Get Your Priorities Straight

road-sign-663368_640“Too much to do and not enough time to do it in.”

That’s how most people typically describe their work day to me. They’re buried under a mountain of work and don’t have a second to breathe. They keep their nose to the grindstone, but no matter how hard they work, the mountain only seems to grow.

When I hear things like this, one of two thoughts pops into my head. Either this person is lying, or they don’t know how to prioritize. A lot of people aren’t nearly as busy as they say. They talk a big game, but their desks are empty, their inbox is cleaned out, and there’s nary a customer in the vicinity. They feel like being busy is a sign of productivity, so they put on an air of exasperation, but they really don’t have that much going on.

The other group is legitimately busy. These are usually the go-to people in the organization. They have their own projects to knock out and are also highly sought out by others as partners. The problem here is they don’t know how to prioritize their work in a way that ensures projects are tackled in a way that ensures a quality result delivered on-time. They always seem frazzled, pressed for time, behind schedule. They wind up pulling long hours to get things accomplished “just in time.”

Truth be told, I’ve been in both positions. More often than not, I’m in the latter group, though. My job has me working with a variety of people on all manner of initiatives. At times, work is steady and manageable. At others, I seem to be in a mad scramble for days on end. I’ve found the key to managing an uncertain workload is knowing how to prioritize appropriately.[Tweet “The key to managing an uncertain workload is knowing how to prioritize appropriately.”]

When it comes to prioritizing, there are two characteristics of each project you have to take into account. The first is importance. How critical is it that this task get accomplished? How heavily does it factor into achieving your goals? How significant are the repercussions if it falls through the cracks? Is this a must-do or a nice-to-do activity?

The second characteristic to consider is urgency. How quickly does the work need to be finished? Is the timeline fixed or adjustable? What happens if it’s not completed immediately? Is this a do-now or a do-soon activity?

The combination of importance and urgency should be what dictates the priority given to any particular project. Visualize a grid and plot your projects based on these two factors, then prioritize your do-to list in the proper order.

Priority Matrix

#1. HI-HU Tasks. These items are both highly important and highly urgent.

#2. HI-LU Tasks. These items are highly important, but not necessarily time sensitive.

#3. LI-HU Tasks. These items are hyper-critical, but have a short timeframe attached to them.

#4. LI-LU Tasks. These items should receive the lowest priority, if they even belong on your list at all.

This idea may seem like a no-brainer. However, many people have a problem prioritizing their workload appropriately due to misperceptions of a task’s relative importance and/or urgency. Taking a couple of minutes to objectively plot out the various items on your to-do list runs counter to the way we normally think. Our tendency is to place more emphasis on tasks that are perceived as urgent – we may even create a false sense of urgency in order to justify working on less important tasks.

Also, there’s a tendency to focus on completing a large volume of work. Most people get a sense of accomplishment from checking off a large number of tasks from their to-do list. Some of us even write down things we’ve already done just so we can cross it off. But this focus on the easy, short-term bits eats up time we should be spending on more important (albeit, more complicated) projects. In fact, completing a lot of Low Importance/High Urgency tasks can lead me to feel like I’ve earned a break – time to waste on Low Importance/Low Urgency items.

Want to take control of your day? Try rethinking how you prioritize your to-do list. Take a couple of minutes to objectively plot the importance and urgency of your work load and see if a new approach is in order.


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