The truth about priorities: “Have to” vs. “Want to”

I’m too busy.  I don’t have enough time.  I feel like I’m always behind.  I’m stretched too thin.  

Translation:  I need help prioritizing more effectively.

In hearing this prioritization challenge a number of times, I’ve observed that the way in which people prioritize their work initiatives generally boils down to some overarching criteria:

  • Criteria #1:  Will I lose my job or face a consequence if I don’t do this?  (“Have to” or Threat)
  • Criteria #2:  What do I actually want to or prefer to do (“Want to” or Desire)

We can all agree that Criteria #1 is reasonable, especially if we want to keep our job.  If my job is at risk, then I will de-risk it.  

But criteria #2 can be tricky, because it requires awareness and honesty about what is driving our choices.  Criteria #2 is also tricky because it is often the driver of the problem.  And it goes something like this:

I have a list of initiatives, and I will complete the ones that allow me to keep my job first → then, I will choose to complete the initiatives I personally prefer →  then, I’m left with the initiatives that I don’t prefer, but I still have to complete them → then, I feel overwhelmed and need help prioritizing.  

Looking out at priorities

Put another way:  If I enjoy one-on-one meetings more than administrative work, I’ll complete my one-on-one meetings before my administrative work. But my administrative work doesn’t go away, so then I feel overwhelmed and need to prioritize more effectively.

That is the general thought process, and it can be quite debilitating.  That’s why it’s important to gain awareness and understanding, and then acknowledge with heartfelt honesty about what drives our decisions and choices.  

Consider asking yourself:

  • What is the real reason I’m choosing to tackle initiative A vs. initiative B?  
  • What is it about initiative A that drives me to complete it before initiative B?

Answer the questions honestly, and you’ll be more aware of your own internal prioritization. And then an opportunity for change will emerge as well.

So when clients come to me and ask me how to prioritize more effectively, what do I say?   Actually I don’t say anything. I ask them questions to explore the issue.

I ask them to think about how they’ve approached other overwhelming situations in the past – clearly, accomplished individuals have faced their fair share.  Once there is a comparison to draw from, then the questions become:

  • How did you manage that overwhelming process in a different context?  
  • How is that context different from the one you face today?  
  • What practices from previous experiences can you apply today?  
  • What would success look like in applying these practices?

By understanding the fundamental reason why we prioritize the way we do, we can then take steps toward prioritizing initiatives more effectively without putting ourselves in a numb-filled state of overwhelming feelings.