The Dark Art of Prioritisation

When you recognise that you need to prioritise, it’s generally because you’re juggling too many things to feel like you will get everything done. So I find it a little ironic that most of the advice about how to prioritise starts with creating an additional set of tasks. Make a list of everything that needs doing, rate how important and how urgent each task is then divide it up into quadrants. Decide what you can take off the list, decide what you can delegate (and who you can delegate it to)… the list goes on.

The thing is, priorities are by definition things that are more important than others. It’s just not always that easy to know what is more important, especially when you are busy and everything seems that way! Effective prioritisation is all about using time and energy effectively to do the things that matter most and as a coach, it’s a key part of the work I do with clients. If prioritising can sometimes be a struggle for you, here are some ways to approach it that don’t create more work!

Be clear on your goal. It might sound like I am stating the glaringly obvious but before you can be clear on priorities, you have to be clear on what your goal or aim is. That might be a long term goal or it might be how you want to feel at the end of today. Often, I find that people take an existing to do list and decide how important each item is relative to the others.  They don’t always consider the end point they are aiming for or what else might be more important to get them there than the list they already have.  

Prioritise ahead of time. Prioritising is a decision making process which uses the logical, rational part of the brain. When you are tired, that part doesn’t function brilliantly. It relies on habits & automatic programming to run your life as best it can (think of it as Zombie mode). So make decisions beforehand, at a time when your brain is not already feeling overworked. That might be first thing in the morning or it might be at the end of the day when you’ve had a bit of time to unwind.

Limit how many priorities you allow yourself. When you force yourself to focus on clear priorities you’ll often feel more energised. The fewer priorities there are the more progress you can make on each one, and the sense of momentum and progress becomes self-fulfilling. If you tell yourself everything is important then you create a demotivating scenario where you’re hardly making progress on any one thing.

Keep it simple and work back from your bigger goal to create priorities in the shorter term – I aim for no more than 3 priorities at any one time. If I find more crowding in, I play a mental game of top trumps until it gets back to 3! As an example, I have a business goal for the year and then ask myself what are the three most important things that have to happen this quarter / this month / this week if I am going to hit my goal. I can always do more once my initial list is ticked off, but it avoids the overwhelm that comes from writing a huge list of everything I could do.

Know when you are at your best. Schedule in the priorities you’ve got at the times that you know work best for you. Whether it is doing the housework, dealing with emails or exercising, there will be times of day or days of the week that suit you better. If you are not a morning person, why try and get important stuff done then? If you are, there is no better time to crack on! Recognise your own energy patterns and work with them as much as you can.

Consider too the difference between quality and quantity of time. Your priorities deserve and will benefit from quality time but that doesn’t automatically mean they need a lot of your time. So many people give up on things that are important to them on the basis that they don’t have the time, but just 15 minutes a day equates to over 90 hours in a year. A lot of progress can be made in 90 hours of quality time!

Learn to manage other people’s expectations around your own priorities. Often a lack of time to get things done can stem from the saying yes to things that other people ask of you. If you’re working to someone else’s to-do list as well as your own it can feel stressful and overwhelming. Saying ‘No’ can be tough, and even if you’re the kind of person who is OK with that it’s easy to fall into the trap of saying yes to something without first considering the impact on your own time. As a start point, try to notice when you are taking on more commitment. What patterns do you see? Are there specific people or situations that mean you end up taking on more than you intend to? How could you avoid doing it?  

If you say yes purely because you find it hard to say no to people then learning how to do this can be life changing. It’s a subject for a whole other blog post, but a couple of suggestions are:

  • Have a set phrase you can use, and rehearse it! That way it will come more naturally when you need to say it. 
  • Negotiate on the deadline rather than saying no to something outright; this can be a win-win solution as you might still say yes but be able to plan it around other things

Create systems, habits and processes that get the everyday stuff done simply, quickly, and effectively. If your everyday tasks (whether work or personal) are dealt with, you have both more time and more mental energy to devote to the things that matter most. One area that always prompts interesting discussions is considering the standard that’s needed for things that are not your top priorities. If something hasn’t made it to your top 3 priorities, does it really need to be perfect? Or just done?

Delegating, outsourcing and automating can also be great ways to deal with things that need to be done but use up time. If you avoid using these strategies because you feel like you have to do things for them to be right, or because you feel like you should be able to manage everything then you hamper your efforts to prioritise.

Stop feeling the need to be busy! It’s easy to have a culture (whether personally or at work) of being busy and having urgency. I certainly did this when I worked for other people. It became a habit, and if I am brutally honest with myself I allowed it to continue because it became a bit of a badge of honour and made me feel important. If you’re constantly feeling busy and urgent, it gets in the way of importance coming first; the opposite to effective prioritisation. Urgency is also draining. It gives a ‘rush’ of chemicals at the time and then leaves you with less energy afterwards. Creating some time and space for yourself where you are intentionally not busy does the opposite.

Notice your internal dialogue. It’s so easy to get into a habit of responding to the stories you tell yourself without even noticing it is happening. If you say stuff to yourself like ‘I must’, ‘I should’ or ‘I need to’, question it. Do you really need to? What would happen if you didn’t? Often these kinds of stories are about expectations that you’ve placed on yourself, or that you feel have been placed on you. When you question them you will often find they are either not true, or are only partially true.

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