An advisor last week told me that I need to prioritize my to do list because there is never enough time in a day to finish everything. Nothing surprising here. We hear this from many different people all of the time. Other versions of this include: “This should be priority #1!”. “Make it a priority!”, “You have your priorities mixed up!”, “This is our priority today!”, “You must ruthlessly prioritize to get anything done!” and so on.
Having rarely thought first about priorities made his advice a challenge worthy of exploration. Merriam Webster defines priority as either “something that is more important than other things and that needs to be done or dealt with first” or “the things that someone cares about and thinks are important” or “the condition of being more important than something or someone else and therefore coming or being dealt with first”. To prioritize is then defined as simply “to list or rate (projects, goals, etc.) in order of priority”.
Within these definitions of priority we begin to find the seeds of confusion. Do we define a priority simply based on what we think is important? Or is a priority simply something that needs to be done or dealt with first? Complications then add to this confusion if we then ask whose definition of importance will we use? Is it our personal belief? Organizational goal? Desired result? Impact? Leverage? Size? Immediacy of result? Easiest to complete?
Assessing tradeoffs further adds some complexity to prioritizing. Rarely do we look at what we lose when choosing A over B. Or what would be gained by choosing B and what would we lose by not choosing A. Also, when our emotions run high, we never give B a chance nor do we slow down to think of what an option C might look like. Understanding that this whole process of prioritizing has a high degree of subjectivity to it.
Without clarifying our definition of what is important for whom & what the tradeoffs are between the items before we prioritize, we run the risk of being overun by emotion resulting in fragile & flawed prioritization. Resulting in too many stops and starts, with too little to show for it in the end. Leaving us with much time wasted.
Furthermore, if to prioritize is to then rank things in order of priority, you must also spend a few minutes at clarifying based on what criteria. With importance and criteria agreed on before prioritization, you then have a chance at “ruthlessly” prioritizing. Creating ordered lists that truly become more powerful in terms of completing first the work that matters.
Life is fluid. Stealing our attention constantly. Forced into a myriad of directions leading to changes in our perception of importance daily. At times by the minute or the hour.
Going through this process of agreeing on the definition of importance and the criteria to measure each line of your to do list before prioritizing, gives us the best chance for more consistent effort. Better traction. And greater impact over time.