The most infamous hang up that entrepreneurs and business owners come across is deciding which of their priorities needs their attention here & now. At any given time, you could have 5 big tasks that really need to get done. 2 of those tasks should have been done last week, 2 of them need to be done today, and 1 of them is a long term project that keeps nagging at you.
With so many priorities, all with different time lines & attention requirements, we tend to over-inflate the importance of each. As items on your to-do list come crashing together, you may feel pulled to “not waste time prioritizing” and instead decide to dive, head first, into one of the priorities to get it done.
That’s a fine approach until you get a phone call which distracts you for 15 minutes and reminds you of something else you need to do.
It’s bound to happen. Distraction-free zones are more myth than reality, especially when your cell phone acts as an open gateway to a social world in which you’re always invited, welcomed, & included. An hour later you come back to the task you were diving head first into and have to spend another 10 minutes reacquainting yourself with where you were on it.
I’m sure you’ve experienced this phenomenon or something similar to it. We stress ourselves out just by thinking about the number of different priorities we have but are somehow all too willing to let the rings & dings of our cell phone alerts pull us away from the tasks we’ve set out for ourselves.
It begs the question, which do you prefer: Do you prefer to be stressed by multiple tasks so long as it means that you can have the interruptions which play into your own sense of importance? Or would you prefer to work through priorities but have to put away the distractions in order to protect yourself from your own bad habits?
When put this way, we can answer with a rational mind that we’d obviously prefer choice B where we work through priorities and don’t fall victim to our own bad choices. Why then do we, at least by default, give into the temptation of choice A?
The answer is much simpler than you may think. We fall for choice A by default because our smartphones make all kinds of noise and light up in all kinds of ways in order to encourage us to choose distraction. Our new messages alert pops up on our computer every time a new email comes in, just begging you to check it.
No one is accusing you for not being a superhuman. Distractions (a text message, let’s say) presenting themselves is one thing, but the amount that the devices we own try to get us to accommodate the distractions (vibrating, lighting up, & making a noise) makes it almost impossible to avoid.
So then, the first step to priority management when everything seems like a high priority is to realize you have to turn off distractions for at least a long enough period of time to get some solid work done. This means silencing your phone, closing out of email, and exiting the social media tabs on your browser.
If you have a to-do list of tasks that you can say are all high priority, then the first thing to admit to yourself is that any other distractions that come up are not as high priority. If you are letting the distractions that come up in your day-to-day life become top priority as soon as they hit your radar, you will never be in control of your own work schedule. I promise you that.
Now that we’ve got the distractions turned off, it’s time to look at your list of high priority items. Things on your to-do list can be high priority for a number of reasons, all of which can be combined in a number of ways. Something might be a high priority because of:
Deadlines: If you have a client with a specific launch date and you have tasks you need to get done in order for the client to launch successfully, you might have either a self-imposed or externally-imposed deadline for completing a task. As the deadline approaches, the task priority rises.
Deadlines also fall into 2 camps: hard & soft. Hard deadlines are typically external whereas soft deadlines are typically self-enforced
Importance: You may have come up with a brilliant new revenue generating concept for your business and you’re in the business of making money so the task pulls at you to get it completed.
Bottlenecks: Someone else on your team might be depending on you to complete this task so that they can get one of their tasks finished.
Guilt: Your friend sent you an email last week and you still haven’t responded. You’ve avoided seeing him all week because you hate using the excuse that you’re really busy and he wouldn’t believe you if you said you had been meaning to get around to it.
Weight: Some tasks are just really heavy. They’re not necessarily difficult, but they are time consuming and the sheer amount of work that has to be done in order to get that item checked off your list is a heavy weight on your shoulders. Wanting to feel the relief of that burden from being on your mind makes it a high priority for you.
Take your list of high priority items and rank them based on these factors. Here are some of the questions you can ask yourself about each priority to help you rank:
Is it a high priority because it has a deadline? If so, is it a hard deadline or a soft deadline?
How important is it to your work or your business to get this task done?
Does someone else need you to finish this task before they can get some tasks done on their end?
What level of guilt do you feel for not having finished this yet, if any? What level of guilt will you feel if you don’t get this done today? How about this week? Is this guilt obligatory (because you feel like you owe it to someone) or is it self-induced (meaning you’ve broken a commitment to yourself)?
How long will this task take? Do you feel like you are dreading the task because of how long it will last and how much effort it will require? Can you break the task down at all?
By asking yourself these simple questions about each of the priorities on your list, you’ll get a general sense of where each priority stands. From here, you have to take your personal preference into consideration. Let me show you what I mean.
Let’s say I have 2 conflicting priorities on my plate and I don’t know which one to tackle first. This is not an example of being overwhelmed by too many high priorities. It’s simply a way to demonstrate how to choose priorities when you’re conflicted by using the question sets above.
The first priority is that I have to write this blog post. The second priority is that I have to respond to some support tickets from our user base.
Considering each of these priorities, both have soft-ish deadlines. The blog post is internally scheduled to go out today, but I am the one that set up that schedule and no one’s depending on it, so to speak. The users who wrote their support questions expect it to be answered by the end of the day at the latest. There are 10 support tickets, each takes me about 8 minutes on average, and it’s 2pm.
Both appear equally important to our business to get done, but for different purposes. Publishing this blog post proves that we are alive and promoting ourselves as a company whereas answering support tickets shows that we care about our users.
When we get to outside dependencies, however, these 2 tasks start to diverge. No one is waiting on the blog post in order to do their work, but users are waiting on the answers to their support tickets to, potentially, resolve issues with taking appointments which is a bottom line driver for their business.
I will feel an immense amount of guilt if I don’t get the support tickets answered today, and will feel a large amount of guilt if I don’t get the blog post out by the end of the week.
I know I can break this blog post down into bite size chunks, and I can probably answer just a few support tickets that are more urgent and come back to the others at my scheduled time.
After running through my list of questions for my priorities, I know that I should really tackle the urgent support tickets before starting to work on my blog post. Even once I get to my blog post (which typically takes around 2 hours to write) I should break the task down so that I’m doing brainstorming before I start writing and then edit on a different day altogether.
I used to have this idea in my head where I thought one day I would become a person who at any given time intimately understood my priorities in descending order. I’ve learned, however, that this person doesn’t exist. What is attainable is being honest with yourself about the distractions you’ve put in front of you and how you can rank your priorities based on their factors.
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