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How to Prioritize as a Team When Everything Feels Important

Busyness is a wicked problem – your team will always be busy. But that's not the issue. The problem is being busy with the wrong things.

By Gustavo Razzetti

September 15, 2022

Learn how to get rid of what’s not essential

Every team has capacity issues. Nothing harms your ability to execute more than resource constraints. That's why your team typically starts its workday with the intention of being as productive as possible. You and your teammates review goals and projects and establish clear priorities. Everyone's confident that the workload is high but doable.

As the day goes by, a leader changes enterprise priorities out of the blue without considering your team's capacity. Prioritization quickly falls apart. Incoming requests pile up on top of what's already a never-ending project list.

Busyness is a wicked problem – your team will always be busy. But that's not the issue. The problem is being busy with the wrong things: failing to tackle the projects that matter the most.

Often leaders mistake busyness for productivity, usually masking a lack of prioritization. They believe there's always room to do more. Yet, time is a limited resource – there's only so much your team can achieve in a day or week. Effective prioritization is vital to ensure your team makes time for what really matters.

The Dangers of Not Prioritizing

"I'm too busy" has become a socially acceptable excuse for any request – from declining meeting invitations to refusing to take on more work. Being busy is a badge of honor that makes us look and feel important. However, busyness is nothing to be proud of – it's a sign that we're bad at prioritizing life.

Prioritization is not just essential for productivity. It also ensures that the right things get done at the right time. The prioritization process lets your team make informed decisions about what to focus on and when.

When we prioritize our work, we don't just focus on what matters the most – we also regain control of our lives.

The benefits of effective prioritization are easy to observe. However, failing to do so can be detrimental. Not establishing clears priorities can be dangerous for your team. Here's why:

Everything feels important

If your team doesn't prioritize effectively, someone else – a manager or client – will do it for you. When you don't have clear priorities, you end up saying "yes" to everybody. Pleasing others does more damage than good. That something is a priority for a third party doesn't mean it should also become a priority for your team.

When you let others define your priorities, everything feels important.

Your team is stretching too thin

Teams face a constant burden. They have too many problems to solve and not enough time or resources to deal with everything on their plate. It's important to know what amount of work you can take on or everyone in your team will end up stressed out.

An abundance of options can be overwhelming, too. In The Paradox of Choice, Professor Barry Schwartz argues that having more choices can lead to unhappiness, making it harder to cut through the noise and make a decision.

Avoid the urge to try to solve too many problems at once.

You sacrifice long-term benefits for short-term wins

The temptation of a quick win doesn't come free. Your team has to redirect time from a long-term initiative to pursue a short-term benefit. Prioritization is an investment, so consider which projects will generate a superior long-term return.

Stop pursuing problems that don't have the most significant value for your team.

The wrong task will suck your energy

A toxic client, a project going nowhere, or irrelevant tasks steal more than your team's time – they suck its energy. Research shows that a gap in priorities between an ideal and real life increases the risk of burnout. "Fire" problematic clients and projects to protect your team's energy and drive.

Saying "no" to toxic tasks will pay huge dividends to your team.

You'll never solve the right problem

Prioritization means choosing not only what problems to solve but also which not to solve. If your team says "yes" to every problem, they're saying "no" to the right ones. You can't focus on what really matters when you're too busy.

Remove distractions so your team can focus on the right problem – encourage colleagues to say "no" more often.

Five Ways to Become Better at Prioritizing

“If there are nine rabbits on the ground, if you want to catch one, just focus on one.” – Jack Ma, Co-Founder, Alibaba Group

Most organizations aren't great at prioritizing – they try to catch all rabbits. Most leaders aren't good at prioritizing, either. They make choices in the dark, failing to understand how conflicting priorities affect their teams' capacities. That's why most organizations suffer from "everything is important" syndrome – they fail to separate what's essential from what's not.

Building a culture of effective prioritizing doesn't happen overnight. It takes time and effort. Most importantly, it requires structural changes and a huge mindset shift.

1. Work smarter, not harder

The always-on culture is harming your team. There are many reasons why it has to go. Hard work often disguises team inefficiencies. People have to work more and more hours to compensate for ineffective prioritization.

Often team members overwork themselves for the wrong reasons. Either they want to achieve too many things or are trying to meet others' expectations. Take virtual presenteeism as an example: the average worker spends an additional 67 minutes online daily to be perceived as a hard worker.

Shifting our relationship with the idea of incompleteness is liberating. Realizing that we're never done working releases a lot of pressure and unnecessary anxiety.  

Working smarter, not harder, is about prioritizing quality over quantity – or outcome over effort. With my consulting clients, I see a lot of teams that just care about velocity but never pause to reflect on their priorities. Moving fast in the wrong direction will get you nowhere.

Why not work smarter instead of harder?

Working smarter is about being more intentional about how you work. It seems obvious, yet it requires reframing our relationship with productivity – to shift our focus from input to outcome. From focusing on high-impact tasks and cutting down your to-do list to concentrating on deep work and tackling tasks in chunks (rather than one by one).

Start by rejecting the notion that everything is urgent, critical, and important.

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2. Create a constraint

The notion that we need to complete all our work is flawed. Your to-do list will never be empty. Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, once said: "A manager's work is never done. There is always more to be done, more that should be done, always more than can be done."

This was the situation that Banks Benitez, founder and CEO of Uncharted, a Denver-based social impact accelerator, found himself in when considering shifting to a four-day workweek. Like most companies, Uncharted focused on pressing issues rather than essential ones. Was this the best or worst time to try a shorter workweek?

The pilot, launched for June-August 2020, designed a 32-hour workweek with the same day off for everyone – Friday. Employees would get 100% compensation for 80% hours. Creating an artificial constraint forced Uncharted to reevaluate how they prioritize work.

For example, team members should first allocate time for important tasks and, only then, use the remaining time for meetings.

Focusing on the essentials increased performance and employees became better at managing their time, decreasing stress and burnout.

The median number of hours worked by Uncharted employees dropped by 23% – from 45 hours worked before the 4-day workweek to 34.5 hours. That number is higher than initially expected – 32 hours per workweek. However, as the team unlearns old habits, management expects it to fall.  

Benitez admits to first feeling incomplete within a shorter workweek. "So much of the broader work culture right now is, 'everything's a priority. Everything's urgent. Everything must be perfect. You can't deprioritize anything'. When I close my laptop on Thursday, I feel like I haven't gotten it all done, but I've done truly the most important work."

3. Separate essential work from non-essential

When everything is a priority, it's harder to separate what matters from what doesn't.

Marcus Aurelius said, "If you seek tranquility, do less." The Roman emperor and philosopher didn't promote laziness. On the contrary, he advocated for focusing on what's essential. Aurelius called it the double satisfaction: "to do less, better."

In his book Essentialism, Greg McKeown advocated a similar approach: get only the right things done. Rather than the typical productivity approach (get more done in less time), McKeown challenges the assumption that "we can have it all" or that "we have to do everything." He invites us to focus on "the right thing, in the right way, in the right time."

Effective prioritizing is the realization that not all hours and not all work is created equal. It liberates your team from a busyness mindset (reactive) so they can regain control (proactive) of how they work. As coach Ed Batista said, "The problem is that you're acting like a firefighter instead of a fire marshal."

Essentialism is the relentless pursuit of less but better. It's not about getting more things done, but getting the right things done. It is about making the wisest possible investment of everyone's time and energy so teams can operate at their highest point of contribution.

Start by distinguishing essential work from non-essential work. Remove everything unnecessary – from recurring meetings to tasks that don't move the needle. As McKeown wrote about how the pandemic reframed the notion of what's essential, "Layer after layer of non-essentials are being stripped away. Things we thought 'we had to do' or 'we can't live without,' or 'would never work' have changed?"

Identifying what's important is easy; determining what's unimportant is another story. It's a skill that requires time to master but it's definitely worth the effort.

Only by removing what's non-essential can your team make time for what matters.

4. Practice deprioritization

Effective prioritization is a zero-sum game. If a new task becomes a priority for your team, something else must become less important. You can't prioritize without deprioritizing.

Uncharted's culture perfectly reflected its leader – a brute-force entrepreneur. Saying "yes" to every challenge and opportunity was the path to success. But as the company started dealing with the challenges of a shorter workweek, a different narrative emerged. It was transformational. Uncharted didn't have a "can-do" culture but a "can't say 'no'" culture.

You can't practice deprioritization if you are unwilling to say "no" more often. Instead of reacting to the request, consider it part of a bigger system. Start by having the right conversation.

Banks Benitez encourages Uncharted employees to ask second-order questions – to inquire about the importance of the task, not just what's needed:

• How important is this?

• When is it due?

• What would you like me to deprioritize?

As a culture designer and facilitator, I've never seen a team that's not busy. They all have capacity issues. Benitez wrote, "The lack of time often stems from taking on too much. The company declares four public goals but also works on 11 other shadow goals. The burden and capacity constraints cascade through the organization."

Asking second-order questions was a breakthrough for Uncharted teams. It promoted candid conversations about priorities, shifting people's roles from "order takers" to "trusted advisors."

5. Prioritize how you prioritize using 'even over' statements

Effective prioritization requires establishing what's the criteria before conflicts arise. Often companies wait until it's too late. They discuss what's most important once they're dealing with conflicting priorities.

Crafting 'even over' statements will help you define those criteria ahead of the game. It will make it easier for your team to determine what to say "yes" to.

For example, Amazon prioritizes:

  • Long-term value creation even over short-term results
  • Speed even over perfection
  • High performance even over harmony

Even over statements help you define the trade-off your team is willing to make when choosing between two good things. You can't be both "customer-centric" and "people-first." Both are important and good things. However, when push comes to shove, which will really come first?

Even over statements anticipate potential conflicts, clarifying which way to go. They force the team to choose one good thing even over another good thing.

When Netflix prioritizes "performance even over effort," it doesn't mean that the streaming giant doesn't care about the employees giving all they've got. It means that Netflix cares more about the end result than the effort itself.

When it comes to choosing between two good things, what's your real priority?

How to Become Better at Prioritizing

Learn to say 'no' more often. When you say "yes" to everything, you say "no" to the most important work. Saying "no" is not being rude  or uncollaborative – your team can't succeed without having focus. Pushing back is also an acid test to see how vital a request is.

Team prioritization requires both individual and collective action. Encourage team members to own their priorities. Most people accept requests or meeting invitations without checking how that will impact other projects – or their team's backlog. Each teammate should avoid saying "yes" too quickly and discuss the impact with the entire team before committing to more work.

Turn deprioritization into a habit. Every time you prioritize something, another thing needs to be deprioritized. Your team's capacity is not limitless. If your team takes on a new project, which other will it stop working on?  

Evaluate priorities considering both the impact and effort required. Use the Eisenhower Matrix to determine the effort and impact of each task or project. Get rid of Not urgent/Not important tasks. Urgent/Important things need immediate action. However, the Important/Not urgent are usually the ones that will help you achieve your long-term goals – this quadrant is the "sweet spot, according to author Steven Covey.

Block time for deep work: Prioritize meaningful work over urgent tasks. Protecting time for deep work will ensure that your team doesn't get overwhelmed with meaningless, urgent tasks. Most importantly, it will help prioritize the work that will achieve the most significant impact.

Prioritizing work is worth the effort. You can increase team productivity and impact while you lower unnecessary stress. Make time for effective project prioritization.

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