PRIORITISING work is a major challenge for many people. When the work starts piling up on their desk, they feel overwhelmed and are at a loss as to where to start or what to do first.

If you experience this type of dilemma, there is a technique you can use to work more effectively. Called the triage technique, it was developed by a French Army surgeon during the Napoleonic Wars to treat soldiers wounded in battle.

Dominique Jean Larrey was surgeon-in-chief of the Napoleonic armies from 1797 to 1815 and played a pivotal role in the battle of Waterloo.

Larrey's major challenge was to treat the wounded soldiers rapidly to save their lives. Their injuries ranged from simple to life-threatening. Being short-staffed, Larrey decided to classify wounded soldiers according to three categories, which he called the triage, to assist in their treatment and evacuation.

Soldiers in the first category were likely to live, regardless of what care they received. The second category comprised those who were likely to die, regardless of what care they received, and the third category was for those for whom immediate care might make a positive difference to the outcome.

Such a classification might seem hard-hearted to the modern reader, but it effectively saved more lives than if Larrey and his medical team had treated the soldiers on a first-come first-served basis.

The triage technique was further refined and fully utilised by the medical corps of many countries during the two World Wars. Today, it is practised by hospitals when they face a massive number of casualties associated with a man-made or natural disaster.

The triage technique is referred to as Start, which stands for Simple Triage And Rapid Treatment. When faced with a medical emergency involving many patients, medical personnel quickly classify them into the three categories discussed earlier and administer the appropriate medical treatment.

This concept can also be adapted to your work life, to help you prioritise your workload and get things done quickly and effectively.

Use the Start technique to classify all the tasks you have to accomplish according to three categories. Once you have created your triage, you can assess the situation and administer the appropriate action - the equivalent of "rapid treatment" in a medical environment.

Your triage can be classified along these lines:

1. Things that are important but not urgent

An example of this would be contacting a friend, a client or a business associate whom you have not met for some time. Or, sorting out a minor issue in the office that you know can be resolved easily.

List these down in your first category and attend to them at the first available opportunity. It is important to note that you should try to get these tasks done by a specific time before they escalate into bigger problems. For example, by not keeping in touch regularly with a loyal client, you may lose his business.

2. Things that are a lost cause or a waste of time

In the second category of your triage, list down the tasks or activities that are not going to help you progress. It could be a straightforward problem with an old piece of office equipment that breaks down frequently. You may be better off getting a new one instead of wasting time and effort trying to salvage it.

Frivolous meetings fall into this category and it is definitely worth your while to weed out events that are a waste of time. Why meet when an e-mail or phone call will have the same result?

3. Things that require immediate action for a positive development

The tasks in the third category are high priority. They could include contacting potential new customers or completing the project that earns you the highest profit. Working on the budget you need for your team to operate effectively and coaching an under-performing employee so that he or she can become competent again are also important tasks that fall into this category.

Once these tasks are classified, you can give them the "rapid treatment" they need, which in turn has a positive impact on your performance and productivity.

Ultimately, what makes you an effective individual is your ability to assess each situation you face objectively and take the necessary action to resolve it. The triage and rapid treatment philosophy offers a useful framework to get you started.