Ruthless prioritization

Laura Stack — №26 with Evan Carmichael

After 20+ years in this business, it’s clear to me that one of the worst problems plaguing office workers is poor prioritization. The issue is remarkably democratic, as widespread among C-suite executives at one end of the scale as it is among entry-level workers at the other. Nearly all of us have trouble deciding “who’s on first,” to borrow a term from the classic Abbott and Costello skit.

Sadly, that’s about as far as the humor extends in this metaphor. There’s nothing funny about being so overwhelmed you can barely figure out what tasks should dominate your schedule, and which you can push down the list or abandon altogether. But in order to effectively use your work-time and still maintain a reasonable quality of life outside work, you have no choice but to take the time to rank your tasks by priority. This is time wisely spent—possibly the most crucial element of your daily round.

Rather than scramble constantly or work yourself into the hospital, resolve to take firm ownership of your time. Attack prioritization head on. Whether the cause is your own disorganization or a boss who considers everything Priority 1, face the challenge head on and pin its ears down flat.

Your time, your responsibility

While my colleagues and I can give you advice, no one can really take ownership of your time but you—and if you let someone try, you’ll be subject to their whims, not your personal needs. Start by bearing down hard on your personal efficiency, which requires honing your willpower and self-discipline. Reject distractions as far as possible, even if it means isolating yourself behind a wall of ambient sound, turning off your phone, and closing your door (assuming you have one). If someone needs to meet with you, let them post an appointment on Outlook.

Next, refresh your written goals and maintain to-do lists, with your most important tasks slotted into the times when you’re at your best. For many of us, that’s first thing in the morning; but you know yourself best, so use your energy peaks to the fullest. As you rise through the ranks, your responsibilities will broaden and deepen; recognize and deal with the fact that your decisions will affect other people as well.

Don’t waste time, because you can’t afford it. Whether you dither, dawdle, or suffer from analysis paralysis, learn to overcome it. Teach yourself what to do first—then know what comes next, then what comes after that. Sometimes, knowing what not to do—and what you can safely drop off your schedule for the day or week—can keep you both on point and sane while others drown in overwhelm.

Where do your tasks fall into place, in terms of their relative value to the organization? Clearly, those of the greatest value must be near the top of the list—but so must the items you have to do every day to support the organization, i.e., the core duties for which the company hired you. As for everything else, figure out where it fits—or even if it makes any sense at all in your current job context. If not, talk things over with your manager and see what happens if you abandon it. Will someone scream if you stop doing it, or at least cut back on it? Or should someone else altogether be doing it? If there’s no reason to keep it, get it off your plate ASAP.

Any low-priority, low-value tasks that remain can slide to bottom of your to-do list—and slide right off if you run out of work-day.

Triage your day

On the battlefield, NATO medics treat the wounded based on priority (P), using this schema:

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 always comes first, with new P1 or P2 cases trumping the others. Here’s how I recommend you adapt this to your work day:

P1: crucial daily tasks, or tasks that endanger your job if not done right now. P2: “Someday” tasks you can handle when you have time. P3: Useful task others need you to do and may eventually complain about. P4: Minor tasks, personal tasks, and time-wasters.

Priorities will shift as you rise into upper management. Handling the work lives of many people skyrockets the value of those “someday” tasks, especially those with company-wide value. They jump immediately to the top of the list, like so:

P1: Strategic team and organizational goals P2: Operations and tactics P3: Minor short-term problem-solving P4: Everything else

The goals in P1 you once thought would be nice to do—training, empowerment initiatives, increasing engagement—should dominate your time, along with dealing with your superiors, monitoring metrics, and other things that bolster the organization’s health. Only you can do these tasks best, so you can’t delegate them to anyone else. You can oversee P2 items, and delegate P3s fully. Jettison the P4 items.

When priorities attack

Crises, problems, and challenges will always test your capacities as a leader. But to achieve the kind of supervision and big-picture guidance you were hired for requires a ruthless approach to task prioritization and planning in general. Learn to push the least crucial tasks down to your subordinates, so you can handle the most significant ones. Don’t abdicate the responsibility, but definitely delegate as much as you can to those who can better handle it. Focusing on a few brushstrokes of the big picture—or worse, micromanaging everything—will leave you stuck in a deep rut you can’t escape. Save your efforts for the big bottlenecks or problems, reframing them as challenges and wading in with your sleeves rolled up. Adapt yourself to the agility, flexibility, and speed required in today’s business world.

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Photo: Flickr / fstoaldo CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Laura stack

Laura Stack

Laura Stack is America’s premier expert in productivity. For over 20 years, her speeches have helped entrepreneurs, leaders, teams, and organizations improve output, lower stress, and save time at work and in life. Her company, The Productivity Pro®, Inc., provides time management workshops around the globe to help attendees achieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time®.

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