Setting priorities is important for daily and long-term success, but what does it look like in practice? How can overworked employees rank tasks in order of importance when everything appears to be urgent?
First, establish what management consultant Patty Azzarello calls “ruthless priorities” in her book, “Rise: 3 Practical Steps for Advancing Your Career, Standing Out as a Leader, and Liking Your Life” (Ten Speed Press, 2012). Whatever is on your to-do list must be considered in the context of what is most important to the organization overall. “You need to connect the dots between your workload and the most important and significant outcomes,” Azzarello says, and prioritize accordingly.
Just because your boss tells you to do something does not make it a ruthless priority. Part of your job is to think about and “rework” your workload, Azzarello says. See if you can combine tasks or drop some altogether: “You are being paid to judge and decide, not to just do everything you are told.”
Keep a list of everything your boss asks for and a list of your top strategic, or “ruthless,” priorities. Lists in hand, meet regularly with your boss and make recommendations about what to prioritize. Question whether certain tasks or projects are still important. Likely, your boss will have decided that some no longer matter.
Maintain your list of priorities in the form of goals that state what you are trying to accomplish. “If you lose sight of why you are doing something, you can’t properly prioritize it,” writes Julie Clow in “The Work Revolution: Freedom and Excellence for All” (John Wiley & Sons, 2012).
If you start to lose sight of your ruthless priorities, or have trouble setting them in the first place, stop thinking about what’s important and why. That way of thinking makes everything seem important. Instead, ask yourself of each project, “How bad would it be if I fail?” This makes clearer what needs to be done, Azzarello says.
When you arrive at the office each morning, forward your phone to voicemail and do not check email until you write down what needs to be completed that day, suggests psychiatrist David Sack, president and CEO of Elements Behavioral Health in Long Beach, Calif.
“Email is the single most serious disruption to work productivity. People feel that they cannot let email sit while they get other work done,” Sack says.
When a project or deadline requires your undivided attention, put an “away” message on your email saying you will only be responding at breaks. “Your message should let people know that if their question is urgent, they should call you. Most people won’t,” Sack says.
Sometimes it’s necessary to prioritize people as well as projects. Business writer Jeff Haden of BlackBird Media in Harrisonburg, Va., recommends that small-business owners in particular spend more time and energy on paying customers, followed by solid prospects and then past customers. Time permitting, you can then respond to people who offer compliments and criticisms, in that order, followed by people who ask good questions, he says.
Focus on what you are doing, not on what you are not doing, Azzarello advises. The more you focus on and communicate the importance of your ruthless priorities and their strategic value to the business, the more support and understanding you will get when people see you are letting some things fall by the wayside.
However, for deliberately “trashed goals,” it’s important to document the reasons you deemed them unimportant, Clow says. By doing so, she writes, “You are compiling a valuable historical document, a reminder of the logic behind prioritization decisions.”
You’re also covering your rear, which in today’s job market is always a priority.
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