When everything is a priority








You’re in a manager’s meeting where your boss is rattling off a list of new initiatives and projects so long that your head is starting to spin. Some of your colleagues sit stone-faced as their eyes glaze over. Others try unsuccessfully to disguise their growing anxiety.

You dare ask the question on everyone’s mind: “What are the priorities here?” Your obviously annoyed boss shoots you a petrifying glance and quickly informs you that “everything is a priority.”

Such is a manager’s life in an era of declining resources, increasing demands, and throw-everything-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks strategy.

You’ve probably heard the saying that when everything is a priority nothing is a priority. Well, it’s true. Your boss has abdicated responsibility for something that is one of a senior leader’s most important jobs. But it’s your job now, and your boss will be judging you on how well you do it. Take a break, go for a walk to clear you head, deal with the initial angst and get to work doing what your boss hasn’t done – setting priorities.

As Glinda the Good Witch said to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz: “It’s always best to start at the beginning.” What you do first will set the tone for everything else you’re canstockphoto20234656able to accomplish and how effective you are at doing so. You can easily feel overwhelmed if you and your team try to tackle too many projects at the same time. Some productivity experts say a team with two to three goals – in addition to the everyday chaos in which they exist – are likely to achieve them. If that same team has four to 10 goals, they are likely to achieve only one or two. A team with 11 to 20 goals will likely will accomplish little, if anything, outside the chaos.

In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey tells us to distinguish between the urgent and the important and then focus on the important.

“Urgent matters are usually visible,” he writes. “They press on us; they insist on action. They’re often popular with others. They’re usually right in front of us. And often they are pleasant, easy, fun to do. But so often they are unimportant!”

Covey says importance “has to do with results” and “contributes to your mission, your values, your high priority goals.”

Start by meeting with your team (if you have one) and identifying all the priorities that have been laid out to you. Separating them into urgent versus important will help you determine what will have the most visible and lasting impact. High priority should be given to those things with serious economic implications for the organization and those whose failure would render most other accomplishments meaningless.

Here are some other suggestions:

  • Organize, organize, organize. Creating a clear agenda for what needs to be done in the short term, the near term, and the longer term will help keep you and your team focused on what’s important and avoid distractions that demand immediate attention but undercut productivity.
  • Delegate, delegate, delegate. Talking on too many responsibilities and trying to accomplish too much on your own will almost inevitably undermine your ability to succeed. Allowing talented members of your team to share the workload not only takes things off your plate but provides valuable development opportunities that they will appreciate.
  • Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. Remember those stone-faced colleagues with the glazed-over eyes?  Partnering with them when appropriate on some initiatives can ease your workload, bring a different approach to some of the work, and help you both achieve more. It might also help bring more clarity to what your boss’s real priorities are.
  • Be realistic. When coming up with your own set of priorities, talk candidly with team members and colleagues about what you can and should accomplish. Setting unrealistic goals because you think that will please the boss will only set you up for failure down the road.
  • Be flexible. Uncertainty is the new norm and change is new constant. Your ability to deal with continuous shifts in priorities and unexpected glitches will help keep your stress level in check and help you achieve more. That will impress your boss.

©2014 Robert Naylor Coaching and Consulting, LLC. All rights reserved

Robert Naylor is a journalist, journalism educator, consultant, certified coach, facilitator, and speaker who helps people become better leaders, improve workplace performance, and find focus in their careers and life. He is available for on-site training, private coaching, keynote presentations, and commentary. For more information visit naylorcoaching online or contact

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