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Leadership at All Levels

Setting Priorities as a Time Management Tool

Lisa Harrington | April 1, 2014

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Much has been written in the past few years about the culture of overcommitment in the United States. Probably, most everyone you know is overworked, stressed, and maxed out in both their professional and personal lives. The old phrase "work hard and play hard" sounds great, but I only know a few who actually take the "play" part seriously and go do it on a regular basis. For some of us, the overcommitment addiction isn't at work but in our volunteer lives. So many good and valid places need our help. Saving the world is hard work and so worthwhile!

Because it's cultural, it will take enormous change to affect this trend in a positive way. There are as many reasons as there are citizens why we take on more than we should and burn the midnight oil until there's none left.

Managing Commitments

Meanwhile, we have to manage it, don't we? Somehow, we need to get through our days and get it all done. I've seen some interesting examples lately of how the process of setting priorities can help us manage our commitments.

The first rule of the day will be survival. You're not usually dealing with literal survival every day, of course, but it's a good way to think of where to start on your priority list. Using extreme language helps us to focus. Some of the lessons taken from the triage in a hospital environment will apply to us every day. You may be seeing examples in the news right now as we learn of efforts to stem the new outbreak of the Ebola virus in Africa.

"Triage" is defined on Google as "the assignment of degrees of urgency to wounds or illnesses to decide the order of treatment of a large number of patients or casualties." We could change this to "the assignment of urgency to projects or processes to decide the order of priority of a large number of objectives and goals." Let's call it "priage" to blend "priorities" and "triage."

In the emergency room or battlefield hospital or even in a normal but busy hospital setting, the application of triage concepts will save lives. The first priority is to help those who have the shortest amount of time left to live if treatment is delayed. However, a second criterion is particularly uncomfortable: The odds of survival even if treated must be considered. Patients who have a low chance of survival even if they receive immediate treatment may have to be sacrificed to treat someone who has better odds of coming through the injury or disease and returning to a relatively normal life. This is most unpleasant but necessary. We should have a similar mentality when it comes to prioritizing our life's list of projects.

I must stress that nothing about this idea replaces the vital effort to create your vision, values, and mission statements and fully document and follow your strategic plan. However, markets change, products fail, our environment adjusts, and people come and go—these are but a few situations that can upset the most well laid-out plan. So, no matter how carefully we manage those tried-and-true planning methods, we can still end up in "priage" situations.

Time and Acuteness

Using those triage lessons, where do we start? First, think about survival. There are two aspects here: time and acuteness. I like to think about the time part first. Which projects have a hard deadline and/or will cause others to miss their deadlines if you don't perform?

In medical triage, there is often a color-coded system: Red means death is imminent without care—treat now; orange means it's an emergency—treat within 15 minutes; yellow is very urgent—60 minutes; green is urgent—2 hours; and blue is not urgent—4+ hours. You might decide color-coding your to-do list or computer-based task list is helpful.

Determining Deadline

In our case, let's start with the time-based deadline list first. Although this may seem basic, it's surprising how many people don't assign proper deadlines. Some don't assign deadlines at all. You should not accept a project without a time goal. Otherwise, projects languish, or you aren't ready when it is required. From the opposite perspective, not everything has to happen tomorrow! If you require that others around you set a well-thought-out deadline for you, it sets a great example. And you should do the same for them.

In your "to-do" list, put the initials of the person from whom you received the project and the deadline. Do this, if for no other reason, to jog your memory. And be complete in your entries. I've looked at an item on my list more than once and thought, "What on earth did I mean by that?"

Determining Priority

Once you have the deadlines established, you can look for acuteness. A great example can be found in the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (2007). They explore the question of "Mission Critical" with a military example.

Make the main objective clear enough that everyone absolutely knows his or her own part in the final goal or result: If all communication were suspended, each person would know what he or she needs to keep working on to make the mission a success. In the military example, knowing that he or she must hold the line at a certain boundary means that the last surviving soldier knows to keep trying to hold that line, no matter what (because help is on the way, so never give up). This is another extreme example to help us focus. Managers: Are you communicating well enough that your own absence from the process doesn't slow it down? Setting appropriate priorities with the group will ensure your coworkers can keep moving with the project. This creates an efficiency that helps everyone.

Next, ask yourself if something in your overall mission will fail if you don't perform this task. Look at your strategic plan and decide if what you are going to do today positively affects the plan. Even if you are handling something that has nothing to do with the overall corporate strategy, you may be the link in the chain that will cause something to fail or succeed. For most businesses, if your computer servers are down, it's like having the blood flow cut off in the body. Some work can still happen, but it's not much, and it's not for long. So that would take priority because it's very time sensitive (productivity wanes quickly), it's universal (everyone in the company is affected), and it's critical (there is generally no substitute method to achieve the needed results).

So, you may have a priority project that has a short deadline. But, something else you are working on may have a higher priority in terms of keeping the overall mission moving. Be sure to look at all the elements of the project and consider all three aspects: how short the deadline is, how many people are affected, and whether we can get along another way if this project isn't finished.

Finally, it is very important not to get so caught up in the process of planning and prioritization that you never actually finish the mission. You can use color-coding, ABCs, or important-versus-urgent prioritization methods and never get a thing done. Many businesses have died the slow death of paralysis by analysis because they plan to plan but never act. Balance your decisions carefully, but don't get lost in the documents, plans, meetings, and processes. Sometimes, you just need to go and do, even without 100 percent perfect plans. The momentum of 95 percent will carry you, and you can adjust as you go.


With the time you save being more efficient, communicating well, and balancing planning with action, maybe you can take on just one more project to save the planet. Better yet, you might even get some rest and relaxation so you're refreshed for tomorrow's work!

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