Leading Forward: How Effective Leaders Tackle Priority Overload Without a Hitch
A significant challenge for any leader is prioritizing the work in process to ensure their team aren’t overwhelmed. Further, if an individual or a single team is pulling in too many directions at once, they’re likely to go nowhere fast. One of the key leadership skills most employees are striving for is the capacity to prioritize work effectively. How does one stay focused on the big picture when you’re being pulled in myriad directions? Here are five ways effective leaders tackle priority overload without a hitch!
Setting clear priorities is a critical part of leadership. Clear priorities help your team focus on what matters and prevent them from thinking so much about the rest.
New leaders eager to prove themselves by taking a plethora of visible and impactful decisions and —aka “Caesar on a march”—can fall into a trap of doing much but accomplishing little. With respect to setting priorities and achieving goals, the problem is that even seasoned leaders can confuse important and urgent, as well as fail to realize they cannot do everything. You don’t have to give up on the goals you’ve set out to achieve—you just have to set up orderly methods and, usually, a way to divide and conquer.
Distractions can tempt us every day.
We might have the best intentions of working on our priorities, but other things get in the way. We may even become so ambitious that we create a long list of priorities, which means we don’t really have priorities, just a “to do” list. You can eliminate distractions by aligning your priorities with the vision. As you look at accomplishing your objectives, think about the most important things you need to focus on to make them happen. Then, keep them top of mind and let your team know those are your priorities. Everything else takes a back seat to those key priorities.
Prioritizing involves identifying critical tasks and managing them without getting distracted by less important matters.
In the workplace, prioritizing is the process of deciding what needs to be done, when, and by whom. Prioritizing effectively prevents the last-minute scramble as key deadlines approach. Skilled leaders can use prioritization to reduce team stress and improve productivity within their organization. Leaders can also serve as role models, setting an example for how work should be managed and helping to foster a culture where employees at all levels of an organization understand the importance and benefits of effective prioritization.
There are five strategies that make goal and priority-setting easier for you and others. Read about these below.
Rapidly changing priorities can demoralize and frustrate your team if you’re not prepared to help them navigate the shifting landscape. Effective leaders prepare their teams for changing priorities, create structures to help the team shift, and advocate for their team to ensure their work is meaningful. These five strategies will help you maintain your team’s energy and morale when goals change frequently.
Slow Down And Reflect To Move Faster
Having worked with many executives over the years, I have seen an increase in people working endless hours to get things done and be productive. Missing is the ability to slow down and make time to reflect. On a daily basis, we need to ask ourselves, “What are my priorities today that will have a positive impact?” In a time of rapid change, we need to slow down in order to move fast.
Speeding up isn’t the answer. In fact, we find that if top teams slow down, they eventually achieve their objectives more quickly.
The world has always been one of change. But as technology evolves and speeds up our lives, something about the changes we face is different. It is a more extreme shift, more rapid and complex, and the challenges more difficult. In the face of this, leaders work harder and faster to cope. Considered virtues, we even select leaders based on these qualities. However, in working with top teams, I conclude that just speeding up isn’t the answer. In fact, we find that if these top teams slow down, they eventually go deeper and faster into achieving their objectives. They deal more effectively with increased complexity and challenges — and they use less energy.
We live in a culture where “Go go go,” and “Fail fast,” are norms.
Nevertheless, when you are rushed, you are less likely to take care in how you phrase your words, whether in an email or a conversation. This can easily lead to misunderstandings and confusion, and ultimately results in a great time drain in getting everyone back on the same page. When rushed, everything seems equally important, everything is a priority, and everything must get done at the same time. Because it is not humanly possible to do everything at once, the feelings that follow are often stress, chaos, anxiety, and frustration. Think about it: Are you able to be more or less effective and productive when you are stressed and rushed?
We are starting to understand that longer work hours do not equal increased productivity.
Knowing how to schedule your day to optimize productivity for you and your project team can be a game changer. If everyone works best in the morning, try to schedule less afternoon meetings. And maybe we should all just say no to the late afternoon meetings. With different commuting schedules, it breeds frustration when the early commuters continually schedule 8 a.m. meetings and the late commuters continually schedule 4 p.m. meetings. It’s trendy to talk about slowing down or being a minimalist in our personal lives, but it seems counter intuitive to talk about productivity and slowing down on the job. The irony is that slowing down does not mean you do less work, but it does mean you seek to do your work more efficiently in a more balanced way.
There’s a good chance that you’re not going to get to every single task on your list at the precise time you would like.
Things change and often when you least expect them to, so it’s important to be flexible and realistic with what you can do. If you find yourself so busy that you regularly lack the energy to accomplish your work, then you may need to take a closer look at what can be delegated and deleted. If you learn to become comfortable with delegating certain duties when needed, you’ll accomplish those MITs quicker. The Pareto principle states that to reach true efficiency and effectiveness nirvana, you should get 80 percent of your results from 20 percent of your effort.
Begin With The End in Mind
As a business leader, there will always be times when you need to fight fires. However, to best establish priorities when you’re being pulled in all directions, ask yourself, “Will this help the business?” Sometimes, just taking a pause and asking this question can be enough of a reset to help you prioritize what needs to be done next.
Great leaders help their team manage their competing list of “priorities”. They take the time to ensure their team is crystal clear on the relative ranking of the myriad of goals.
Before you consider your to-do list, you should first reflect on your goals. Think about your aspirations for your own individual performance or career objectives, your team’s performance, or your organization’s bottom line. Then, take a close look at your ongoing projects. How do these tasks contribute to your goals? Which projects are most important in light of what you hope to accomplish? This can help you determine where to focus efforts first.
Employees with a clear sense of purpose can make mission-driven decisions about when to say “no” and when to say “yes” to priorities.
An exhaustive review of every team member’s objectives might seem like a hindrance to productivity. Yes, it will take more time upfront, but it will also create the necessary focus to actually achieve must-win targets. And it will energize team members when they can see how their work matters to the organization’s mission and purpose. Setting an example for teams companywide, the executive leadership team force-ranked priorities and eliminated actions that did not clearly strengthen their core competency and accelerate their purpose.
As you communicate the change, connect “what” to “why?” Help your team connect to and understand the bigger picture.
The best leaders give employees a purpose that’s far more than words — one that focuses employees and stretches them to achieve new possibilities. When leaders fulfill this calling, they lay the foundation for a high-performance work culture that is ready to excel at any challenge, here or on the horizon. Once you have a good direction or vision (whatever you like to call it), then you need to make sure that you set your priorities based on that vision. You then need to communicate your priorities to your important stakeholders.
Mind map both your business and personal priorities and focus on the points of intersection.
Always revert to undertaking these first, before expending energy on the other ones. Focusing on the intersecting priorities will not only create corporate value but also personal value, which will build motivation, credibility and trust in your ability as a leader. I recommend that leaders always consider which priorities will impact the most people. These should be on the top of a leader’s list. And second, I recommend thinking about the tasks you can do to unleash the positive efforts of others. Jump on those as quickly as possible. If great people’s efforts have halted because of you, it is important to rethink!
Break Goals Down
Whether you’re just starting out or have been in business for a while, establishing overarching goals is essential for a thriving handmade shop, and your every move should lean towards attaining them. But sometimes those big achievements seem so far away. How do you approach them when they loom over you like giant mountains? The key to reaching goals is to break them down into small steps and bite-sized pieces on a timeline.
Goals are much less intimidating when written out into feasible tasks, which makes it easier to start working towards your big objectives.
The work required is easier to grasp when you list all the steps, and you can chip away at them a little each day without wondering what to work on next. Your big goals might be a bit intimidating, which makes breaking them into smaller milestones a crucial step. When your goals are broken down and spread out, you’ll know where to begin, and it’s easier to carry out the steps necessary to tackle them. Look at your goals, and brainstorm effective steps that divide them into distinct checkpoints. These smaller milestones are more approachable. They’re easier to organize, and they help plan a distinct and manageable path to your overarching goals. Milestones function as distinct landmarks along your journey to guide you, map your progress, and confirm that you’re on the right track.
So many times in life, we may want to achieve or obtain something but getting there seems like a million years away — with a lot of hard work and energy required.
The goal itself may seem so large or daunting that we continuously push it off, or maybe we feel discouraged when we feel we’re not making enough progress towards the goal. This is why breaking down goals into steps is crucial. That said, you’ve got to make sure the goal is something that you genuinely want. Think about why you want to reach this goal, and how it will benefit you individually. Many people become inspired by someone else doing something and want that as well but struggle to reach those goals. You have to know why you want that goal and what it will do for you.
Think of your goal as a mountain. You’re going to need to climb that mountain one step at a time.
And sometimes, there will be some steps that need other things done to complete them too — which can feel overwhelming, and like the top will never be reached. So it’s time to get a plan. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It can be added to later. Get out a piece of paper and brainstorm all of the things that you need to do to get there. List all the tiny steps that have to happen before you get to the top. Don’t overthink this! Just get them down. The really wonderful thing is this: the more you hone your steps into smaller pieces, the more focused you become, because the thinking is already done. You just get to action!
Meeting our goals gives us the confidence and motivation to continue setting new ones and creating a type of life we’ve always dreamed of.
But how do you get from where you are now to where you want to be? As the saying goes, “The road to success starts with a single step.” Incremental steps create forward momentum, making your goal seem more attainable. If increasing your income is a goal, consider necessary steps to get there. It may include taking on more or better paying projects, increasing rates across the board for your services or goods and sunsetting projects or clients that don’t provide a return that feels profitable. In addition to building steps toward your goal, also assess and remove roadblocks that may be holding you back.
Create a Prioritization Matrix
Research tells us that multitasking is a myth. Only one task can receive your full, undivided attention at a time.2 However, it can be a challenge to decide where to dedicate your attention first when you have a long list of tasks to complete. Consider each task in turn. Ask yourself, is this task urgent? Is this task important? Focus your attention first on items that are critical both in terms of timing and impact. Once you complete these tasks, move on to tasks that are important but not urgent. If a task is not important, ask yourself if it needs to be done at all, or if the item can be delegated to someone else.
It is a widespread mistake to mix up what is urgent and what is important.
Eisenhower had to make tough decisions every time about which tasks to prioritize out of many he needed to focus on daily. So, he came up with the famous Eisenhower Matrix or the Prioritization Matrix. A priority matrix is a tool for rating your tasks based on urgency. It helps you know the critical activities and those tasks that you should bypass and can be useful in project management, small businesses, or personal tasks. You should always use a priority matrix when you want to compare choices and rank options based on predefined criteria of selection. Having a clear process for lining up your tasks or projects, and deciding which of them you should prioritize right now, can save you from wasting time deliberating on less important things.
In principle, a prioritization matrix is easy to use and to use to make decisions.
Most business managers can understand the concept of a weighted score in a spreadsheet. Once you have your spreadsheet, it’s easy to tweak criteria weights and to see the effect on your ranking immediately. Your priority matrix also spits out a clean, unambiguous number for “priority”. This is something that everyone can understand and relate to. Never do what’s easy at the expense of doing what’s important. You can see from the order of prioritization that importance trumps ease. When you don’t do formal planning, items that are urgent or easy often get priority over items that are truly important to the company’s success. Good planning keeps you focused on the right things.
Doing the right thing is more important than doing things right.
Doing the right thing is effectiveness; doing things right is efficiency. When an employee wears too many hats at work, s/he can become overwhelmed with the sheer number of goals s/he is expected to meet. Focus first on effectiveness (identifying what the right thing to do is), then concentrate on efficiency (doing it right). All other things being equal: Focus on opportunities and breakthroughs; the future, not the past; priorities that support your values and are of the biggest human impact; the long-term and system-wide solutions; problem-preventing; and finally, on feeding your elephants (big important stuff) and starving the ants (trivia).
Setting an intention, committing to and being accountable for following a daily prioritizing routine helps you better manage your ability to be effective.
There are five steps to effective prioritization: Identify and list all priorities, clarify and label top priorities, strategically delegate activities and tasks to expert team members, check off completed items, and check on the status of the rest. Update this list at day’s end. Follow this up with daily morning catch-ups. As part of this, get everyone to explain what they are working on during the day. This is a great way to make sure everyone is focused on the priority tasks and it’s a brilliant opportunity to make any changes in their schedules if necessary.
Reduce the Number of Face-to-face Meetings
Ask yourself if a meeting is absolutely necessary or will a phone call do just as well? If a face-to-face meeting is a must, try a standup meeting in which participants stand rather than sit; this will help to guarantee that important issues are addressed and idle time is avoided. Take care not to make the mistake of not inviting all the correct people to the meeting or becoming resistant to appropriate meetings.
By understanding the pain of unproductive meetings and the core problem associated with them, it is possible to define an improvement strategy.
After all, leading wasteful meetings is not the end of this world. Meetings are essential for fostering relationships and ensuring proper information exchange. But they can only provide real benefits when there is a defined agenda that makes it a less chaotic and dysfunctional process. Being prepared in advance you will make a meeting stay on track and everyone will know what is happening and what is going to happen next. There is no second, no minute wasted, because you have clear indicators of what should be discussed now and what argued next.
Meetings take up an ever increasing amount of employees’, and particularly managers’ time.
My experience in working with executives and managers is that 40-50 percent of their time is taken up with meetings, that either they call, or have to attend. Which leaves precious little time left to actually get work done. Plus, many meetings are decision-orientated. It’s an ongoing back and forth; different viewpoints are communicated and evaluated. Your colleagues expect you to give immediate responses based on the information you just heard, and you had no time to think it through properly. Instead of setting a meeting, make all key players write down their opinion and share them with everyone. That allows people to soak in new information and think it through before responding. You can filter your thoughts. Often, what’s left afterward is worth saying it.
Most meetings last an hour with, as we’ve just seen, five to seven minutes subtracted for trivial technical issues that need to be resolved.
In fact, corporate life has somehow adopted an unspoken rule that meetings have to run 60 minutes, and if they don’t, well, something’s wrong. A meeting should last no longer than 30 minutes. I’m a big believer in one of Elon Musk’s productivity rules: “Walk out of a meeting, or drop off a call, as soon as it is obvious you aren’t adding value. It is not rude to leave, it is rude to make someone stay and waste their time.” In short, participants should feel free to leave a meeting if they feel they have nothing to contribute. Many people schedule and attend meetings because they’re afraid of being forgotten or overlooked. Meetings thus become a validation that what you do matters.
Meetings are kryptonite for focus work.
Not only do meetings consume the time during which they’re held, but they also make it more difficult to get real work done in the time around the meetings. You can reduce meetings by canceling standing meetings, and replacing them with asynchronous check-ins. If canceling meetings won’t work, you may be able to shorten meeting defaults to 15 or 30 minutes instead of an hour. Interestingly enough, you’ll likely find that people naturally adapt to the shorter time and focus on only the important things rather than waste time just to fill the allotted time slot. You can also design your meeting process to create just enough friction around scheduling meetings so that people have to really believe a meeting is important before they commit to scheduling and leading one. One of the best ways to do this is to create a strong expectation that meeting organizers come incredibly prepared with notes and key points for everyone. At Amazon, meetings start with everyone in attendance reading a brief summary before they discuss anything.
Whether you work in a fast-growing startup or a more established company that’s adapting to a rapidly changing world, priorities will change. Healthy organizations always adapt, innovate, and shift their goals. That’s life. But how you handle those changes makes all the difference in whether or not your team adjusts and engages with energy or gives up with futile frustration.
One of the greatest frustrations among overworked people (and we all seem to be overworked these days) is having too many priorities.
New priorities fire at us from all over the place. Keeping up with them can be akin to standing in front of a relentless tennis ball serving machine. No matter how hard we work, they just keep coming. As well, everything appears to be a top priority. There isn’t enough time to finish yesterday’s work before jumping into today’s most pressing needs. We feel as though we cannot drop any balls. It is impossible to do a great job when stretched thin across too many priorities. Thankfully, the aforementioned strategies make a significant difference in helping our team remain focused, while also feeling supported and empowered.
Priorities sound deceptively straightforward but, like all big ideas, they are deeply powerful.
You won’t get everything right. You won’t have the resources, time, or foresight to address every challenge. But if you set priorities and stick to them, you will know that you are working on what really matters. If something new comes up, ask yourself how it contributes to fulfilling your objectives. Emergency situations will happen, and you’ll find that solving those also contributes to your goals. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be urgent. To get where we want to go, we need to eliminate distractions and focus on our priorities.
It’s easy to say that you have clear priorities. However, there is thinking and work that needs to be done to actually make those priorities a reality.
How do you help your team remain focused despite the many competing pressures on their time? What are your best priority management strategies? Please share your feedback in the comments. I have no doubt we could all learn from you.
Digital Dandy. Hacker From Heart. Workaholic. Coding Artist. Self-made.