Is Prioritization Failing You?

If you’ve ever struggled with time management (and who hasn’t?), I’d bet you’ve given the advice to prioritize. You make a list of all the things that need to be done – and even doing that is scary. Then you try to rank them in order of which ones matter the most.

It’s often really difficult to figure out priorities: is Report X more important than Call Y? Is following up with Prospect A going to bring in more money than keeping Client B sweet? And in life as a whole, is having time to exercise more important than taking your kids to a movie?

Trying to prioritize can often just create more stress: maybe the things at the top of the list get done, but the items further down are still important – and you hate to neglect them. Or perhaps your boss, partner or teachers place different priorities on things.

So what can you do?

Ask an Unthinkable Question

In one of my favorite time-management books ever (Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play), Mark Forster writes:

The real question is not what priority something is, but whether it should be done at all. If we don’t have the resources to do all the projects we have in hand, then the only really satisfactory solution is to cut the number of projects until they match the resources we have available.

No amount of prioritizing is going to give you more time. Prioritizing is essentially a way of saying that some items aren’t going to get done. You might as well make this a conscious decision.

What project can you ditch? (“Project” doesn’t have to be something work-related – just anything long-term that you’re working on.)

What project could you put on hold for a few months, so you’ve got time to finish what you’re currently on – properly?

Think Long Term

When you are faced with prioritizing one task over another, then figure out which is likely to matter in a year’s time – rather than just in a day or a week. Perhaps letting your exercise routine slide seems like a good short term choice, but it doesn’t look like such a great option when you think about your long term health.

Which projects are going to pay off in a year’s time? What might seem urgent right now but is unlikely to make any impact whatsoever later?

Figure Out Your Real Problems

If you’ve got too much to do, it could be because you need to let something go – as mentioned above. It could also be a reflection of some deeper problem which no amount of prioritization is going to fix. Here are a couple of common ones:

You Procrastinate

Do you find yourself wasting time? None of us are 100% efficient, but some people have a serious problem with procrastination, especially when a task requires a high energy level. If you know that you spend a lot of your time on unfulfilling pursuits that are just an excuse to put off doing the tasks on your list, then something’s wrong.

You might be in a job which doesn’t suit you. You could be chasing goals that someone else has set for you. You may simply need to strengthen your self-discipline muscles! Whatever it is, you need to tackle it in order to free up your time to do the work you want to do.

You Have Constant Interruptions

If you find that your day goes haywire as soon as other people get involved, you may need to make some serious changes to the way you work. If you can never get ten uninterrupted minutes, you’ll never make much headway on big projects. Interruptions don’t just eat your time – they also make it hard for you to get into a state of flow on your work.

Avoiding interruptions might mean implementing a new office policy – perhaps as simple as closing your door when you need to focus. If you work from home, you may need to talk to your partner, housemates or kids to explain that you need uninterrupted time.

Ultimately, you can create as many beautiful color-coded prioritized lists as you want: on their own, they aren’t much help! The real work gets done when you sit down to consciously focus on the task that you need to get done.

Do you prioritize your work? What benefits – and problems – have you found with this?

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Related Articles:

A Smarter Approach To Time Management

The Only Time Management Tip Your Really Need


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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