A prioritized guide to prioritization

For most of us, the day-to-day reality of our jobs is a constant and seemingly unwinnable game of trying to figure out how to get too many tasks accomplished in too little time. Faced with this reality, some of us freeze. Some of us procrastinate. Some of us juggle frantically, trying to do nearly everything all at once. I suppose there’s someone out there that handles the eternal onslaught with consummate grace, patience, and calm, but I don’t believe I’ve met them.

As for me, I’m the occasionally frantic juggler. Externally, I put on a pretty fantastic show of keeping it all together. I once heard a metaphor that works well here: “It’s like a duck moving smoothly across the water. Above the water, it looks effortless and smooth. But underneath the water, you know the little webbed feet must be paddling like crazy.” Regardless, I’m immensely proud of the fact that I never give up, and that I can always seem to find a way to continue moving ALL OF THE THINGS forward while keeping people happy and ultimately delivering a quality finished product. The big secret for how I accomplish this? It’s no secret at all: effective prioritization.

The wisdom I’m sharing today is nothing new and not at all world-shaking. But I find it’s good to regularly remind myself of these central strategies for prioritization:

  • Anything that takes five minutes or less, do immediately. Don’t put off responding to an email that requires only a quick acknowledgement of receipt or statement of understanding. “Will do” or “Gotcha” or “Sounds great” work well for countless situations, as it’s often all people really need from you. And it takes less than 15 seconds for you to hit “Reply,” type your chosen palliative acknowledgement, and hit “Send.” If you put these emails off, you’re just going to add to your later stress – when you remember that MOUNTING PILE of emails in need of timely responses. Similarly, if someone’s request of you can be accomplished in less than 5 minutes, simply do it right away. It’s not always easy to shift gears, but it’s resoundingly worth the trouble when – later in the day – your work-plate remains measurably cleaner.
  • Don’t let anything become more important than it really is. For example, yesterday afternoon, I found myself with no blog ready for today’s posting. So instead of wracking my brain for previously unearthed brilliance (HAH), I’m simply using this blog to share with you what’s currently on my mind: my own need to prioritize. To be clear, however, I’m not recommending that you ever do a half-assed job on something that genuinely requires full-assed attention. But in each situation, challenge yourself to identify what’s truly needed – and stop there. As an endlessly recovering I-love-getting-As student, I can attest: it’s not always easy to do. But I long ago learned to stop going overboard on work assignments. It’s been a god-send for my sanity.
  • As you organize your day and your plan of attack, identify what’s truly urgent. Let’s face it: some of the tasks others view as urgent are not in fact urgent. So you need to make an actual or imagined list that puts the truly urgent tasks at the top and all other tasks below, in order of decreasing actual urgency. Then, begin at the top – and when (as is likely) you run out of time on completing your list, it’s cool, because the stuff down at the bottom wasn’t as important anyway. We’re all occasionally guilty of choosing to tackle unimportant, simpler tasks first – they’re simply simpler. But it doesn’t help you to get done what genuinely needs doing. So knock it off already, and start forcing yourself to prioritize the truly important tasks.
  • Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. While this one isn't officially about prioritization, it does help make quicker work of a prioritized list. I often said this to my team members back at EY, given that our jobs – getting these giant, complicated pursuit documents out the door on deadline when the people who are supposed to help you finish keep doing their best to ignore you – often felt well nigh impossible. The fact is, if you just keep moving forward, taking one step and then another, you ultimately reach the end. It is absolutely possible you won’t get everything done. But if you’re prioritizing and you keep taking those steps – you will get there, and you will have accomplished everything that really mattered.

I like this quote about prioritization from Stephen Covey: “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” Because the fact is, everything that’s not an actual priority can be delegated, delayed, or (potentially) never actually accomplished.

I hope you enjoyed my stream-of-consciousness blog for today. Because now, it’s time for me to get back to my other true priorities.