One of the biggest struggles in the modern workplace is knowing how to prioritize work. Workloads are ballooning and everything feels important. However, the truth is that a lot of the work we do every day does not really need to be done. At least not right away.
Here are some additional helpful tips for tackling prioritization:
1. Apply the Pareto Principle or 80–20 rule to everything you do. It says that 20% of your activities will count for 80% of your results. So from a list of 10, two of those items will be worth the other eight combined. On any given day, do you know your top two valued activities? Spending 100% of your time on 20% of the activities will make a big difference.
2. Set Deadlines. It is important to have deadlines for every task; otherwise, according to Parkinson’s Law, work will expand to fill the time available for its completion. Coined by British scholar C. Northcote Parkinson, he points out that people usually take all the time allotted (and frequently more) to accomplish any task. When you set an appropriate deadline, you can generally find ways to finish in that time frame.
However, there might be times when you are unsure how long a task will take. Do your best to plan and think on paper so you can give yourself a time range. You can even build in extra time since you are not sure of the exact end time and if you do not use it, you will be happy with the bonus time. Having an incentive to complete the task by the deadline and not infringe on your free time can be motivating.
3. Go From big to small. It is good to start with a macro picture, what you want for the year, but then you want to go small by thinking about what you need to do today. The smaller you get, the more energy you can devote to those items. Mark Twain said, “the secret to getting ahead is getting started, the secret to getting started is breaking your complex, overwhelming tasks into small, manageable tasks and then starting on the first one.” Each day, you can begin by asking — what is the one thing I can achieve today?
4. Assess the value and estimated effort. You can order your tasks by value. There will always be some tasks that will have a much higher value. For example, completing a client’s project before doing internal work such as designing a presentation template for yourself for the next time you give a speech. Ask yourself how many people would be impacted by your completed work. The more people involved, the higher the stakes.
You can also order tasks by estimated effort. If you have items that are a tie in value, you can further divide them by the estimate of completion. Generally, productivity experts usually suggest the tactic of starting on the lengthier task first. However, if your style is to complete a series of smaller tasks to free up the mental energy to dedicate all your power to the bigger tasks, you can choose the process that best supports your style. It can also be motivating to check off a few things from your list before moving on to the weightier items.
5. Be flexible and adaptable. Uncertainty and change are givens. Know that your priorities will change, and often when you least expect them. Since we cannot know the future, new information can force us to tweak our plan. While that is true that you want to stay focused on the tasks that are important to you, you also want to be aware of the sunk cost fallacy. In this psychological effect, we feel compelled to continue doing something just because we have already put time and effort into it. Spending time on the wrong items that will not move the needle will be detrimental in the long run because you will never get that time back. Life can remind us that there will be times when we have to stop what we are doing and switch tactics to get back on a better and faster track. Bestselling Author Jim Collins reminds us that a “stop-doing list” is even more important than a to-do list. We simply cannot do it all, even though we all know many people who try.
6. Make a decision on priorities. A big problem that some leaders have is that they do not make any decisions, thereby failing to signal to others what is truly important. This lack of prioritization is a problem. Steve Jobs said, “what I don’t do, is just as important as what I do.” Take a couple of minutes in the morning to set your intentions to get what you want from the day instead of somebody else setting your agenda.
A. Actively choose what not to do. Warren Buffet decided that he would invest only in the business that was absolutely sure of and then bet heavily on them. He owes 90% of his wealth to just 10 investments. All the decisions he made not to invest are just as important as deciding on what to invest. He said, “for every 100 great opportunities that are brought to me, I say no to 99 of them.” To be one of the best investors of all time, you need to be selective. So, when in doubt, cut!
B. Choose One. Having one significant priority will help to add structure in your life. In the early 2010s, Mark Zuckerberg had a single focus to grow Facebook. So anytime somebody went to him to pitch an idea, he would respond, “does it help us grow?” Even if the answers were attractive such as this will make a lot of money or this will help the business, he would ask the same question about growth until he got the answer he wanted. He had the main goal to focus on growth and made it very clear to all his employees so they were able to filter their requests first before going to him because they knew clearly what he cared about; they knew about his main objective of growth. He only wanted to discuss one initiative at a time and refused to talk about anything else.
Similarly, Billionaire Peter Thiel gave everybody one objective to focus on and when his employees wanted to have a meeting with Peter to pitch a new idea, he would ask how the new idea impacted that goal. They had to connect all their work to that one priority.
C. Choose the “Hell Yes” option or it is a No. The things that are hell yes get priority. Derek Sivers uses this approach when making a decision, he only says yes to the things that he is really excited about. Everything else, including the lukewarm commitments, is a no. So, if you think of items on a scale from 1–10 (10 being really excited about), the items with a ranking of a 10 would be an easy yes, and any task from 1–9 would be a hard No. Check out my blog on Saying Yes for more.
D. Go for quality over quantity. You do not have to do 100 things, you just have to do a few things right. Get clear on your first principles, which are the things you love. Distinguishing between the trivial many and the vital few is important. Greg McKewon defines being an essentialist as the “relentless pursuit of less but better.” Cross something off of your to-do list by not doing it and feel the relief.
7. Get comfortable saying No. Once you know your top goals, you want to say no to time killers and non-aligned requests. Saying no does not mean a rejection of the person, but a way to honor your own commitments to yourself. You can say, “This is something that I would love to help with and I’m grateful for the opportunity, but I need to focus on other pressing things right now. The good news is I have already lined up a great replacement.”
The script can be written in many different ways, the important piece of information is that there are ways to say no politely, while also protecting your most important time. Feel free to check out my earlier blog on Saying No which contains more scripts.
8. Get comfortable with tradeoffs. In making priorities, you have to make tradeoffs. When you say no, it means you get to say yes to something else. Herb Kelleher, CEO of Southwest airlines, always made these strategic tradeoffs. He treated every “no” as a yes for his company. Saying no to one thing allowed him to say yes to something else, such as developing an amazing company culture. These tradeoffs were not made by default, but by design! Herb said in an interview, “You have to look at every opportunity and say, well, no … I’m sorry. We’re not going to do a thousand different things that really don’t contribute much to the end result we are trying to achieve.” He made Southwest the dominant airline because he said no to destinations that were not point to point, no to serving meals, and no to first-class because they would have all been at the expense of offering cheap seats.
It is important to be clear in your priorities because if two conflict, you want to know exactly what to do. For example –being called into the office to work on a project and having a family event to go to, you can decide in advance what you are going to do based on what’s most important to you. This way, when the decision comes up, it is not as difficult since you already did the advanced decision-making.
9. Stick to your agreements and beware of the boundary creep. Let’s say you and your boss have agreed that your main priority is to build the website so all other aspects would be taken off your plate. The beginning of the agreement feels great because you finally have the time for a single focus and you are making significant progress. Then, a few months later, you notice that additional work keeps creeping in so your normal workload is the way it used to be before the discussion. When that happens, be sure to correct it immediately. Your priorities will always be tested, but when you are crystal clear with your boundaries, you can prevent the additional work encroachment.
10. Choose an outbox over an inbox strategy. How easy is it for us to lose precious hours of our day swallowed up by emails, wondering where the time went and why we did not accomplish anything? Living with an inbox strategy means that we respond to every request and interruption, we are at the mercy at other people‘s needs and agendas. In contrast, living with an outbox strategy means taking control of our day by setting clear and focused goals and then following that roadmap to get the job done. Successful leaders know how to get clear on the essentials.
Prioritization is a necessary skill to learn because sometimes it can feel like information is coming at us like a hose that has no off switch. The approach of keeping up with the amount of data coming our way is a full-proof fail strategy. Instead, we have to find ways to be selective in how much we are going to accept, when we will receive it, and how we can discard the excess.
Quotes of the day: “ It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” -J. K. Rowling
“Theory is good for the intellect, action is good for the soul” — Robert Reiner
Q: What is your favorite prioritization tip? Comment and share with us, we would love to hear what works for you!
As a Leadership Coach, I partner with people who want to get clarity on their priorities, contact me to learn more.