The ABC’s of an ABC Analysis

A lot of time and project management is making smart lists.

Most people make “To Do” lists – long strings of activities with various levels of importance and urgency. Then, once complete, we get to check the activities off the list, often with a sense of closure and satisfaction. Organized as a single “list of stuff,” each item appears to have equal weight with the others, even if only one item out of five is really going to have the most impact.

An “ABC Analysis” is a process that invites you to be more critical about the list. It is a classification approach that asks you to sort your listing of activities against some set of criteria. Each criterion is labeled A, B or C. Often, the criteria are:

  • A – Important and urgent
  • B – Important but not urgent (or urgent but not Important, depending on your list)
  • C – Neither important or urgent

You could also classify your list by audience, from most important to less important (A=clients; B=internal managers; C=colleagues).

After you identify the three criteria that will help you best understand and prioritize your list, associate each item with an A, B or C. Then, prioritize everything in the most important category (the A’s). For example, my “urgent and important” tasks may include:

  • Complete proposal for Client M
  • Approve time sheets so people can get paid
  • Buy birthday cake for Mom (it’s okay to mix professional and personal – it is, after all, your list!)

Then, assign timeframes to each of your top priorities, to see how much of your day will be taken up by the important, urgent and high-priority items. For example, I decide that the proposal will likely take two hours, so I block from 1 PM to 3:30 PM for that – giving me ample time for that task, with a little buffer.  Despite being urgent and important, timesheets will only take 15 minutes, so I decide to take full advantage of a small window between meetings to do that, and I block it on my calendar. Finally, I talk with my supervisor about leaving 30 minutes early, so I can get that cake.

The approach turns my “list of stuff” into a strategic allocation of time, which also gives me the chance to look at what else I can get done in the time remaining – I can take on the next items on the list in a systematic way.

This is usually where someone cuts in, saying: “Whoa, that’s a bunch of time spent managing time!” It’s true, as you are getting used to this process, it can take some practice, which takes time. You will, however, make up that time by upping the impact of your time, and by reducing the amount of time you spend reviewing your list and deciding what to do next. When practiced, it becomes a habit to classify, prioritize and time-block tasks as you write them down – saving loads of time long-term.