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Opinion: 6 ways to prioritize when everything’s a priority

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A popular online dictionary defines a priority as something that’s regarded as more important than another. I don’t think that’s entirely accurate.

The crux of the problem with setting priorities is that they often give way to less important work. Priorities collide with overflowing to-do-lists, crowded schedules and constant interruptions, potentially becoming trapped by what author Charles Hummel discussed in his bestselling little book, “Tyranny of The Urgent.”

Prioritizing our priorities and remaining focused on what’s most important is demanding. There are, however, some ways to deal with the challenge.

1. Get clarity.

I’ve seen leaders deem all their initiatives to be a priority only to have what’s urgent change constantly throughout the year. The ambiguity that seems trivial in the leader’s mind can be troubling and create confusion for employees.

It’s smart to have practical tools and a framework for setting priorities effectively. For starters, asking a fresh set of questions in your strategic discussions can help break down entrenched beliefs.

2. Say no more than yes.

It’s hardly ever smart to have more than four or five major priorities at one time. It not only thins out your resources but also compromises the full value from those priorities. Warren Buffet said, “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything.”

When it comes to achieving priorities, less is more.

3. Build strategy into your approach.

You will have better stability with priorities if they strategically achieve both the short- and long-term needs of the business.

For instance, I’ve worked with leaders who had great vision but struggled to move the needle year to year. On the other hand, I’ve worked with executives who possessed strong tactical abilities but struggled to see the need for priorities long-term strategies.

Therefore, strategy, not the leader’s innate capacity, should determine the priorities that are pursued.

4. Protect your universal core.

The attributes that make an individual or organization unique in the marketplace need to be safeguarded. A few years ago, a client company’s top two executives allowed a new vice president to convince them to chase after a promising niche outside of their core market. In over 100 years, the company had never strayed. But unfortunately, when they did this once, the results were nearly catastrophic. Ultimately, they closed down operations and returned to their base camp.

5. Be decisive.

Because organizations are more agile and change is constant, I find that setting priorities is more difficult for leaders who are risk resistant. When leaders hesitate to decide between priorities, the number of priorities they commit to grows. Underlying this reaction is fear – the fear of missing out on a new market trend, falling behind a competitor or simply being wrong.

In my experience, though, the most successful leaders target their focus on the most important priorities. Eventually, a laser-like focus gets entrenched into the culture.

6. Prioritize for customer experience.

An organization can hardly go wrong focusing on the customer’s experience. Last week, I received a replacement caster from the original manufacturer for my ergonomic office chair. It was great customer service because I bought the chair 12 years ago and didn’t have the retail receipt. They still replaced it for free and handled my issue on the same day I called.

This cost the manufacturer money with no guarantee of seeing any future business. Obviously, the company prioritizes its customer’s experience and believes it eventually leads to more business. It certainly will in my case.

Achieving clarity and a consistent focus on the most important priorities delivers important benefits to an individual and an organization.

Consultant and professional speaker Mark Holmes is president of Springfield-based Consultant Board Inc. and He’s also the author of “The Five Rules of Megavalue Selling.” He can be reached at


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