How many times have you been asked to do more with no additional help or resources? So, in an effort to be efficient you ask, “What is the priority?” and you are met with “It all is. Everything is a priority.”
Or maybe you’ve looked at your own to-do list and questioned yourself “Where do I begin? What is most important?” and you’re paralyzed with the belief that it all is.
It’s happened to me a few times - I’m certain this has happened to you.
In some ways, that response is comical given the definition of priority tells us everything can’t be a priority. In fact, when everything is, nothing is. This is a high-quality oxymoron.
So how do you manage the perpetual pile-on? That request to continue to do more (with less), still turn out a great work product and have energy left at the end of the day for yourself?
You don’t. You can’t. You can’t do it all and holding yourself to that expectation is unrealistic and harmful.
This is why being able to ruthlessly prioritize is one of the most important skills for anyone. It is an essential competency for front-line employees, middle managers, and senior leaders. It’s critical for teachers, independent consultants, and stay at home parents. Everyone benefits from this skill.
When you are overwhelmed and have more on your plate than you know what to do with (and everything seems important) what are the best strategies to prioritize? Read on to get some tips.
Our brains are not ideal for keeping track of tasks and activities. Rather, our brains are best for critical thinking, problem-solving, strategizing, and analysis. This means to get everything that needs to be done out of your head. Write it down or use an app, whatever works best. As long as it is in a consistent place that you refer to often.
Avoid spreading tasks list across multiple tools (e.g. some tasks in a note book, others in an app, and the rest in your head). You ultimately blow valuable time trying to remember where something is written down or that task is forgotten entirely.
Prioritization works best when you can see what needs to be prioritized.
Short-term: Identify the Most Important Things (MITs)
Sometimes we need immediate prioritizing or a short-term strategy to get through the day but when looking down a list of 50 to-do’s, it is easy to be distracted by the volume of work ahead. A simple, short-term strategy is to capture MITs, or Most Important Things.
It requires reviewing the list you’ve created and identifying what needs to be done today and only today. Maybe you highlight the MITs, put a star next to them, or circle the corresponding number. It doesn’t matter, as long as it is clear what tasks are most important to be completed today.
Some people then rank that list of MITs so they know where to begin. You can do that too. Either way, prioritization is about knowing what to do first.
Long-term: Use a Decision Matrix
Instead of trying to rank a long list of activities that require varying amounts of time and effort, try using a decision matrix. This one prioritizes work by urgency and level of effort.
Review your list and consider how quickly you need to complete the task (urgency) and how time consuming that work will be (effort). Then, place it in one of the quadrants to prioritize the work.
High Urgency/Low Effort – Complete these items first.
Low Urgency/Low Effort – These are last on your list, defer them or delegate them to others but spend minimal time on them. They aren’t urgent.
Low Urgency/High Effort – Because these tasks require additional time but aren’t pressing, plan time in the future for these to be completed.
High Urgency/High Effort – Because these require high effort, block time now in your calendar to focus on them. Consider canceling or postponing other less urgent meetings to get these tasks done.
A matrix like this is especially helpful for a period of “overwhelm” and the paralysis that can come with it. In these moments, it is best to take a step back, place the work in buckets that then direct your next actions.
Make it a Routine
The best way to advance your prioritizing skills is the do it regularly. Set aside a routine time to prioritize your work. Maybe you have weeks where identifying the MITs is sufficient or maybe you need to apply a decision matrix every week. Either way, the more you prioritize and do so in a consistent way, the easier it will be. Prioritizing is like a muscle. The more you flex it, the strong it gets and the easier it becomes.
Prioritizing is the process of downgrading the importance of some work. Carving out time, critically assessing workload, and then deciding what comes first is the mark of a highly skilled individual. It doesn’t matter if you’re running a multi-million-dollar business or teaching a group of 3rd graders those who are effective at prioritizing are also more effective at their jobs. Start flexing those muscles now.
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Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training and coaching.
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