How to Prioritise When Everything Changes Every Day

A step-by-step guide to deciding what’s important at work and managing everything towards it

This is for anyone who gets a flood of new tasks every day, needs to make sense of constantly changing priorities and wants to gain control over their time so that they can focus on what’s really important.

Your time at work is limited, but the demands for it are unlimited. You have great ideas, plans and visions, but if you drown in daily minutia, then none of them will happen. Prioritisation is probably the biggest lever among the time management principles, but most people struggle to pull it.

Using real-life examples, this guide shows you step-by-step how to get from a million tasks to a list of seven high priority items.

Then we show tips for how to hold conversations to collaboratively agree on priorities and address conflicts before they arise. This is the only way to make priorities work in a highly interactive, sometimes frenzied world.

 

Time Management: an Attempt to be Happy!

Your boss storms in and says, “I’ve got an urgent task. What are you working on right now?”

You are working on an important customer request that you have spent a lot of time on and are now close to finishing off. What do you say?

  1. “Boss, can someone else do it? I am busy right now.”
  2. “Boss, can I do that later? I don’t have time now.”
  3. You are not happy, but you say, “ok” and switch to the new task.

Do you find yourself in situations like these where priorities change daily or even hourly?

When was the last time you walked out of the office happy because the day went as planned and you got all your tasks done? How many times did that happen in the last, say, six months?

Getting things done as we have planned gives a sense of control, and that makes us happy.

Time management is an attempt to be happy!

 

Are You Eating Everything that Others Put on Your Plate?

People are constantly putting new tasks on “your plate” that they require to be done – or so it seems. When constantly more things land on your plate than you can eat, you have two principal choices:

Option 1: Eat faster (= process your tasks faster)

You can get better at your job, be faster, work longer, and so on, but if you always eat everything that lands on your plate, you have a problem: others dictate how much you have to eat.

Option 2: Control what comes on your plate (= control incoming tasks)

I am sure you agree that this is the better choice. You might not yet know how to do this and that is ok. Later in this article we will look at it in great detail.

 

Prioritisation – the Silver Bullet?

Whenever you have to make choices, you will prioritise. It is amazing how everybody knows what they need to do, prioritise, but hardly anybody knows how to actually get it working.

Prioritisation is a huge lever, if we only knew how to pull it!

Let’s understand why and how we can do better.

 

What’s the Problem?

We now prioritising is challenging – do some of these sounds familiar?

  • An overwhelming amount of tasks and demands are coming in
  • Tasks are difficult to compare due to their diverse nature
  • Emotions associated with tasks make rational prioritising difficult
  • Other people have a different opinion on priorities
  • Tasks we do for others affect our relationships
  • The buzz is high around unexpected-urgent arising tasks

Pretty scary, heh? No wonder that prioritising is so difficult. This explains why most people either:

  1. Never start,
  2. try for a short while and give up after a few setbacks,
  3. start with the best intensions and, over time, overcomplicate it to a point that it’s not useful anymore.

Can all these challenges ever be mastered so that something practical comes out at the end?

 

Prioritisation: the Silver Bullet! But Where’s the Gun?

Ok, the downside is that it is difficult, but then again, if it was easy anybody could do it. Now that we know the main challenges and why others give up, we can use that to do better. Here’s the trick: I have translated the challenges above into a wish list about what our prioritisation should do:

  • Be simple and clear so we don’t need to think much when new tasks come from left, right and center
  • Support comparisons of different types of tasks
  • Support avoiding feelings like being overwhelmed, confused
  • Get buy-in from others so we can avoid arguments over priorities
  • Help us maintain relationships
  • Support swift decision making and help us with urgent tasks

In our step-by-step guide this is:

Step 1: Be clear what prioritisation should help you with.

Pretty cool, right? We have turned the biggest challenges into opportunities. I already feel a bit stronger, but not yet like superman because we haven’t solved the problems yet. However, our x-ray eyesight has spotted some opportunities that we were not aware of before. I feel if we flex our super-muscles, we can solve these problems.

Guess what? That is what we’ll discuss next!

 

Really, Can it be Simple? An Example

Having a simple priority list is easy, but can it really work? Let’s look at Carl’s, IT Business Analyst, example:

  1. Customer requests
  2. Market analysis for inventory management software
  3. Management requests
  4. Business-case, network optimisation software
  5. Net-promoter score analysis
  6. Monthly business development report

Carl explains his priorities: “We have got a customer support team that answers most customer requests. I get the ones that they can’t answer, which means those requests are very important. They’re also a great opportunity to learn how our customers see our products and services. That’s why they’re the most important tasks on my list.

“The next one is a specific task that I started two weeks ago, and it will take me another four weeks. Others have done the grunt work. I have to check, validate and finish it off. It’s important as it aligns with our business goals. Once this task is finished, I will remove it from my list and change the remaining priorities accordingly.

You might be surprised to see that there are a few tasks that are more important than management requests. For many people, management requests are gospel. I have discussed with my boss that customer requests are of highest importance and received her agreement.

On the ranks five and six are two core responsibilities of my role. They are an ongoing monitoring of how our current products and services perform and the customer advocacy related to them.

I have prioritised everything else as low and have certain times of the day where I deal with low priority items and park them every other time. This was the most difficult part, but it was also the part that made my list finally work. Initially, I had to push though the temptation to add more, but with time, I got there.”

Sounds like someone who knows how it works, but I am not yet clear how Carl made this work in detail. Let’s understand this a bit better.

Tim Ferriss offers radical ideas on simplification in his book “The 4 hour workweek.” And even if you do not want to go the full step to what he describes you can pick some of this revolutionary ideas.

 

Boil it Down to Seven

Simplicity is one of the reasons why Carl’s priority list works. If it is not easy to use, we will only use it for a short time before we eventually drop it. So, how do we get is to be simple?

“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing to be taken away. ” Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Many studies have confirmed that we’re able to memorise, quite happily, up to seven items. When we are able to memorise our prioritise it will be much more likely to work. Clearly, we need to be serious about this. Seven must be our target, the stake in the ground.

Step 2: Make a list of your top seven priorities

This begs for the next question: how do we ever get to seven?

Did you notice that Carl has mixed general responsibilities with specific tasks? This is valid, and in fact it is the key to simplicity. We said we want to be able to compare different types of tasks. In Carl’s example, you know that customer requests beat anything. You don’t need to assess each customer request individually. If it is a customer request, it is top priority. The same applies to tasks that contribute to it. Interesting, heh?

 
How to prioritise and make it work from Murat Uenlue
 

 

Simple Parts of an Important Task are Still Important

In any tips on prioritising It is often said that emails are low priority. From Carl’s example, however, we see that an email furthering a high priority task, such as a customer request, is important. And it makes a lot of sense. Simple tasks are often being prioritised low because of their mundanity. Is there something wrong in how we prioritise?

Thinking about this you will find that the opposite is equally true.

Project Managers assign their most skilled resources to the most complex tasks just to jeopardise entire projects by apparently mundane tasks. Have you ever been frustrated by a poor manual that comes along with a great product? The best resources have been assigned to develop the product who then haven’t supported the development of the manual at all as this was perceived as a low priority task.

What does this have to do with prioritising our tasks? I have been wondering for a long time why this error is happening on a large scale as well as on an individual scale. I have found the answer just recently in Nobel Price Winner Daniel Kahneman’s ground-breaking book: “Thinking, fast and slow.” It is the consequence of one of (many) human cognitive biasses. The simple conclusion is:

Complexity is often being confused with importance!

Complex tasks appear important; simple tasks appear unimportant. This can have profound repercussions.

 

“What Does it Contribute Toward?”

With all this in mind it becomes clear:

  • A simple task that furthers a high priority task or project is high priority.
  • A complex or important task that furthers a low priority task or project is low priority.
  • A task that doesn’t further anything, high or low priority, is irrelevant.

A simple question can help you to determine the priority of a task:

Step 3: For each task ask, “What does it contribute toward?”

Sounds trivial but it’s very powerful and can help keep your priority list simple and short. If you have your priorities at the right level of abstraction you can decide on priorities in split seconds. Whenever a new task comes in, simply ask “What does it contributes toward?” If it doesn’t further anything that is on your priority list then it is low priority. This also gets rid of other biasses we have (such as confusing urgent with important).

Simple? Bet you! There is only black or white, high or low priority on your list or not. It can’t get any simpler than that. Now you can see this will not work with 20 high priority tasks as you can’t remember what’s on that list and what’s not.

Simply great news, isn’t it?

 

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The Right Mix

With this in mind, it’s clear that we make it work with only seven priorities, so long we get them to the right level of abstraction/granularity. Here are some hints and thought-starters:

  • Most roles have a dozen or more responsibilities, but which ones are the most important? Focus on the top two to three priorities.
  • Consider which important tasks or projects you’re working on over the next few weeks or months. These should appear on your priority list. You can avoid listing every single subtask related to those. See Carl’s list: “Business case ….,’” “Market analysis for ….” These have several subtasks, but they don’t appear on the list. They are all the same priority.
  • Where do you add value to your department and company? Which ones require your skill sets and can’t be done by many others?
  • What are your customer’s, stakeholder’s, department’s and company’s problems? I recommend to have one high priority item that improves one of them.
  • What is your future vision of yourself and your department? Which of your responsibilities are those that you want to get better at to add the biggest value to your department and company?

Try to get this perfect, and it will never happen. Get started, learn as you go, tweak and make sure it remains less than seven items.

 

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What to Do With the Priorities Eight to Infinity?

Glad you asked that question; it’s rather important! You don’t want them to sit in the back of your mind, nagging. Your strategies to deal with these will make or break your ability to focus on high priority tasks.

Everything outside your seven, key priorities is of low importance. This doesn’t mean you will completely ignore them. Set aside some time each day for these.

I suggest you spend the first two hours each day on the most important task, which, obviously, is one of your high priority items. Then after a short break, take about two hours to check emails, work on issues and other low priority items. The key here is that you plan conscious time each day to work on these mundane, low priority tasks. Ignore them at any other time of the day.

If this is not enough, ask why. Plan about one hour toward the end of the day as a contingency. Ideally, you’ll spend this time on high priority items. Should there be urgent, low priority tasks, then you can use it for that instead.

Make a genuine and determined attempt to get rid of as many low priority items as possible, even if it doesn’t happen overnight. Having a not-to-do list is a great support tool; just add the stuff that you think is not required to be done. Invest time continuously to get rid of those items.

Step 4: Get low priority items done super-efficiently

We all have low priority tasks that are required to be done. Before you start on one, be 100% certain what it’s about and why it is required. Pick up the phone and understand the task before you waste time. Then focus only on the top two to three items within that task. If someone needs more explanation, they can always ask. Don’t make a thesis out of a simple request.

It’s important that you get all low priority items of the day done in the time allocated. Work fast and focus on the main items to get them done in this time. If you find low priority items sit in your inboxes or to-do lists for weeks, then it’s time to act and get rid of them. You don’t want your professional reputation to suffer because you take too long on this.

 

Imagine the Difference

Can you imagine the difference a clear prioritisation will make? You will be amazed about its power. Whenever a new task comes up, you’ll know its priority on the spot. No need to think.

Imagine walking into the office with a clear head and knowing, “Yep, I have to work on the budget plan for the software roll-out project, and it is priority one.” When something less important comes up, just think “No problem; that doesn’t need to worry me right now.” Then you put the new task on your collection to-do list and plan it later.

“A clear vision, backed by definite plans, gives you a tremendous feeling of confidence and personal power.” — Brian Tracy 

Being able to prioritise in a split second is a completely new ball game. It gets rid of all the confusion associated to unclear priorities.

Now, you’ve got it! However, this will not come for free! It will require some concentrated planning and communication upfront.

Stephen R. Covey’s tips on highly effective people are almost timeless, very valuable and will persist to be true for a long time.

 

How do I Find Out What is Really Important?

The tips above and your experience will tell you what’s important, but it’s crucial that you validate your thinking with your key stakeholders and other sources. Involving your stakeholders is a perfect opportunity to make them aware of what is not so important – and get their buy-in to that. If you do this well, then you can refer to these conversations later and keep priority discussions succinct and pleasant.

  • Company goals / visions (yes, those widely ignored things)
  • Department scorecards (another valuable, yet ignored source)
  • Your role description, KPIs, objectives (also often ignored)
  • Your vision of yourself and your company
  • Your manager
  • Internal/external customers (with external weighing more)
  • Your key stakeholders
  • Your colleagues

Step 5: Make sure your top priorities align with bigger objectives 

Find the right balance of listening to those people and explaining your own choices. Your genuine efforts to understand which part of your role provides the biggest value to your stakeholders and customers will be highly valued. I have seen striking examples where people have understood this in one discussion, after having worked in their roles for a long time focusing on low value-adding tasks.

 

What about traditional time management?

I believe that traditional time management is losing relevance as it reflects the “old world.” For the “new world” of everywhere availability and achieving objectives through globally disbursed networks a time shift is happening. If your company is still in the middle of both worlds, and most are, the traditional time management tips are still useful. Decide for yourself:

  • Not “Getting things done” (the bible of organising by David Allen) could be the better choice. If organising everything well is important in your job, this book is a great source.
  • Don’t “Eat that frog” (by Brian Tracy, time management guru) that someone else puts on your plate before checking it aligns with your priorities. This book focusses on getting one important thing done each day.

 

“With a Little Help From My Friends”

Our work requires us to collaborate with others to achieve business objectives. This is why our priorities are interrelated to other people’s priorities. If someone needs your support to accomplish one of their responsibilities, they will likely see your support as a higher priority than you do.

This is a common source of conflict and frustration. Our priority method needs to support us with minimising this conflict. Here are two situations for you to assess:

Scenario One – Discuss priorities in the moment of a request:

Your colleague: “I have a really important task that I need your help with…”

Your response: “I am sorry, but I’m working on something important myself.”

Scenario Two – Discuss priorities before a request occurs:

You: “Jim, I have recently had numerous requests to support your team. Here’s a list of recent requests [yes, be prepared and concrete]. It is really important to me that I give you good support and, at the same time, fulfill my other obligations well. I would love to go with you through this list and understand which of those are the highest priority to you. I will show you my own priorities, and I’d like to come to an agreement where your priorities sit relative to those.”

Which scenario do you think is more likely to end successfully?

Situation one sounds like the typical start to a conflict. You will most likely argue and come to a conclusion, just to start arguing at the next request (ground hog day? yes!). Situation two may require some robust discussion, but once it’s done, it’s done!  It solves the problem at its source. This is why it is superior to the approach in situation one.

Step 6: Proactively align your priorities with your key stakeholders

This means:

  • Get your boss on board with your priorities. Tie your priorities genuinely to your department’s goals.
  • Get your key, internal stakeholders/customers on board.
  • Once you have the backing of these people, you can start managing others with more confidence.

 

Why this is superior

Can you imagine that involving your colleagues upfront is superior to having to debate over priorities whenever a new task comes up? The alternative is almost always an unpleasant discussion because it often leads into a power struggle.

Clarifying priorities upfront can break this typical pattern as both parties are able to think more rationally and less emotionally about it. Once you have clarified it upfront, you can refer to the discussion. Be careful to not use it to constantly block other people’s requests.

If you find yourself in an argument despite upfront clarification, it might be a good idea to just do the task and then discuss its importance the day after with a clear head and the wisdom of hindsight. You may find that you need to adjust your priority list, which will make it even better, or the other person will learn more about the task’s priority, in which case you have an additional argument to back your priorities in the future.

Great stuff, hey?

 

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Crucial conversations” by Kerry Patterson and others will be your guide for all conversations at high stakes.  Their book “Crucial Accountability” deals with broken commitments. Two amazing sources.

George Walther’s “What You Say Is What You Get” is a great guide on positively expressing your goals and commitment to your colleagues.

 

The King’s Discipline: Manage Your Boss

Once you have set your environment up, your efforts to control the inflow of tasks will be much more successful.

You have seen in Carl’s example that management requests do not have to be the most important thing. Going back to the situation at the beginning of this article, how would you approach it now? Assume that you have clarified with her that customer requests are of highest priority and you are just working on completing one. Think for a minute about how you would approach this situation.

“Boss, I understand you’re asking me to do …. [summarise her request]

“We have received an important request from a frustrated customer regarding …. [tell her what it is]. I am currently working on this.

“Knowing that customer requests are of highest importance to you, I’m assuming you agree that I should finish this off first. I expect to have this done by this afternoon [or whenever that is].

“Then I can start on your request first thing tomorrow morning [first thing tomorrow sounds great, heh?]. I will have your request answered tomorrow afternoon [you have just committed to a start and end date, well done. Your boss now doesn’t have to chase you every day or quietly wonder where you are up to].

“Do you agree to this course of action? [Bingo, you give her the choice, and this doesn’t make it look like you are unwilling to do it.]”

This will work most of the time because you already had a discussion where you both agreed that customer requests are top-priority, you appreciate that the new task needs to be dealt with, and you give her a choice.

 

How to Deal With Moving Goal Posts?

What do you do when your boss thinks the new task is more important, despite your previous conversation?

This can happen because you had an agreement before about trusting her judgment. Keep an open mind and readily accept the new direction. If you disagree, have the candid, but friendly, discussion. Understand when the discussion is finished. One danger when you have a priority list is that you get too dogmatic about it. Keep a learning mindset. Since you have done a great job in getting your environment’s support, these instances will be rare anyway.

Step 7: Stay open-minded, learn and improve your priorities list

Should these instances occur more often, it is time to revalidate your priorities and politely remind your environment about them.

 

Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

Your stakeholders will forget your priorities after a while. It’s not because they are malicious, but they have a lot on their plate as well. This simply means you need to repeat the exercise: “Boss, it’s been a while since we talked about my priorities, and I thought we should check if things have changed. Here is what I think my top priorities currently are …..” This is a great way to remind your boss and seek her opinion of potential changes.

Step 8: Repeat your stakeholder briefings

This feedback loop is extremely powerful. Within the shortest amount of time, it will make your priorities better and more clear.

“Be dramatically willing to focus on the customer at all costs, even at the cost of obsoleting your own stuff.” — Scott Cook

 

Do it For the Right Reasons

Can you see how these steps bring you on the front foot rather than always being on the back foot? The caution is to be clear about the the right and wrong way of aligning priorities.  Using great rhetoric to serve self-interest will be picked up quickly (don’t underestimate people’s B.S. detectors). My tips aim for you to openly and open-mindedly communicate with others to determine where your efforts are best spent.

“Intention beats rhetoric almost anytime

But rhetoric will help you point out your good intentions more clearly.”

The best way to get rid of the low-level stuff is to increasingly take on more-important tasks and deliver on everything you promise. That includes your less-important commitments. You do not want to appear to be handing off low priority tasks because you can’t be bothered doing them. People will be happy to give you more responsibilities as you deliver on all your promises.

“Big jobs usually go to the men who prove their ability to outgrow small ones.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ask for more important assignments by crafting a compelling case that your manager and stakeholders can buy-into without it sounding like a foul compromise, trying to get out of unpleasant tasks, an ultimatum or a threat. Too many good intentions have been buried under clumsy words. Find the right words to point our your honorable and non-selfish intentions and go prepared into these meetings!

 

Are you Feeling Good?

Did you ever approach prioritising in such a systematic and proactive way? Can you feel it will make a difference if you get this right? It will not only make a huge difference in managing your time, but it will also help you in managing your career.

I hope you feel as good as I do. Should you ever have tried making prioritisation work and dropped it, this article hopefully has refueled your confidence to tackle it again, with success waiting for you at the end.

 

What Comes Next?

As a project manager, I have seen it many times. A new plan looks daunting, like an empty sheet. You wonder if you will even have a good plan. You might start and think this could be getting bigger than Ben Hur. Things change rapidly though! Once you get started, you can see it could actually help you. It doesn’t take long until you can see and organise things better, and all of a sudden, the value becomes clear. You have got all the steps required to make it work; all you need now is to get started.

 

What About Other Tips and Tools?

This step-by-step guide will help you to dramatically gain clarity on your priorities and manage yourself and others to make them happen. Getting this right will tie many subsequent time-management steps together. In today’s distracted world, being able to get things done that are important will further your career more than many other tips.

 

Summary of the Steps

Step 1: Be clear what prioritisation should help you with

Step 2: Make a list of your top seven priorities

Step 3: For each task, ask “What does it contribute toward?”

Step 4: Get low priority items done super-efficiently

Step 5: Make sure your top priorities align with bigger objectives

Step 6: Proactively align your priorities with your key stakeholders

Step 7: Stay open-minded, learn and improve your priorities list

Step 8: Repeat your stakeholder briefings

 

What’s the End Game?

A great investment of the time you free up is to take on more responsibility and solve the next, bigger problem – maybe even one that no one yet has understood is a problem. Work on what you really stand for and prioritise everything you do based on your future vision of yourself and your company. This is a fascinating topic, and I will write further about this in a few weeks’ time. Next, we’ll build upon what you have learned in this article to increase your potential even more. I hope you’re looking forward to this as much as I am!

 

By Murat Uenlue, PhD, PMP, 2013.