Based on a mountain of evidence (and my own extensive experience), it’s clear that prioritization is one of the most difficult issues plaguing modern workers, who stare at 117-item to-do lists. This holds true from the lowliest intern all the way up to the pinnacle of the C-Suite.
Because you only have so much time in your day, you have to spend some of it figuring out how to rank order your tasks. You know how difficult this can be and how easily fumbled—we’ve all dropped the ball occasionally. You may have problems setting priorities for the multiple projects you’re juggling, or your boss may insist everything she hands you has top priority. Whatever the case, you have to scramble to keep up, risking overwork and overwhelm.
With that bald reality staring you in the face, one thing is obvious: you have to attack prioritization head on and wrestle it to the ground before it steamrolls you. This process starts with taking firm ownership of your time.
Taking ownership of your time may involve several levels of responsibility, but it always begins with tightening up your standards of self-discipline and efficiency. Isolate yourself from distraction, keep written goals and strict to-do lists, and commit to doing the job right the first time. As you rise higher in the ranks, you’ll find yourself increasingly responsible not just for your own work, but also for prioritizing team or departmental operations, conducting long-term planning, and taking an active hand in shaping the organization’s strategic goals. At the highest levels, your decisions may affect thousands of lives.
You can’t afford to waste time by dithering, hesitating, or freezing up. You need to know for sure what to do first, then what comes next, and so on all the way down the line, remaining flexible for important, uncontrollable events that crop up. Prioritizing boils down to doing first the projects with the greatest return on investment with the nearest due-dates. Everything else has to fall into place based on its relative value to the organization and your job requirements.
If you find those values difficult to determine, stop and reflect on your organization’s long-term strategic goals. How do your tasks fit it? Do they still make sense in the current context? Do your downstream consumers use everything you send them, or can you cut back? If you just stopped doing something, would anyone scream? If not, why keep doing it? You can push more tasks than you probably realize to the bottom of your to-do list, where they can simply drop off if you run out of time. Of course, if this happens more than a few times, reassess the task; it may be better off with someone else.
The Triage Process
If you still have too much to do, you have no choice but to triage, using the same approach as NATO medics on the battlefield. They treat the wounded in a specific order based on priority (P). Here’s how I explain these levels in my seminars:
- P1: Not breathing (life or death)
- P2: Bleeding (can become a crisis as time passes)
- P3: Broken bones (problematic if left untreated)
- P4: Burns (painful, requires long-term reconstruction)
P1 items always come first, followed immediately by P2. Everything else gets done as time allows, dropped at a moment’s notice when trumped by a new P1 or P2 case. Here’s how this translates to business:
- P1: Critically important. You can’t leave the office until it’s done.
- P2: Valuable “someday” tasks. Take care of them, or they will soon become a P1.
- P3: Somewhat useful; somebody might eventually complain if you don’t do it, but there are no consequences on your goals.
- P4: Minor tasks and personal “pain-management” like socializing. Basically what you do when you’re procrastinating on not doing a P1 or P2.
At the leadership level, these are translated into:
- P1: Strategic goals
- P2: Vital operations/tactical items
- P3: “Gotta minute?” issues (drop-ins, email, unnecessary meetings)
- P4: Trivial items and administrivia someone else should be doing.
P1 requires most of your focus, because these represent tasks you do best that profit your organization the most. Oversee P2 items, but let subordinates handle them on a daily basis. Manage and control all P3s. Delegate or drop P4 items altogether.
Why Prioritization Matters
To paraphrase an old saying, “When you’re up to your waist in alligators, it’s easy to forget the original goal was to drain the swamp.” As a leader, you have all kinds of alligators snapping at you, demanding attention right now. But your team must wrestle those gators for you, so you can proceed with the swamp-draining project. Organizations have leaders for a reason. Supervision and big-picture wrangling is crucial to any organization, small or large, and the team must be able to turn on a dime and change strategy.
Achieving this requires ruthless planning and task prioritization of the type I’ve outlined in this column. While you can’t plan for everything, remain exquisitely aware of the big picture possibilities. Never focus tightly on a few brushstrokes; you have specialists for that. There may be times when you have to roll up your sleeves, wade in, and remove bottlenecks—but they’d better be rare, saved for crisis situations only you can handle. Otherwise, let the processes you’ve put in place deal with whatever may arise.
Properly done, prioritization sharpens the entire organization’s focus, simply by saving time, money, and effort. Plan well ahead so you can prioritize based on projected needs. While old school strategic planning for 3-5 years at a time no longer works, you can still make yearly plans, revised according to monthly reviews. Flexibility, agility, and efficiency must be watchwords here, so your proactive planning blends effectively with reactive reality. Despite what your professors may have taught you in business school, you can’t always avoid reactive decision-making. The world simply moves too fast now.
Other Pertinent Points
While prioritization should always focus on P1 and P2 tasks, you can’t forget about P3 items entirely. At the very least, think about them long enough to decide where they fit in the scheme of things, or if they should fit anywhere at all. Empower your team members to help you with these decisions by delegating your authority far and wide. You don’t have time to micromanage.
Another point: your leaders may have priorities that don’t match yours. If you think theirs are off the mark, respectfully make your case to them. If what you do and what they think you should be doing aren’t the same, you have a problem on your hands. You have an obligation to champion whatever you believe will benefit the organization the most.