You Need to Learn to Prioritise – Great “advice”, but what the hell does it mean?

You Need to Learn to Prioritise - Great "advice", but what the hell does it mean?

I generally have very few “outstandings”, my inbox is typically cleared, I get things done ahead of deadlines. The evidence speaks for itself, I am good at prioritising. Well, I thought I was good at prioritising, until I looked more closely.

During my eventful New Years in Istanbul, I realised that achieving goals and success did not always result in happiness, something was not in sync, I was missing the peacefulness I was seeking. I made the decision to do less, but better and fight my compulsion to complete things immediately. To perhaps let a few unimportant outstandings wait a little longer, most are unimportant and not as time sensitive as I make them out to be. But how do I get the right mindset? How can I prioritise effectively to achieve what I want to achieve?

So I followed my process – read, reflect and listen. I tried to figure out the best way to prioritise, perhaps synthesise the best methods into a clear strategy for optimal performance. It has ended up different to what I was expecting.

I started thinking specifically about the common “wisdom” given to anyone who is stressed and busy – “You need to learn to prioritise.” Sage advice so easily given and received. Everyone feels better for a moment. But being told to prioritise when busy and stressed, is like telling someone drowning they need to learn to swim. No-one can argue that’s what should be done, but they are drowning because they don’t know how. So, a better question is – what the hell does learning to prioritise actually mean?

As I have contemplated, read and discussed what prioritisation means, I have come to the clear realisation that I haven’t been good at prioritising, actually that is too kind, I have been terrible at it. My transformation was done through brute force discipline. While perhaps it necessary to overcome a decade of neglect, it is in-congruent with finding happiness and peace; and certainly difficult to recommend at the intensity level I was applying.

We all see some people always appear in control. They achieve so much, are never hurried, they have it all, but they are constrained by the same 24hrs in a day that the rest of us have.

Before any method is employed though, a mindset shift is needed:

  • Firstly, I have to stop glorifying being busy. Lazy is something to strive for. I’ve heard it said that being busy means that you are not in control of your time. Simon Sinek of “starting with the why fame”, explains in his brilliant insight about Millennials in the Workplace, that it is during the gaps between being busy where innovation happens, discovery of the joys of life occur and relationships are formed.
  • Secondly, I need to learn to say no – I’ve cultivated my default to be yes, it is important for growth. So my new philosophy is that it should be an evolution:
    • Starting out with virtually no Career Capital – Default to yes, a variety of experiences is needed, learn what is out there.
    • With some meaningful Career Capital creating demand – Only say yes if it is aligned to priorities and goals, avoiding being stretched too thin.
    • Successful – Overflowing with Career Capital – If it’s not “Hell Yeah“, then it’s no.
  • Thirdly, dedicate time by importance, not length of task. Remembering Parkinson’s law. It is better to do fewer things better.
  • Fourthly, do not subjugate investment in Personal Development to urgent tasks, in terms of time and money. While I spend hours a week on Personal Development, it is the first to be moved, it is often relegated to when I am tired, in a rush or doing something else, so it doesn’t get my full attention. “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” – Abraham Lincoln.

With being lazy and saying no, I am not promoting apathy, I’m promoting allowing the brain to be bored. So it is not a case of substituting busy activity with mindless TV watching, rather I envision mindful staring into the distance, going on a run, meditating.

There are important enablers to achievement, such checklists, prioritisation quadrants, finding your why, but without a method or framework to apply these enablers they will be difficult to utilise and certainly likely to only have a superficial and limited impact. Each of the methods have their evangelists who promote theirs above other methods. So what are these methods?

The various methods to prioritise and achieve success (however you define it):

Outcome focus – a.k.a. Brute Force method, Just Get it Done –

  • What it is, the philosophy: This is not really a prioritisation method, but it is probably the most commonly applied technique. This is the method of doing 16-18 hr workdays, doing everything that “needs” to get done, perhaps even doing things efficiently, up until exhaustion kicks in and you get tired and just do them.
  • Best for: Peak or abnormal periods.
  • Method: Have deadlines, work flat out to get it done, use every minute available.
  • My take on it: I’d like to say it’s unsustainable, but truth is that it is sustainable and for long periods;  I know, because I have done it. A lot was sacrificed in the process. Mainly my health, relationships and sense of purpose. It is tiring. (The contrary to this is Apathy, walk out when it get’s too much, ignore problems <- but I doubt the readers of this blog are caught up in apathy).
  • What get’s tracked: Meeting deadlines. Not what it took and who were the biggest contributors – this is all irrelevant.
  • Prime examples/Learn more: Most people climbing the corporate ladder? Particularly those with Impostor Syndrome.

Time focus – a.k.a. Scheduling, Perfect Day, Compound Effect –

  • What it is, the philosophy: Structure your day rigidly with time blocked out for the important things. Design your day/week and time spent around your priorities.
  • Best for: People with multiple and often conflicting priorities and time constraints, perhaps for those with children in particular. Following a routine needs to be a requirement and a preference.
  • Method: Basically account for everything in your day. Put the big rocks (most important things) in first, rather than fill the day with the easy. Then come 5pm you suddenly need to do the important tasks of the day. Schedule in time for what is important to you, then force yourself to have to make a decision not to do it, rather than to do it. Additionally you set up rules to live by, these reduce the decision making fatigue, such as “I leave work at 5pm.” It is probably best to attach a consequence to each rule.
  • My take on it: Don’t aim for perfect.  Rigid scheduling is hard to maintain for many people to maintain, particularly impatient. The again we are all trained for it, just think about that 10+ years spent at school.
  • What get’s tracked:  Time spent, with a secondary focus on tasks. Recognising that often focusing too much on the outcome/progress can be disheartening. The idea being that if you spend time doing the right things, the outcomes will take care of themselves.
  • Prime examples/Learn more:  Stephen Covey – The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People; Darren Hardy – Compound Effect and Craig Ballantyne – The Perfect Day Formula.

Task focus – a.k.a. Pareto, 80:20, Lean –

  • What it is, the philosophy: This is based on the idea that 80% of your results are determined by 20% of your effort. In the words of Tim Ferriss – Efficiency is doing things rights, effectiveness is doing the right things. So for example, 80% of your revenue may come from 20% of your clients, yet 80% of your time is spent managing the those clients that only bring in 20% of your revenue. It is about identifying the areas to get 80% of the result with only 20% of the effort.
  • Best for: Great for Parkinson’s law sufferers, who spend more time writing e-mails, than getting stuff done. Also for those people feeling overwhelmed with the volume of activity they performed. 
  • Method: Identify the 20% of what you do, that gives you 80% of the result. The more time focused on those 20%, the bigger your effectiveness multiplier. So target the most effective solutions, what is achievable, don’t aim for perfect. Be realistic. The Lean principle of ECRSS may help reduce wasteful time – Eliminate, Consolidate, Reduce, Simplify, Standardise (in that order) tasks or activities.
  • My take on it: It is important to recognise that this is not about only working 4 hrs, it is recognising how much time get’s wasted. Too much time get’s lost doing tasks that add no value. One of the easiest wins is to switch off e-mail notifications, then set specific times to check your e-mail.
  • What get’s tracked: Return on effort, as well as progress/movement.
  • Prime examples/Learn more: Look no further than Tim Ferriss – The 4-Hour Work Week

Attention focus – a.k.a. Deep Work –

  • What it is, the philosophy: Focus on one thing at a time with all of your attention. Your output can then increase 2-5x in the same time dedicated to the activity as before, specifically it increases the speed at which your skill or mastery increases, so the quality of work also increases.
  • Best for:  Best for when you have 1 clear priority, so great for writers and programmers. To be honest we should probably all set aside 1-3hrs per day for core work, distraction free work.
  • Method:  The ability to focus is a neglected and under-valued skill-set. To perform Deep Work, it is mostly about environment. Carve out large blocks of time to perform the core work and then ensure you have no distractions and attention grabbers, such as noise and interrupting pop-ups. Then use exercise to decompress and allow your thoughts to order themselves. 
  • My take on it: With Deep Work fitness generally so low in our society, it will take time to build it up before it becomes really effective and useful. The result will be worth it though.
  • What get’s tracked:  Deliverable/Output. Time spent and frequency of Deep Work sessions.
  • Prime examples/Learn more:  Cal Newport – Deep Work and Derek Sivers.

Priorities focus – a.k.a Rule of 3

  • What it is, the philosophy: Focus on 3 strategic priorities or goals at any one time. “If you have more, you don’t have any “– Jim Collins. What are the vital 3 things you are required to do, never more than 3.
  • Best for:  Everyone. But specifically the highly ambitious.
  • Method: Pick 3 strategic priorities or goals. The time frame is less important, they can change over time, but never more than 3. All activity must be subservient to these and only and exceptional opportunity should divert you, if you are diverted, perhaps you should have spent more time evaluating the priorities in the first place. You can also do this with a daily focus, focus on 3 tasks or activities to be completed each day. These 3 should move you closer to your 3 strategic outcomes.
  • My take on it: In the last week of 2016, I was clear. I had set 3 priorities. But then I slowly added a few more. I have now re-focused on these 3. I can do more, as long as they are a sub-goals with a direct trajectory towards my 3 main ones. For example, running a marathon has a sub goal of transitioning to barefoot running, with tasks of running 3 times a week. But it is all clearly aligned.
  • What get’s tracked:  Nothing specific. Set time to re-focus, touch base, that your activities are in-line. A visual reminder is also great.
  • Prime examples/Learn more: Richard Branson and Warren Buffett – Read more.

It is likely you are more attracted to one of the methods above, so set that as your default or dominant. So Pick one! – I hope it wasn’t Brute Force.

Whichever is your dominant one according to your personality and circumstance, it will no doubt have aspects of other methods. My best work is done with Priority focus, but I tend to start with Time Focus and to slip into Brute Force when under stress.

But, perhaps a blend is better? – So what is my plan now?

So the Action plan:

1. (Re-)Read and applyin order

2.  Develop a strategy  – it needs to be sufficiently rigid to achieve what I want to achieve, but not so rigid and overwhelming that it get’s binned altogether

  • Pick one dominant method to default to – for me I’m choosing Priority focus.
  • Set three strategic priorities – Everything else should be subservient to this. These can change, but never more than three.
  • Schedule “rocks” in diary , don’t over-plan, maybe 10hrs of deep work and targeted work starting and leaving times  – Make it a decision not to do them, it is not enough to just be your priority – for me it’s 3 runs, network/planning meetings weekly and coaching/blog writing time weekly – Then use deep work focus for these sessions.
  • Each day have 3 specific objectives to complete
  • Perform ECRSS monthly to make sure my time isn’t being eroded by the things of little or no value.

Will I continue to default to brute force? Will you?

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