I was on a webinar this morning and heard a phrase/description that I hadn’t heard before but that immediately resonated with me — the 10-way tie. That’s when a leader looks at his or her to-do list to try to prioritize tasks . . . and it’s a 10-way tie. Everything is critical. Everything is urgent. And there is no way all 10 things can take priority. Not only that, but if you try to do all 10, you won’t do any of them well. What’s a leader to do? A few things to consider:
1. Whose priority is it?
People will often try to make their priority your priority. That is not to say the project is not important, however ask yourself who is driving your sense of urgency? If someone didn’t get you a document until the 11th hour and then expects you to drop everything to meet a deadline, that is unrealistic. What you have is a crisis of someone else’s making, based on someone else’s priorities. In such cases, it is absolutely appropriate to push back and communicate the amount of time it will reasonably take to complete the project. You might be surprised at how often the person 1) didn’t think about the impact on your schedule and 2) actually could allow you a bit more time. When the timeline is firm, ask about what other projects could be de-prioritized, or what additional resources are available to support completion of the project.
2. Which items align most closely with your strategic goals?
Prioritizing based on strategic goals doesn’t mean that, on the surface, other items on the list may not appear more urgent in the moment. The urgent vs. important dilemma is real, and occasionally the urgent has to take precedent. Notice I said occasionally. Addressing the urgent first can also become a habit. Let’s face it. It can feel good to resolve an urgent matter (which screams louder). We can also usually check those things off the list, which feels productive when so many strategic efforts don’t have easily check-offable tasks. Prioritize those things tied to your strategic goals.
3. Is it a priority, or do you just really like to do it?
We all have a tendency to weigh more heavily in importance those things we really like to do. We excel at them. They tend to energize us and make our day go better. All of which are good things . . . unless they get in the way of what is objectively a higher priority. Often these are recurring tasks, but they remain on the list because it is so easy for us to extol their virtues. A good way to combat this is to ask someone, who is aware of the organization’s strategic goals, how they would prioritize your list. If the same item sinks to the bottom of how someone else would prioritize your list . . . especially if this happens more than once . . . chances are it is something you like to do. Again, not bad, just maybe not the top priority.
If everything is a priority, nothing is. You’re the leader. It is up to you to break the 10-way tie.