mix (ICU MD) to decide what work gets done, when it gets done, who does, it, how it gets done and so on.

The goal of Triage is to ensure that you and your team are doing the Right Work, getting the Right Result and Working Together in the Right Way. It is also about the Right Resources – ensuring that scarce resources (time, attention, manpower, money, etc.) are aligned with priorities.

People often feel as if their work, their productivity and their level of busyness is outside their control. This has implications for their job satisfaction and motivation. But that is not all. Managing a growing workload has implication for quality of life and well-being. For some people failing in this area could literally put them in ICU!

Are you being pulled in many directions?

Being realistic you may only get to triage your work to 80%, for some it may be 60% or even less. That is because we are not fully in control of our work environment and all that is expected of us. We work in a complex dynamic environment with constantly changing demands put on us by bosses, colleagues, stakeholders and customers. It looks something like the diagram below – it puts things in context when you imagine that you are just one of those figures.

A team of 12 people generates more than 1000 interactions per week and more than a few interruptions! This volume of interactions at work mean that we may start our week with the most of our time already claimed by internal meetings2.

Every meeting generates further tasks and calendar invites, meanwhile the emails and IMs keep flowing. Our best made plans are laid to waste, with many executives getting less than one hour of uninterrupted time in a typical day.

There is no point setting out priorities at the start of a project or sprint, and not reviewing it until the work is done. As things are continually changing our triaged list of priorities, projects and tasks needs to be reviewed on an ongoing basis. A key question is will it survive the week or even the day?

The Right Way of Working

Triage is about the Right Work, but that is not all. It is also about the Right Way of Working.

For example, take a task that has/is frustrating you. Explore its ICU – chances are there is some aspect you have been overlooking. Perhaps it is more complex than you had originally thought – this will help to explain why it might be slow and frustrating. Perhaps you are frustrated because you the task is getting in the way of doing the more important work.

‘I have read so many books on time management…’ said the VP. ‘What I discovered is that it is not really about time management, but the management of priorities.  There is no magical way of fitting 12 hours work into an 8 hour work day’ he continued.  ‘But what you can do is – spend as many of your 8 or 10 hours on the work that matters most and as little as possible on the rest. For me that is what the idea of Triage is all about’ he concluded. 

There’s Another Reason to Triage!

‘I like the Triage and ICU concepts’ said one of our coaching colleagues. ‘It is a subtle hint at the link between how we work and our health and wellbeing’ he continued. ‘Failing to address the challenge of prioritizing our growing workload could literally mean you end up in the ICU!’

'Failing to prioritize & manage your growing workload could literally put you in the ICU!'


In reflective mode he continued: ‘We all have periods in our life when we work crazy hours and that is ok. However, when those type of hours become the norm there will inevitably be consequences – measured in terms of our relationships, home life, happiness and ultimately our health’.

  1. Demir Bentley & Carey Bentley, ‘Winning the Week: How To Plan A Successful Week, Every Week’, Houndstooth Press (July 10, 2022 []
  2. Our data shows that many executives are spending over 70% of their time on internal collaboration []

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