One reason we get overwhelmed by our to-do lists is because we’re unable to differentiate between what we think should be done and what must be done. A lot of “shoulds” need more time to marinate; these are matters of judgment that require greater contemplation about execution. A student once asked for my help with his seemingly unending list. He was not a procrastinator; he got things done. But he was never sure whether they were the right things. He sought advice on how to declutter his life and lower his self-induced stress level.
Priority simply means something is more important than something else. The word entered the English language 600 years ago. It was singular and defined the very first (or prior) thing. It stayed singular for over 500 years. Then, as the world increased in speed and complexity, and we believed there was more than one first thing we had to do, it became plural. Illogically, we thought that by changing a word we could change reality. A lot of people reason that way.
Many things are important; not everything is a priority. If we have ten priorities, we actually have none. One of the keys to success is to thoughtfully determine what’s really important. That means it must be done now. When confronted with conflicting demands or tasks, how do we differentiate the big things from the little stuff, even when all appear to call for action? Lin Yutang, a Chinese inventor and philosopher, said “The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.” Therein lies the answer.
The first step in sorting out what’s important is to write down, then rank, what’s absolutely necessary in fulfilling your goals and aspirations. You need a framework for determining your priorities. In this kind of assessment, where does your health rank? The happiness of your family? Your personal enjoyment and gratification? Meeting your boss’s expectations? Financial security? Experiencing or learning new things? Spending time with friends whose company you enjoy? Getting things accomplished? Strategic thinking begins and ends with sorting out the meaningful from what is less so.
The next step is to identify the factors that influence your assessment. These may include time sensitivity (some deadlines can’t be extended), the return on the investment of effort in decisions that cannot be avoided (some are greater than others), whether you have the skills needed to accomplish your objectives or whether you must rely on others to get things done. Perhaps you might have to factor in the expectations of others, whether you have sufficient resources to achieve the desired results, and the ease or difficulty of getting it done. Some people believe being busy is a measurement of their importance. They are misguided. This adrenaline bias is often the catalyst for failure. Success is knowing, then navigating around, the obstacles that stand in the way.
When these two fundamental steps are accomplished, the final one is action planning. Write down everything you know must be done, then order it into three buckets: really important, somewhat important and not that big a deal. Then rank the really important ones with a specific time line in mind to satisfy each. A goal without a due date isn’t planning; it’s just wishful thinking. Focus on important, not urgent. If it’s not urgent, it can wait. (The Charlie Brown school of time management says a lot of things just go away.) The critical question in determining priorities is whether they constitute what must be done now given the opportunity cost of both time and resources?
Know where your time goes. Research tells us we spend, on average, 23% of our work days in meetings, 28% on email and about the same tolerating interruptions. Why attend a meeting if you don’t have a direct contribution to make? Being invited surely isn’t a good enough reason to attend. Instead of spinning your wheels trying to get everything done, focus on what needs to be done, not on what others think should be done. What if you started pushing back against time-wasting email chains, purposeless make-work projects, and unproductive meetings? You’d be acting on your priorities. And you’d be making a difference.
This requires mastering the skill of saying no. It’s our most powerful productivity tool. Drucker said, People are effective because they can say ‘this isn’t for me.’ When we do, others start valuing our time and contributions more. Acting on priorities is not about how to get more things done. Rather, it’s about how to get the right things done in the right way at the right time. It requires us to grapple with tradeoffs and make tough decisions. The strategic use of time is eliminating the defeating self-talk of “I have to” or “how can I fit it all in?” It’s discerning what matters, then saying “I choose to.”
When you’re asked to do something you really don’t want to do but don’t wish to let the other person down, simply say this: “Thank you for asking. While it’s not something I’d choose to do, or want to do, please know how pleased (or honoured) I am that you asked me.” Never make an excuse for having to say “no.” If they persist and ask again, “Oh, c’mon; why not?” Or, “Please, we really need you.” Respond with sincerity: “I’d just rather not. But thank you for considering me.” Friendships should never obligate consent to what you would rather not do.
Yet another critical skill required for determining priorities is the art of delegation. This sometimes means dumping menial, unpleasant tasks onto others. Beyond the obvious benefit of freeing up time, done properly, it empowers and engages others while infusing our own tasks with a valuable point of view. Effective delegation is just asking whether there might be a better person or a better way to get the job done. When you delegate, stress results not details, give them the freedom to create, provide realistic deadlines and keep a log so you can be reminded of the need to follow up.
The bottom line is that we can’t do everything. Thinking otherwise leads to physical and mental meltdowns. So figure out what’s actually important to do. Do this by eliminating the superfluous while keeping the meaningful. Do less but do it better. If you can’t prioritize your life, then someone else will eventually do it for you.
Find the answers to these four simple questions: What am I deeply motivated to do? What am I particularly talented at? What meets a significant and pressing need in the life at this moment? And will it make my life easier? Very few things are extraordinarily important. Most of life is just trivial minutiae and unnecessary noise. Sorting out and acting on our priorities enables us to utilize our intelligence, capabilities and resourcefulness in much more meaningful ways.