Priority Dilution: The New Procrastination

If you're letting top priorities slide to put out daily fires, you may be suffering from priority dilution. Here's how to stop it.
Southwestern Consulting
August 03, 2012

Priority dilution is a form of procrastination that affects the very people that you wouldn't typically consider procrastinators: the chronic overachievers.

The average procrastinator knows consciously that they are putting off things that they should be doing. However for high-level executives, mid-level managers and anyone else managing a lot of people, this new form of procrastination isn't as self-evident. Priority dilution is a dangerously deceptive saboteur of their goals because it is unconscious.

While priority dilution has nothing to do with laziness, apathy or being disengaged (like traditional procrastination) it nets the same result: a delay of the day’s most important activities because your attention shifts to less important, but perhaps seemingly more urgent, tasks. You are trading your to-do list for emergencies.

Today, when there are more tasks more than you could ever possibly get to, the key skill company leaders must develop is how to decide what activities to engage in, and which ones to let go.

According to a recent poll of managers we work with in our management coaching program, 58.5 percent say that priority dilution is the type of procrastination that most closely describes what they are struggling with. Some 56 percent said that “getting consumed with fires” was the number-one cause of procrastinating on important activities while at work.

Priority Dilution: A Case Study

Brian Wilson is just one of many in our management coaching program who struggles with priority dilution. He is the national sales director for Legacy Financial Services, a brokerage of Family Heritage Life, which serves 200,000 families with supplemental insurance across the country. He has two passions in life: serving the people on his team as a successful leader and, most important, serving his wife and his four children.

Brian contacted me after hearing my ideas about how to more effectively utilize an assistant. On top of managing his business, he and his wife had adopted three kids. He was working way too much overtime, but still wasn’t getting to his top priorities. He wanted help managing his workflow so he could leave the office earlier.

The top challenge that people struggling with priority dilution have is feeling guilty about letting stuff slip through the cracks. The most common reaction to this guilt is to try even harder to stay on top of it all. A more effective reaction would be to concentrate on the key activities that drive business. For Brian we narrowed his scope to focus only on the activities that really put money in his pocket and helped his team. We disallowed him from focusing on anything else—a practice that is tough to do without objective accountability.

For the small stuff we taught him how to best find, hire, train and work with an assistant. We created an inventory of tasks for him to outsource, developed a series of “rules” for his assistant to execute on his behalf, trained his assistant on e-mail management strategies and defined the amount of communication he should be having with his assistant.

Hiring the right assistant to take care of “the other tasks" changed his life—it freed him up to focus on the high-priority work that was critical to managing and growing his business. Brian has more peace, less stress, more quality family time, and in 2011, his team performed the best in the company, out of 47 teams nationwide.

How to Overcome Priority Dilution

Overcoming priority dilution relies heavily on your ability to decipher exactly what you should and shouldn’t be doing—deciding what not to do is a key skill you'll need to develop. Here is a short list of questions you can ask yourself when deciding which activities to protect and which ones are diluting your efforts:

  • Was this activity on my primary to-do list when I arrived at work today?
  • Is this activity one of the key drivers of achieving success in my position?
  • Does this activity require my unique thought process?
  • Will this issue likely resolve itself without my intervention if I allow some time?
  • Is there another person on our team who is mostly capable of handling this?
  • Can the resolution of this issue wait until some point in the future without substantial repercussion?

If the answer to the any of the first three questions is “no” or to the second three is “yes,” then you are likely engaged in an activity that is diluting your focus from your other priorities.

When you are not focused on your most critical priorities you are unintentionally procrastinating on what matters most. Your procrastination costs you and your team big dollars in the long run.

Ignore the noise. Manage the minutiae. Conquer the critical.

Rory Vaden, MBA is co-founder of Southwestern Consulting, Self-Discipline Strategist and Speaker, and New York Times bestselling author of Take the Stairs.

Southwestern Consulting