Some days, it seems like everything is a priority. When you wear several different hats in your company, you end up competing with yourself for your time. How do you figure out what to do right now and whether that will get your business where you want it to go?
One reason prioritizing is so difficult is because it's not a single conversation, according to David Allen, consultant and author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. He says there are six levels of priorities, from your life's purpose (the highest), through your core values and what you want to accomplish in the next one to two years, down to ongoing maintenance and steps toward finishing longer projects. Finally, the most immediate level is, "What do I need to do right now?"
Allen says most people have between 150 and 200 of these immediate tasks to prioritize -- in any one moment.
You might think you should start with your life's purpose and work backward, but Allen says, "If you wait to figure that out before you do anything, you'll be dead." And what about prioritizing those 150 immediate tasks? "There's nothing wrong with writing the four things down that you'd love to tackle; just be prepared to tear it up over and over."
Instead, figure out which priorities conversation you need to have with yourself. Maybe you need to clarify your two-year goals or maybe you're in startup mode and really do need to put out fires. Just make sure to look at your priorities from all six levels; Allen advises reassessing progress on year-long goals at least once a week.
Here are some other tips from top experts:
Follow the money: Gary Stauble, author of Done by Noon, says, "Do the closest thing to money first. What's going to actually turn into someone giving you their credit card number?" Usually, only a few of the things you do lead directly to revenue.
If you're in sales, those closest-to-the-money activities will be obvious: making calls, sending out invoices. For other business owners, getting closer to the money requires identifying some key performance indicators. A general contractor might use the number of proposals submitted each week, while a psychologist might track the number of appointment hours per month.
Once you've identified your key performance indicators, analyze your activities to discover what average performance is. When you exceed your previous average, you should make more money. On the other hand, when you spend more time on those other, "urgent" activities, you may be dinging your bottom line.
Embrace processes: "If you do something more than three times, you need a process," says Peggy Duncan, a personal productivity expert and author of The Time Management Memory Jogger. "Take a look at something you dread doing, and think of a faster, better way to do it." For example, one client routinely sent out an email with several attachments. Duncan advised her to combine the attachments into one PDF, create the email and save it on her desktop as a message. "Now, she can be on the phone talking to somebody, and before they hang up, she's already sent them the email."
Make a to-don’t list: Craig Jarrow, author of Time Management Ninja, suggests coming up with a list of your obligations outside work. "If you only have a couple and they're within your time budget, okay. If there are too many, you might have to whittle those back or even give some of them up," he says. "You're deciding what's more important -- running your business or volunteering at the soup kitchen. It can be tough." You can still volunteer, but limit the amount of hours, or, instead of showing up there, take on a larger project for the charity that's in line with your company's operations.
WIG out: Identify your Wildly Important Goals, and make sure everyone in your company has bought in. That's the advice from experts at FranklinCovey. "The clearer you are on the top three most strategic things you can do in a timeframe like a year or quarter, the more likely you can execute," says Leigh Stevens, FranklinCovey senior product architect. Hold WIG meetings once a week with your staff; once you've identified the wildly important goals, these can take as little as 15 minutes.
Says Jeff Anderson, FranklinCovey productivity practice leader, "If you're reviewing those goals every week and something comes up -- which always happens -- you have a common framework that lets you can prioritize on the fly. Without the shared mindset, it's very easy for everybody to be pulled from project to project."
Image credit: Redvers
Susan Kuchinskas is the author of Going Mobile: A Guide to Building the Real-Time Enterprise with Mobile Applications That Work. As a founding editor for M-Business from 200 to 2002, she tracked the early development of the mobile Internet. She's a correspondent for Telematics Update and reports on technology and business for a variety of publications.