It can be common to feel like you have a never-ending river of responsibilities. You put in what feels like a productive work session, but cannot quite seem to make a dent in your pile.  Learning to prioritize your most important work will allow you to make meaningful progress in your life.

 Choosing not to prioritize comes with some dangers.  Here are a few:

1. When we do not prioritize, everything becomes important.  Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism, shares a story of how on the day after his daughter was born, he was urged to attend a work meeting by a colleague.  Feeling pressured and not knowing his priorities, he left his wife in the hospital and showed up to work.  When he got there, clients looked at him perplexed and could not understand why he was not with his family.  When you are not clear on your priorities and say yes to everybody to please them, you end up doing more damage in the process – in his case – harm to his family, his integrity, and client relationships.  Agreeing to requests seems like you are being helpful, but you are not; it is much more important to know your priorities and act in accordance with them to serve yourself and others even better.

2. If we do not prioritize, we can get overwhelmed with too many choices.  An abundance of options can be problematicIn The Paradox of Choice, Professor Barry Schwartz argues that having more choices can lead to unhappiness because it can be harder to cut through the noise and make a decision.  But when you know your priorities, you can look past the superfluous because that diamond is shining so brightly in front of you that you do not even see any of the other enticing stones.

3. When we do not have a clear sense of our priorities, we can engage in multi-tasking by trying to do it all.  Our brain can only focus on one thing at a time, so when we aim to go after two or more high priority items, we pay the price in time and effectiveness.  What happens is not multi-tasking (you cannot solve a math problem and share original poetry at the same time,) but instead, what occurs is task switching, spending time on one task, and then moving to another.  A bounce between the activities wastes our time because we have to reorient our brain to the new job.  We lose up to 40% of task ineffectiveness and sometimes more depending on the assignment’s difficulty.  Prioritizing helps us focus on one thing at a time for a longer duration, and that uninterrupted workflow can lead to higher productivity.

4. With no prioritization, we live in reaction mode.  If we do not know what we want to do, we may say yes to things that others want us to do.  Jim Rohn said, “If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan.  And guess what they have planned for you?  Not much.”  Getting clarity on your most essential work will allow you to feel good about the job you are doing that supports your mission and vision.  

5. A lack of prioritizing can lead to burnout.  We all know those people who consistently stay late at the office or work on the weekends to catch up.  Sometimes, it’s unavoidable, but when it is the norm, it may be due to a challenge in prioritizing.  This activity is not something to wear as a badge when it comes at the expense of quality family or wellbeing time.  Conversely, there are those people who consistently leave at 6:00 pm to go to the gym because they have prioritized exercise, and knowing they have set boundaries garners great respect.

We may have 100 visions a day, but we cannot accomplish them all simultaneously.  Less is more.  Prioritization is a cornerstone of productivity and once you build this habit, it will help with time management and work-life balance.   

Quote of the day: “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Q: What is one skill that you can be excellent in that would have the most significant positive impact on your career?  How willing are you to prioritize that skill development?  Comment and share with us, we would love to hear from you!

[The next blog in this series 2/5 will focus on the importance of long-term planning to facilitate prioritization]


As a Leadership and Executive Coach, I partner with others to help discover and clarify priorities, contact me to learn more.