Not all Priorities are Created Equal

Many clients ask me how I manage to juggle so many competing priorities—they seem to think that I’m always multi-tasking. My response is that not all priorities are the same and you can only work on one priority at any given time. Let me explain.

If you feel as if you have many priorities that all need to get done at the same time, you know that it is impossible to do them all simultaneously; let alone do them all well. So what is the solution?

The solution is to prioritize your tasks based on their long-term importance and short-term urgency. The goal is to focus first on those tasks that are important. Then evaluate the “urgent” tasks to determine the true nature of their urgency. You may be surprised at how few urgent tasks are truly urgent. And some may have little importance, as well!

Writing down your tasks allows you to see them in front of you and provides you an opportunity to evaluate them. Also, by writing things down, you get them out of your head—this eases the burden of “mental clutter.”

Here’s a simple “priority matrix.” This matrix was originally introduced by Dr. Alec Mackenzie in his book, The Time Trap.

Here is how to use the matrix:

  • List 10 tasks you need to do tomorrow.
  • For each task, assign a rating for Long-Range Importance and
    Short-Range Urgency, as follows:

1 = high importance or urgency

2 = medium importance or urgency

3 = low importance or urgency

  • Add up each row’s Long-Range Importance and Short-Range
    Urgency to get a “Total.”
  • Using the number in the Total column, rank your tasks under “Priority.”
  • The category with the LOWEST TOTAL is your #1 Priority and
    it should be done FIRST.

 Here is an example of the completed matrix:

What is evident in the matrix is that there are several priorities with the same rank (e.g., five tasks show up with the priority 2). When this occurs, take the competing priorities and re-prioritize them against each other until you end up with a list of priorities that can be handled one at a time. If this cannot occur, then speak with your executive and let them determine which priorities come first. Alternatively, delegate, so that the work can get completed in a timely manner.

Prioritizing your work comes down to your ability to plan your day and stick to your plan! Consider that for every hour you spend in planning, you will save three hours in execution. You can see that it pays to prioritize and work on your number one priority each day.

Planning Makes Perfect

When was the last time you developed a plan? Did you implement your plan? And here’s the million dollar question: Did you implement your plan successfully? If implementation was successful, then it is very likely that you spent at least half your time in the planning process before you started with implementation. The importance of planning cannot be overemphasized, but in western cultures, the tendency is to follow a cycle of “plan,do, re-plan, re-do, re-plan, re-do,” until the plan and implementation are completed.This is the wrong way to plan and implement, since the end result can take
twice as long and cost twice as much as necessary.

Instead, follow the Japanese Management Paradigm process where planning is done completely and right the first time before implementation commences (i.e., “plan, plan, plan, plan, plan, do”). There are many advantages in doing it this way, not the least of which is both time and cost savings. Other advantages include:

  • Verified and correct guidelines and goals that can be used for future decisions.
  • Proactive goal setting including risk contingency plans.
  • Established baselines that can be used for performance measurement of the implemented solution.
  • Correct allocation of time and resources to the solution.

It is human nature to want to get “doing” as soon as possible; but the devil is in the  details. If you do not devote enough time to the details, those overlooked details may very well be your plan’s undoing during implementation. Here are guidelines to help you develop a solid plan before moving to implementation (these guidelines are how to plan for a Lean project, but can easily be adapted to any project in your organization):

  1. Form a steering committee of stakeholders to guide your project.
  2. With the steering committee, identify the current situation (problem to be addressed) in your organization.
  3. With the steering committee, identify the future state (aim for realistic and achievable improvements, but it doesn’t hurt to aim for “utopia” in the long term).
  4. With the steering committee, identify three to five high level objectives to be achieved in the first year (working toward future state).
  5. With the steering committee, identify the projects that align with the high level objectives (see item 4 above).
  6. With the steering committee, develop a risk management plan for each of the projects.
  7. With the steering committee, develop a communications plan for each of the projects.
  8. With the steering committee, develop an implementation plan for projects to be implemented in the first year.
  9. Commence implementation.

Notice that planning is not a “solo” act. The steering committee must be involved and included during the entire planning process. For greater effectiveness and efficiency during the project, I suggest that the committee be no larger than ten members (seven-to-ten is ideal).

And, finally, remember that during any new initiative (and starting right away with the concept), communication is extremely important. You will need to repeat your message(s) at least seven times before your audience understands what it is that you’re talking about. People will rather put up with an existing problem than accept a solution they don’t understand. Communicate, communicate, communicate. By doing so, you will build buy-in and momentum for both your plan and its successful implementation.