What to do when everything’s a priority

Everyone I’ve asked this week “how are things going?” has given the same answer “Really busy”. It occurred to me that being busy has become so accepted as an answer, even expected. If we’re not flat out busy, there must be something missing.

It got me thinking about the issue of how we manage time effectively. On one hand, everyone is incredibly busy. But on the other hand, are we busy on the right things?

Take email as a great example of something that fuels our busyness. On the upside it’s convenient and efficient. On the downside it’s like a big black hole that sucks many of us in. We’re bombarded by so called urgent requests so we treat them as important (and there’s a payoff called instant gratification we get from dealing with things and getting them off our plate quickly) and all of a sudden, our ‘to do’ list hasn’t been tackled in the way we wanted.

Discern what is important – forget about everything else

So how do you not get sucked into black holes like email? I remember listening to great racing skipper years ago and the question he asked every day was “will this make the boat go faster?” Or another way of asking the same thing is, is this going to fulfil our mission or our promise to our customers?

Learn to say no

If an activity or action is not going to directly help you achieve the goals you’ve set, then don’t do it which could involve saying no to someone (obviously sound judgement is also applied). Although saying no can be tough, it’s got to be done. Otherwise, others will be managing your agenda, not you. Being busy and being effective are often (and sadly) mutually exclusive, whether we like it or not.

Focus on a small number of things

The reality is this – it’s better to focus on a smaller number of things, and do them really well, than not complete a vast array of things, not very well. In other words, make sure you over deliver on as many things you’ve been asked to do as possible, rather than under-delivering on everything you’ve been asked.

I often ask my clients 2 simple questions:

  • If we were sitting here a year from now, and you were to tell me the three things you’ve achieved that you are most proud of achieving, what would they be?
  • For each of your key areas of responsibility in your role, what would you have done to tell me that you’d ‘nailed it’ this year?

Determine your standards of success

Once you’ve got your areas of focus work out what your performance standards are. So work out, for example, what a 1)nailed it performance looks like 2) great performance 3) solid performance and 4) I didn’t get there performance. Know what you’re aiming for and ensure you can measure your progress and results against the measure you want to achieve.

Be very clear on your key goals

Establish your ‘main game’ in your role. Do this by being clear on what your key goals are (3-4 BIG ones each year broken down to 2-3 key goals per quarter) and you’ll achieve 3 things:

  • You’ll be clear on what your priorities are, so you can evaluate “what makes the boat go faster” for you.
  • You’ll make your own life easier because you’ll be tracking against your own performance standards which can be motivating when you chart your progress.
  • At the end of the year, you’ll have achieved up to 12 big things (3 per quarter)….that’s a lot!


You’re probably not going to get less busy. So if that’s a given, what you can do is change your focus to ensure you prioritise well and execute the things that matter. Everything else is background noise that will distract you from your main game.


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