Earlier in my career, my wife and I lived in a small apartment in Queens, New York. At the time, we had two young children. Our two-bedroom apartment was less than 800 sq ft and had a total of three small closets. We had no room for storage and any new item we bought or were given was scrutinized for size and functionality because space was so limited. To make things fit, we had to get creative, get rid of something, or both.
In contrast, today we live in a house with a large basement. That basement offers a seemingly unlimited amount of storage space and it fans our tendency to accumulate stuff. Occasionally, we will purge the basement, but inevitably it fills up again and again! I have a feeling that we are not the only ones with this problem.
I find that humans are built to add more stuff to our lives…in our basements and on our “to do” lists. Without constraints, like a limited number of closets, there is no end to the number of things we can add to our plates. This is especially true in our work lives, with new initiatives, tasks, requests, emails, texts, proposals, reports, and meetings being added all the time. What do we pay attention to? How do we prioritize what we need or want to do at work?
In your quest for prioritization, here are seven questions to align your time, energy, and attention. These questions have been assembled through working with thousands of leaders seeking to optimize their productivity. Use these questions, along with the eight potential pitfalls following these questions, to guide your decisions on what to do, delegate, or drop.
- Does this help accomplish my goals? Identify your top 3-5 goals, whether they are long or short-term. Make sure you can draw a very clear connection between the new assignment or idea and your goal, otherwise either pause or stop moving forward. Keep in mind that just because you want to do something, if it is not aligned to your top performance goals, then think twice before spending much time on it.
- Does this matter to my boss? You need to balance and know the demands from your team, your peers, and your customers. But in the end, your boss’ perspective comes first. Be clear about the expectations of your boss (and probe deeper when your boss isn’t clear). Understand her pressures, hopes, and concerns and keep those top of mind as you prioritize your workload.
- Does this align with my job? As much as you want to think or play outside of your job duties, ground yourself first with your core job functions. Most jobs can be divided into 4-5 buckets of work. Make sure you are spending the majority of your time fulfilling the primary responsibilities of your position (the major buckets of work)
- Does this make the organization money and/or reduce cost? In the end, the organization needs to bring in more than it spends. Consider how the action or idea will impact the financial situation of the organization. Not every project or effort will have an obvious ROI, but projects with more financial impact to the organization should get more attention.
- Does this help my team be successful? The team climate will greatly inspire or disengage your team members in delivering their best every day. Efforts that create a safe, trusting, and open team environment should become higher priority. Spending time to clarify expectations, offering needed resources, and providing feedback are essential for a leader to have a successful team.
- Does this require me to stop or pause something else? Adding another task, meeting, or project will likely impact your time and your current workload. Compare the new task with the other tasks on your plate and challenge yourself to move something off. Identify what you will stop or pause doing whenever you decide to do something new—or else don’t add it.
- Does this need to be done at all? There are so many great ideas that should remain just an idea. Be careful about what gets pushed from the idea stage into the action stage. Also, sometimes current tasks or processes outlive their usefulness. Periodically challenge your current workload to identify actions that are no longer needed or could be done differently. We can get into a habit of doing the same thing when we actually could do it differently or not at all!
As you use these seven questions to prioritize your workload, consider the following common pitfalls. Be careful to avoid these pitfalls as they can contribute to being overloaded, overwhelmed, and ultimately unsuccessful.
- Mislabeling Distractions: Sometimes projects we want to do become a distraction from the projects we need to do. It can be hard to call existing day-to-day projects distractions even though they may not be as important or urgent as more strategic efforts. Be ruthless about identifying your distractions to ensure clear prioritization.
- Not Upsetting Others: As a leader, you will not please everyone! This does not mean you need to be a jerk about it, but recognize that some people will not always get what they want. Use the above 7 prioritization questions to ensure you are not upsetting the wrong people.
- Ignoring Your Personal Values: Check with your inner compass to make sure you are focusing on projects and doing it in a way that is aligned with your personal and professional values. Make sure you can keep your life in balance and be proud of the work you are doing.
- Keeping to Yourself: Sometimes we can over or underestimate the importance or urgency of a specific task. We can get caught in our own assumptions and biases. Use a trusted colleague to check yourself and make sure you are viewing the task accurately and considering other perspectives.
- Not Having Weekly Check-ins: Check in with your boss and your team once a week by discussing the three powerful performance questions: 1) What did you do this past week?; 2) What are you going to do this next week?; and 3) What support do you need?. Memorializing and reviewing these answers each week offers an ideal opportunity to adjust and validate priorities.
- Aiming for Perfection: Too often high performers expect high levels of quality and amazing results all the time. After all, they are high performers. However, not everything deserves flawless quality or execution. Consistently striving for high (and often unrealistic) performance standards with all efforts can add unnecessary effort and stress. Sometimes “good enough” might be the right standard of performance.
- Ignoring Your Limitations: Whether we like it or not, we are all going to die with things still on our to do list. We can’t get everything done. You may have amazing capacity, endurance or intelligence, but recognize your limits. You will still get tired and either the quality may suffer, you will be short with others, or both! Be honest with yourself and acknowledge your limitations in what you can take on and deliver. Your team will thank you.
- Allowing Interruptions: It takes approximately 15 minutes of uninterrupted time to get into “the zone” and to do your best work. Resist repeatedly checking your email, texts, and social messages. Schedule blocks of time to do your best work and resist the interruptions that can sidetrack you away from your most important work.
Deciding what to add, change, and pause to your already full life is key to helping you be successful—for today and in the future. Too often you may see your life as an inviting basement ready to be packed with lots of stuff. However, the accumulation of to dos deserves a prioritization method to ensure your energy is being spent in the right way.
Use the seven prioritization questions to help you be more productive and keep the prioritization pitfalls in mind to prevent overextending yourself. Being proactive in effectively arranging your energy, attention, and time will benefit you, your team, and your organization!