In my most recent post, I argued that the only viable number of priorities is one. That’s because you can only do one thing at a time. Having a list of seven things you’re worrying about at once is a recipe for low productivity and likely burnout.
I’m not so naïve as to think that your boss will neatly prioritize down to your single most important area of focus. Nor is that kind of discipline likely to come from the leadership in your organization (they’re the ones who sponsored the list of seven—or seventeen—priorities in the first place).
So, how do you manage if you’re the only one you can depend on to get to one priority at a time? Let’s set it up with a few categories, and then I’ll take you through how to create a prioritized plan for your week.
A Hierarchy of Priorities
If you make it as basic as possible, you can think of priorities in three categories: corporate priorities, departmental priorities, and role priorities. This is an oversimplification, I know, but let’s play it out just for fun.
To those priorities, let’s add “corporate stuff” as a fourth category. In the corporate stuff bucket, I’m going to include reports you’re supposed to send to finance, mandatory training that HR needs you to complete, and the information you’re supposed to enter into systems like your CRM, CMS, LMS, ERP, or the FML (ok, kidding, there’s no system called an FML, it’s just what you say after entering all your information into the others).
If you think about your priorities using that four-category framework, what would be on your list? What are the most critical corporate priorities? What’s on your departmental list? What do you need to focus on in your role? What other corporate contributions do you need to make? Jot them down.
Roles in Prioritization
There is another wrinkle in deciding how much time to invest: your role in each corporate or departmental priority initiative. I don’t have slick names for them, but let’s try core, adjacent, and peripheral. How you incorporate the priority into your weekly plan depends on your role.
If you are core to a corporate or departmental priority, it will take the #1 spot in your week. The majority of your days should be spent moving that project forward. Only if you accomplish the necessary tasks for the day do you have room to do tasks for other projects or to knock off some corporate stuff. If you’re a core team member and haven’t finished the minimum tasks to keep the assignment on track, you need to enlist support from your manager to delete, delay, distribute, or diminish everything else.
Another possibility is that you’re adjacent to the #1 priority core team. For example, if priority #1 is a product launch and you’re doing some financial modeling, your weekly priority might be one of your role priorities. Still, if the core team needs something from you, that task moves to the top of the list until completed. Similar to core team members, if committing fully to the #1 priorities means you need to divert your time and attention away from your role priority, you can ask for help to figure out how to delay or distribute that work.
If you are peripheral to a priority, it means that you don’t expect to have any tasks associated with the priority. In this case, focus your time on your role priorities and leave a little slack so that if someone needs something from you to keep the ball rolling on a corporate or a departmental priority, you’ll have a spot to do it.
Ok, go back to your list. For the corporate and departmental priorities you listed, circle the ones where you’re core or adjacent. Pick the one that’s priority number one. If there is more than one corporate or departmental priority for which you’re core or adjacent, set your #2, #3, and so on. Now slot your role priorities into the numbered list.
Prioritizing Your Time
Ok, now start chunking out your week.
- Open your calendar and stare down the meetings that are already on there. Any that you can delete? Send a delegate? Attend for an abbreviated time? See how much time you can liberate before you start adding anything else.
- Protect some time daily to handle emails, do corporate stuff, get lunch, and pee.
- Block chunks of focus and flow time each day. Try to make these a minimum of 45 minutes. Get as many as you can during the work week because you and I both know it happens Monday-Friday 8-5; they’ll probably do that if they get shoved into your evenings or weekends. Fill those F&F blocks by working through your prioritized list in order.
- Identify any concerns about work that is on the list that you won’t have time to get to. Note what’s required and your approach to deleting, delaying, distributing, or diminishing your efforts.
- If you regularly check in with your manager, share your plan and ask their thoughts. Did you prioritize the right things? Is there anything you missed? How might they support you in reprioritizing, delaying, or distributing anything on your list that you already know will not fit in?
Your calendar should now be your guide. It will tell you your most important priority at any given moment.
- If you’re in a meeting, be all-in, take from it what you need, and add any action items to your prioritized list.
- If you’re in a scheduled email and collaboration block, don’t respond to every email or request; scan for the most important, urgent, and unique to you. Pick off the one that’s got the most points on that scorning scheme and focus strictly on providing a good answer to that.
- If you’re in one of your Focus and Flow blocks, know your priority and work it for the entire block.
Doing one thing at a time, with your complete attention and energy, will help you get the most possible work done. When you finish (or the block ends), get up, move around, and then settle back in to focus on the next thing. You’ll see that what you can accomplish only doing one thing at a time is incredible.