7 steps leaders can take to improve their prioritization skills

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It can be challenging to be a people-pleaser in a leadership role. Image: Unsplash/Jehyun Sung

Banks Benitez
CEO, Uncharted
Anna Oakes
Editor, Quartz
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  • Leaders can often struggle to balance different priorities in the workplace.
  • They may have risen up the ranks because of their ability to multi-task and take on responsibility, but these skills could create challenges when leading others.
  • Here are 7 habits that leaders can adopt to improve their ability to prioritize.

Challenges for leaders

The workplace often pressures leaders to balance it all with few stopgaps. These superhuman expectations about the behavior and performance of leaders make it hard for leaders to prioritize successfully, forcing many to fall victim to four common prioritization pitfalls.

Multi-tasker mania

Many people were promoted to leadership because they were great multi-taskers, demonstrating the ability to balance and complete everything. Some leaders also possess a strong ethic of responsibility and duty to their organization and their people, compelling them to be thorough and conscientious in everything they do. This commitment may have served them well in achieving their work goals but may prove challenging when leading others.

Missing the big picture

When they pay attention, leaders often are in a position to see how interconnected different work and projects are. This systems-level view can make it hard to prioritize and deprioritize because it can seem like everything is connected and, therefore, important. The truth is that while all work might be interconnected, not all work is important.

Outrunning the workload

In my experience leading a fast-paced organization, the sheer speed of the company (a pace I contributed to) made it harder for me to slow down enough to reflect. What’s most important? What can we deprioritize? Are we taking on too much?

When you’re moving fast, it’s often easier to say yes to everything and believe that we’ll be able to outrun the workload.

People pleasers paradise

It can be particularly challenging to be a people-pleaser in a leadership role. There’s a fear that the more you prioritize some work over others — deciding to sunset work that some people feel strongly about continuing — the more you open yourself up to disagreement and push-back.

7 habits of the prioritized leader

Leaders face unique challenges to prioritize better, but leveraging one or more of our seven simple practices can add up to significant improvements.

Know thyself

Understanding yourself and your predispositions is our starting point. Increase your self-awareness by conducting a self-audit or by getting feedback from the people around you in two ways:

Self-audit: Look back over the last six months and consider the moments when you needed to prioritize and deprioritize. What worked and what didn’t work? What underlying beliefs or behaviors enabled or inhibited your ability to prioritize the most important work?360 Feedback: Gathering feedback from people you closely work with is one of the best ways to identify blind spots. Ask your peers, bosses, and direct reports for feedback about how you prioritize. When do you do this well? When do they see you struggle?🗓️ REVISIT HISTORY

The pareto principle says that 80% of the outcomes are generated by 20% of the inputs. Perhaps 80% of your revenue comes from 20% of your clients. Or 80% of your results are generated from 20% of your hours.

Not all hours and work are created equal. Conducting a historical audit to understand the inputs that drove most of your outputs can help identify how you can use your energy and time differently. Perhaps you cut meetings, reduce email, or shift your travel schedule. Here are a few questions to guide your audit, which can be done alone or with your team:

What were my key results or outcomes from the last 6-12 months?What inputs (time, resources, staffing, effort, etc.) had the biggest impact on achieving those key results?What were the inputs that I thought were important but ultimately didn’t impact my results?How can I reprioritize my inputs based on what I’ve learned through this audit?👀 EYES ON THE HORIZON

Understanding the importance and timeliness of a task can help right-size our effort. Instead of falling victim to the tyranny of the urgent, taking the long view can help clarify what will be important now and next. In their book Decisive, Chip and Dan Heath have a decision-making tool called the 10/10/10 rule. They ask: How will we feel about this decision 10 minutes from now? Ten months from now? Ten years from now?

The 10/10/10 framework allows leaders to zoom out when making decisions, escaping the common nearsightedness in busy organizations. For the ambitious, you can add my favorite question: 10 years from now, what would our successors want us to do today?

Squeeze your time

When I decided to transition my company to a 4-Day Workweek, I reached out to my friend Greg McKeown, author of the book Essentialism, for advice. He said to pretend that we were somehow forced only to work two days but were responsible for the same outcomes as working five days.

This fictional constraint, McKeown suggested, would help clarify what is critical. When we introduced similar constraints in my company, we realized a small number of projects were disproportionately driving our key outcomes.

Rehearse saying no

Many find it easier to say yes, especially when we want to be liked or perceived as team players. But saying no is at the heart of prioritizing, and it’s a muscle we can develop. If you have people-pleasing tendencies as I do, successfully prioritizing will require overcoming a default orientation not to rock the boat.

Start with practicing saying no to the small things (like unsolicited emails that aren’t important) and use that momentum to build your confidence. Here are a few scripts I’ve used to help protect my time:

Unsolicited emails

Hi [name]. Thanks so much for reaching out. Right now, I am laser-focused on a few key priorities, so I am not able to connect further. To help, here are a few links/resources related to the topic.

De-prioritizing until later

Hi [name]. [the opportunity presented] sounds important and exciting, but I am focused on a few key priorities for the next 30/60/90 days (pick one). Can we revisit this in x days/weeks/months?

Track, reflect, adjust

Like saying no, prioritizing gets easier the more you do it. Introducing time constraints can help strengthen your prioritization skills while improving your results.

In addition to the constraints on the number of hours in your work week, consider capping the amount of time you spend dedicated to a specific task or project. Think of time as a budget you draw from by tracking your time and comparing your projections with actual time spent. This data can help you determine how the pareto principle impacts your results.

I tracked my hours in a simple spreadsheet, creating categories of how I spent my time. Using a free, time-tracking app is another alternative.

Take it slow

As the CEO of Uncharted, I found that I consistently made poor decisions when I was rushing. It’s far easier to keep saying yes to non-essential projects and tasks than to slow down and make the hard choices about what should continue and what should not.

Designing the process by which a decision will be made can help you prioritize. What is the timeline for the decision? Who should be involved? The best decisions are not just functions of good analysis but also good process.


Words at work

When asked if you can take on a new task or project, try one of these phrases:

If you're interested and might have capacity

“I’d love to hear more about the project and how it aligns with our current goals. Can you please send me information on the goals, the team, how I can make an impact, and the time commitment?”

If you don't have capacity or interest

“I’m grateful you thought of me. I’m not able to join the project team due to my commitment to my current priorities. Please let me know when I can help spread the word on the project needs or outcomes.”

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