We all have priorities. Identifying them, however, isn’t as easy as it sounds. Urgent issues and misdirected intentions can get in the way of what matters, and in no time at all, you might wonder why you’re derailed or unfulfilled.
Losing sight of priorities can be the result of living in a world where we’re expected to be available 24/7, says Melinda Kennedy, organizational development consultant at Caliper, an employee assessment and talent development firm. “Whether this is a product of our working environment, our own personality, or our home life, we may find ourselves struggling to prioritize what is most important and most urgent,” she says. “As a result, we feel overworked, undervalued, and completely exhausted.”
To identify your priorities, you need to know the difference between what is necessary and what is expendable, says Tim Elmore, author of Marching Off the Map and president of Growing Leaders, a nonprofit leadership training and development organization. “Most leaders start well, but eventually just react to what others want,” he says. “We focus on getting through the week instead of planning ahead and reaching a goal.”
Knowing your priorities moves you from being reactive to proactive. Three questions can help you determine your highest priorities, says Elmore:
- What is required of me in this role? Identify essential tasks and objectives you’ve been given in your position, noting what must get done because it’s a necessary part of the job.
- What produces the greatest results when I do it? List the activities you do that result in the most fruit; activities where people agree that you’re very good at that task.
- What is most fulfilling when I do it? As you reflect on your projects and tasks, note which ones are deeply satisfying “What are the tasks that you love and would enjoy even if you weren’t paid?” Elmore asks.
Avoid Being Sidetracked By What’s Urgent
Don’t let what’s urgent crowd out the important, says Russell Clayton, assistant professor of management at Saint Leo University in Saint Leo, Florida. “Those things deemed ‘urgent’ are typically important to others,” he says. “Think about your own priorities and then think in terms of what urgent things get in the way.”
Kennedy suggests analyzing how you spend your working day to separate important and urgent activities. “By making a list of daily tasks, you might find certain items can be delegated or don’t need to be completed immediately,” she says. “You can also carve out time on your calendar at the start or end of each day to handle tasks that you don’t necessarily enjoy but need to do, and then hold yourself accountable to follow through on those tasks.”
Your day will be filled with your priorities or the requests of others, adds Elmore. “Certainly, leadership is about serving people—but that doesn’t mean you only react to others’ requests,” he says. “You must know what your objectives are and pursue them.”
Living Your Priorities
To live according to your priorities, create a schedule that puts them at the forefront. Make a to-do list each day with deadlines, and set priorities by giving a number to each task on your list, putting the most important things first, Elmore suggests. “It’s not fun things first, quick things first, or easy things first—but first things first,” he says.
Manage interruptions by putting margins in your calendar for unexpected people, but don’t get distracted, adds Elmore. Question everything: “Don’t let sacred cows keep you from eliminating unnecessary or unproductive tasks,” he says. “Aim for excellence, not perfection. Trying to be perfect can prevent progress.”
Learn to be “strategically selfish” at work, says Clayton. “Try to identify scenarios in which you can say ‘no,’ saving time by being more productive,” he says. For example, saying “no” to a side project at work can free up time for you to work on primary objectives.
Schedule regular “time outs” in your week to check in with your priorities, says Kennedy. It can be as simple as a five-minute walk or a day off to do something you enjoy. “We can often put our own needs last in our effort to meet the needs of everyone else,” says Kennedy. “We might not ask for help because we think that admitting we have too much on our plate might be seen as a weakness. We could also believe that we are already maxed out.”
But forgoing the opportunity to recharge your battery will continue the cycle of exhaustion, which can have damaging consequences, says Kennedy. “It is important to proactively address it before we have to, unfortunately, react to it,” she says. “If we utilize the resources around us, we are not weak, we are being real with ourselves. That is self-awareness, and it is a strength that can continue to be developed throughout our lives.”
Balancing Personal Priorities
For many of us, our true priorities are personal, such as family, says Clayton. “When someone is concerned with whether or not they have placed a high enough priority on family, I ask them why they work,” he says. “More times than not, the answers I hear are that people work to have a bigger or nicer house, or to take really nice vacations. The answers tend to come back to family, but are rooted in materialism.”
While there’s nothing wrong with working to earn money to buy nice things, it’s important to realize how much time with your family you’re giving up in order to earn money for whatever they’re working for, says Clayton. “The ‘a-ha’ moment for many is that they’re working long hours prioritizing work while ignoring what they thought was the priority all along,” he says.
To make family a true priority, consider taking on a role at work that requires less time and energy, freeing up time for family, suggests Clayton. “That said, there’s a 99.999% chance this will lead to reduced income,” he says. “That makes this option for prioritizing family a tough pill to swallow.”
Or make a plan to work hard today so you can be in a position of more leverage later. “There are times in your careers when you need to say ‘yes’ a lot and earn social capital with supervisors and colleagues,” says Clayton. “I firmly believe that. But I also believe there are things we can say ‘no’ to as well without consequence.”