Prioritization is a skill.
The challenge is that everything seems to be a high priority and it’s difficult to decide what is more important than the next. Everything is important and urgent. Urgency is one of those things that can be a gift because it creates drive to get more done but when not balanced creates overwhelm and overload. Entrepreneur or not you have pressure coming from all directions: your boss, your client, your family and your personal needs.
Sit Down & Prioritize in 4 Steps
There are four steps to consider when you’re sitting down to prioritize so that you can balance urgency and importance in a rational way. The key that these methods bring is to get you out of an emotional state and practically work through what you have to get done.
1 – Make a List
One of the first and most important thing is to make a list of all of the things that you need to do in each category. Putting them into categories is the first step in being able to get specific as to what needs to get done. Dumping everything out of your mind and seeing it on paper helps.
Formats for creating this list can be a table, Eisenhower matrix, as seen below, or simply deciding one by one which one is more important from a gut and group feel. Mind mapping is also a valuable tool for this overview.
2 – Prioritization Criteria
Create a system or method to determine the criteria by which you’re going to prioritize. If you’re working in an organization, that might be something that you work out together with your boss, or that you look to use the support with your team. Items to consider as part of the criteria would be the value of the result (Money to be made for example), the time it takes to complete the task when it’s due, the level of intensity of the work, if it can be delegated, consequences for delays and so on.
3 – Decide
Then when you have all this information laid out you can decide which things are going to be most important and the highest priority. Each criteria area can be weighted to show its impact on the end prioritization. Now you have a system that helps you decide. Rate each task according to the criteria.
4 – Schedule your priorities
Now that you have identified what your priorities are, it is important that you schedule a time in your calendar to work on those priorities. This helps you assess the time each item will take as well. If you don’t schedule you may find that you are getting caught up in urgencies, distractions and unnecessary interruptions that keep you from focusing on your priorities. Scheduling is a MUST!
By actually taking time out to evaluate the tasks at hand and prioritizing them, it in itself reduces stress and overwhelm because you have committed to a plan. Of course, now you will be able to communicate that to your team or boss so you have a basis for discussion in the event that someone wishes to shift those priorities. If you are managing yourself, you have a basis to turn to when situations change.
When ever you have a structure to fall back on, it reduces the stress of figuring out what is next. Can you imagine what chaos and stress emergency rooms would be in if they didn’t have rules to prioritize who was next. These rules help people focus on the task at hand.
Delegate, Automate or Eliminate
During this process, it is important to make sure that you are evaluating each task: Can it be delegated to someone else? Is it something repetitive, and could it be automated? Is it really necessary or could it be eliminated?
It is also important to look at the time it takes to do this task and challenge yourself to find new ways to do it that are more effective and efficient. Giving yourself some time to think makes all the difference to create greater flexibility and creativity in finding an even better solution.
- What would you prioritize if you simply had half the time that you do today?
- What items are not getting done now and what is the consequence?
- How much energy is lost in the stress over what you’re not able to accomplish?
- Who suffers short and long from this stress?
The biggest and most important part of the prioritization process, is to manage your emotional intelligence in how you handle things that are not getting done.
Are you beating yourself up? Are you allowing others to beat you up? How does that affect the efficiency and effectiveness of the work that you are able to do?
I was working with a man in the technology field. He worked for a small company with 15 people on staff. His job was to wear the hat of the consultant, the Chief Technology Officer and the right-hand man to the CEO. He had so many responsibilities and was split across three very important areas that were all urgent and important in nature. He accepted all new projects from the CEO, he was driving the internal ISO project and had a demanding consulting client. Did I mention, he also had 5 children? Needless to say, he didn’t manage things well. He ended up putting himself in the hospital for all he tried to pile on to himself.
Why did I say all he put on himself? I said that because at the end of the day he created the result of the situation. There were 4 simple things he implemented from our work together that made all the difference in him managing the responsibilities that he had.
Those 4 actions were the following:
1. Ask more questions:
Instead of accepting the deadlines asked of him in each area, he spent time clarifying specifics of the deliverables and negotiating options.
2. Challenged Urgency:
He challenged himself with the question – Does this need to be done today? To ensure he didn’t get caught up in his own sense of urgency that was a big part of his problem.
3. Schedule Priorities
He created a schedule of time spent in each area to ensure he was planning his activities.
4. Set Rules
Lastly, he set some rules and boundaries to live by that looked like this:
- No work is brought home
- Fixed work end time
- Do not accept deadlines without clarification and review.
- Communicate early and often around problems or set backs
- Take 5 minutes to take notes on what was completed and what was next before starting a new task
- Take short breaks for transition
- Get to bed by 11 PM
What do your rules look like and where can you ask more questions? Managing your sense of urgency is just as important as managing the expectations of others. You are on your way to a more productive version of yourself.