I love it when someone says, “I have too many priorities.”
Why? Because they’ve revealed themselves to be a person who struggles with decisions.
Webster’s gives three definitions for “priority.” All three involve the person deciding how to separate tasks into an ordered list that then instructs the person where to apply their time, i.e., to the top priority task.
When someone says, “We have too many priorities,” they are admitting that the organization struggles with deciding the order of the list or struggles with applying time in the order of the list, or both.
Where this turns interesting isn’t in this deduction of the problems, but rather in the opt repeated solution to the problem, “We need fewer priorities.” The logic implied is: If I had less tasks to pick from or fewer tasks to apply my time to, I’d be better at putting my time and attention to the tasks. Where this breaks down is that the exact will power you need to keep the list short and time to the short list is exactly the willpower that the person or organization lacked when the list was long.
The engine that drives a successful prioritization is the individuals willingness to work in priority order, to avoid distractions, to not let the little things of the day creep in.
You can dissolve all the fights about priority quickly by saying, “What if you only got one priority. What would you work on right now because it truly can’t wait any longer for your attention?” See if you can get an answer (sometimes you won’t). If they answer, then ask, “What’s stopping you from working on that right now?” What you’ll find in the answer to that question is all the other things that are really higher priorities to that person, but they just weren’t willing to admit (perhaps even to themselves).
[Note: Feel free to interrogate yourself with this technique next time you want to say, “I have too many priorities.” It really does help you surface what you may have been prioritizing over your most important tasks.]
People and organizations don’t have a priority problem. They have a willpower problem. Once we diagnosis the disease and stop treating the symptom, then we might be able to actually make ourselves and our organizations better. Why not try?