The Trouble with Prioritizing

Do you ever feel like there are too many things to do and not enough time to do them all? How about this scenario: you’re working at a project on a deadline at work when someone hands you something that’s an emergency, and you’re expected to stop whatever you’re doing to make – or create – time for this new “priority.” Have you seen this saying before? “Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” It sounds good and logical, but we’ve all experienced situations when this is precisely what happens, and the person left to deal with the new emergency or various emergencies is whoever happens to be lowest on the delegation totem pole.

For many of my clients, a common complaint goes something like this: We don’t have time to prioritize because everything is a priority, things are moving too fast and/or all we have time to do is put out fires. Of course, I always challenge the notion that it is “impossible” to prioritize because, given that time is relatively finite (I’ll leave the discussion for the ways that time is not finite for another article), we are always forced to prioritize even if we do not realize we’re doing it. I don’t know what you do or what business you’re in, but I’m pretty sure that few of you routinely deal in life-or-death situations. Think about the dynamics of a hospital emergency room and the process known as triage, which is nothing more than prioritization based upon real life-or-death scenarios. Decisions (hopefully conscious ones) are routinely made in an emergency room regarding how each patient is prioritized for treatment. If the emergency room professionals can prioritize injuries (even in life-or-death situations), then you can prioritize your business deadlines.

In addition, and despite all of our personal and professional bluster about our ability (or perceived ability) to multi-task, we mere humans are only capable of actually focusing and working on one thing at a time. As a result, whatever we are focused and working on is by definition our top priority in that moment. Even if we claim that it’s not that important (perhaps we’re working on this project because it’s an easy one to knock out so we can focus on the higher priority project), whatever we’re working on is our highest priority.

Oops … I should have warned you in advance that a lesson was coming, and that was it:

Whatever you are doing at any particular point in time is your highest priority in that moment, even though this is often not a conscious (or highly conscious) choice.

In fact, most of our “choices” about priorities are not really choices at all. You’re probably thinking that I’m referring to the many situations where someone else (often your senior) is dumping things in your lap, so it feels like you don’t have any choice in the prioritization of the work. However, I’m actually talking about the many situations and circumstances when we are reactive in what we choose to do in any given moment (i.e., we don’t think through what’s most important, either based upon its value or because of timing). These unconscious choices and the absence of conscious prioritization are not serving us or our businesses well.

A great way to enhance your consciousness in prioritizing and to increase your effectiveness in execution is to consistently ask yourself two questions:

  1. Is this project that I’m working on right now my highest priority? And
  2. If not, do I have good reasons for working on something other than my highest priority right now?

By simply asking and answering these questions throughout the day, you will make better choices and your priorities will be more intentional and conscious.

Recently, I discovered an even more important concept about prioritization … and strangely enough it has nothing to do with prioritization. I was having a conversation based on the questions above with one of my leadership coaching clients, and in the midst of our discussion a question hit me. This is usually how it goes with me – in the midst of a discussion or a facilitation, a unique question comes to me which is often just what is needed to create clarity, a unique solution or whatever the client needs. The client was expressing frustration about the many times when someone dumps a project or deadline on him at the last minute, which often requires him to stay and work late. He also talked about how it felt like the priorities were out of his control, which in turn left him feeling out of control in general. Sound familiar to you?

The following is our brief discussion:

Me:  Do you have kids?

Client:   Yes, two that are school age.

Me:  When you make a clear commitment to be there for one of their activities (e.g. sports, music, etc.), how often are you late or do  you  miss it?

To be honest, I was expecting to hear an answer such as “rarely” or “not very often,” but his clear answer was never.” I quickly processed his response and followed up with this comment:

“So, when you make a commitment to your kids to be there, you always honor that commitment no matter what happens at work or what things get thrown at you that day.

His response was “yes, because if I make a commitment to my kids I honor it.” I paused for a moment or two and then told him, “You don’t have a prioritization problem; you have a commitment problem, because when you make clear commitments you honor them no matter what other ‘priorities’ get thrown in your way.”

I think we’re on to something. When was the last time (personally or professionally) that you or someone else you know made a commitment and actually used the word commit or commitment? I am not talking about what you will try to do, try to make or try to accomplish. I’m also not talking about being asked to do something and simply agreeing. There’s something empowering and powerful about actually making real commitments to yourself or to others because commitment invokes integrity. If I fail to honor a commitment, then I am out of integrity, and for most people integrity (honoring commitments) is important.

Personally, this shift in perspective and language has proven to be a powerful change agent in my life. I do not loosely or easily make commitments, but when I make a clear commitment I will do literally everything that I can to honor that commitment. Make no mistake – I sometimes still make vague, or what I call slippery, promises. But I also and more often say “no,” either to the request or to the requested delivery timing for something, which allows me to be in a position to honor the commitments that I do make. This often involves difficult choices, but that happens whether we’re prioritizing, making promises or making commitments, and I am consciously choosing to be intentional about my commitments.

In a culture (personal and professional) where accountability is a rare commodity, wouldn’t it be grand to have more self-accountability and integrity (people simply doing what they say they will do)? The solution may just lie in embracing commitments over priorities. Imagine the impact in your life if you made more conscious commitments and honored them. Imagine the impact in your business and with your team if people were focused on commitments and their personal integrity. Our objective with our clients is to create, foster and support transformational impact and experience, and commitments and integrity are at the heart of this work. Try it on in your business and in your life–make clear commitments, honor those commitments, experience how good it feels to be in integrity and watch the results flow in. Stop prioritizing and start committing!

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