We all know prioritizing is critical, but like most time management concepts, how to prioritize is unclear and the traditional guidance not all that helpful.
Most traditional prioritization approaches essentially boil down to writing everything down and then organizing it based on importance vs. urgency or using some elaborate A, B, C / 1, 2, 3 structure. In my experience, this organizing of tasks in an effort to provide clarity actually takes a lot of time, can lead to even more confusion, and doesn’t get you much closer to knowing how to proceed with confidence.
So, in this podcast episode, we’ll cover my approach to prioritization. It’s not easy (nothing with time management is), but it works and does reduce stress, provide clarity, and allows you to get to the actual doing – not just spending hours assigning letters and numbers to tasks to try to rank every single task on your plate.
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Kelly Nolan: Welcome to The Bright Method Podcast where we’ll discuss practical time management strategies designed for the professional working woman. I’m Kelly Nolan, a former patent litigator who now works with women to set up The Bright Method in their lives. The Bright Method is a realistic time management system that helps you manage it all, personally and professionally. Let’s get you falling asleep proud of what you got done today and calm about what’s on tap tomorrow. All right, let’s dig in!
Hey! So I am really excited to talk about this one today. Today, we’re gonna get into prioritization, and now, obviously, it’s a topic that people know is critical. We need to prioritize. But, as with most things time management, I find that the practical guidance on how to do that is lacking.
Now, there is guidance out there. There are people who have tried to break it down into a practical thing. For the most part, this is kind of how I view it. Basically, it’s write everything down, which is a great starting place. Write it all down, all the things you need to do, and then organize it. That seems to be the traditional approach. Organize it, whether you organize it in an Eisenhower Matrix (which is urgent versus important and then you kind of categorize those things) or some sort of other ranking system (which can be like a series of 1, 2, 3 or A, B, C or a hybrid of those both or high, medium, low). Some of these get more complicated, and then some of them are just that high, medium, low.
I, personally, have never found that organizing by essential ranking to work for me. It’s very time consuming, and it’s more than that. I do believe that time management does require time, so time management, ironically and frustratingly, can be time consuming. I think the real problem with this ranking system is that it’s confusing to me, and I get confused on whether something’s a high priority, a medium priority, or a low priority. And I also think these approaches have some glaring errors that don’t make them super useful.
So today, what we’re gonna talk about is how you need to shift into a different approach prioritizing that hopefully will work better for you. We’re gonna go over five topics, five things that can help you with prioritizing.
One: Get Clear on Your Capacity – 2:31
First (this is a little bit of me being a broken record, and I’m gonna unfortunately continue to be a broken record on this) is you have got to get clear on your capacity. So, let’s say you’re going on a weekend away trip with friends. You’re gonna go away for four days. You’re super looking forward to it. You’re about to start packing. What you bring depends on whether you’re driving and can fill up a car, bringing a checked bag, or just bringing a carry-on suitcase, right? What you bring hinges on that answer. How ruthlessly you have to decide what to bring and prioritize what to bring depends on what capacity you have for stuff, the obvious to you. We are weirdly not perfect but much better at understanding the limitations of space and physical things than we are with our time and energy. So I find always going to kind of a packing a container or a suitcase analogy actually to be very useful even though it’s super basic.
The traditional approach to prioritizing tasks and projects skips this step entirely, but it’s critical. You have to get clear on understanding what your capacity is before you even start thinking about what task do you want to prioritize and have time for, and that’s, perhaps, the most critical piece of The Bright Method, the most critical benefit, and we discuss The Bright Method on a high level in episode one about using a digital calendar, even for us paper lovers. Using a digital calendar is, in my opinion, the single best way you can get that clarity around your capacity, and this changes by season of life. Our capacity changes, and that’s why we always have to be aware of it. So the real question is, in this season of life, do you have a car you can fill up with to-dos, a checked bag, a carry-on, something else? And that will help you. That’s a good first step, a critical first step to understanding how you’re gonna prioritize.
Two: How Much is Even in Our Capacity – 4:36
The second point that we also need to get clear on is (and it’s similar to the first) how much is already in there? So, let’s say we even get an understanding of our capacity, which we’re gonna dig into more throughout this podcast, but it’s just a critical first step that you need to understand, and if you don’t use The Bright Method, if you can figure out another way to do this, awesome. That it totally fine. So that’s why I kind of talk about some of these things at a more high level because even if you don’t want to organize your time and tasks the way that I teach, if you can still kind of think of these concepts and come up with the system that works for you, awesome.
So point two is what is already in there. So using our packing analogy, while it’s fun to think about, “What am I gonna wear to dinner,” or “What am I gonna wear to the beach,” all these kinds of things, we also have to think about the basics that we also need to bring for almost any trip: underwear, bras, socks, toiletries, makeup (if you use it). These things take up space that you would otherwise give to other things. Now, if you have a car to load, it might be less critical, but it does matter, and if you have a small carry-on, it does take up a lot of that space. That can be very frustrating once you see that your open space for other things is whittled down, but it is what it is. You need that stuff, so you have to account for it.
I’m kind of beating a drum here. This, again, is where The Bright Method is illuminating because we really get clear on what are those typical invisible to-dos that take up hours of your day so that you understand what your kind of modified capacity is to bring stuff. So you have your baseline capacity, then you put all these invisible to-dos, the basics. If you want to think of it like your time-management underwear in there that takes up space and then you have more of an understanding of, “Okay, this is really the remaining amount of space I have to give to the more fun one-off outfits that you’re gonna wear on your trip.
So, again, whether you use my system or another system, make sure you are understanding of what your capacity is and then also what are your basics that are taking up space and capacity that you are tempted to give to other things, which is totally understandable, but that does take up space so that you get much more clear on what that remaining space is. Now, just to take a step back, again, we’re talking about prioritizing, so you might be like, “Why is she still talking about capacity,” but again, we need to understand what is the space we’re even talking about to understand what do we have time and energy for to then think about, “And what am I gonna put in there, what am I gonna prioritize giving space to with this remaining time.”
Three: Eliminating – 7:18
Segueing into the third principle of this is don’t forget about eliminating. Now, going back to those traditional approaches, you kind of lay everything out and then you start going one, two, three; A, B, C; high, medium, low; whatever it is. That kind of presupposes that you’re going to still do all of those things. Often, I will go into something and think I need to do all these things and once I get clear on my capacity and see the realities of what can fit in that time, then I start having a bit of a wake-up call of, “Yeah, I’m not gonna get to all of these things,” and eliminating is key in this processing. This eliminating thing, I think, is just surprising to me how rarely I see it discussed around prioritizing.
I think in American work culture there’s even a, “Let’s come up with our high priorities, and yeah, we’ll still do everything else,” instead of saying, “these are our high priorities. These are high-priority projects, and we need to eliminate or hunt for a couple quarters, these other things.” I think there’s a big, weird thing going on in American companies. Maybe it’s new. Maybe it’s always been this way. It just seems to me that especially in a tough economic time, which we’re in right now and there are layoffs, even with less team members, there’s still a sentiment of just figure out a way to get it all done, instead of true prioritizing and eliminating the things that we are not prioritizing right now. Essentially, what’s happening is people are taking a car full of things and asking you to cram it into a carry-on bag. No matter how you prioritize it (you can label these things high priority, whatever), they’re never gonna fit in the carry-on bag. Part of prioritizing is really ensuring that you have the time and the space for the most important things, and that means getting rid of the less important things so there is time and space for those things.
So we’re gonna talk a little bit more about eliminating, but what I really want you to hear for this third point is that when you’re prioritizing, remember that eliminating is an option, at the very least, punting to a later time is an option and a critical option that you really, really need to keep in mind. Also just know that you might kind of be like, “Okay, these are the things we’re gonna eliminate,” and then again when we move to the next couple points of this, you might even have to revisit that decision and say, “I thought we could do these things. We did eliminate XYZ, and we’re also gonna have to eliminate SRT.” You’re gonna kind of have to revisit these things, but the point right now that I’m trying to make that I’m rambling on about is that elimination is a key part of prioritization. Prioritization does not mean that you rank it in its variety of ranks and then you still do it all. It does mean you have to eliminate. Some of you might totally get that. But for I think a lot of people, including myself sometimes, we need that reminder.
Four: Decide What to Prioritize and What Goes on the Back Burner – 10:19
Okay, the fourth point is how to decide what you’re going to prioritize and make room for and what you’re going to put on the back burner, like the if-you-get-to-it time or even, “We’re gonna have to punt this up by six months,” or something like that.
Now, this is kind of clear when you think about it from a packing standpoint, but you want to take a step back and think about your plans. What are you doing? What will you need to do that? Then pack those things. Then you leave the rest behind. So you might be like, “I’m gonna pack these five dresses,” and then you realize you’re only going out to dinner two times, and maybe one of them’s more of a casual time, and you’re like, “Then maybe I just need one dress.” That’s what we need to do in a bigger way, obviously, when it comes to prioritizing work and life. We need to be clear about what we’re trying to do, where we’re trying to go, and then only pack those things and leave the rest behind.
I believe, especially once you get clear on your capacity, especially once you see all the invisible to-dos that you’re already doing and all of that, we truly need one personal goal at a time and only one business or career goal at a time. Now, that obviously doesn’t mean you only do one project, but when you have one goal, that helps you filter projects so that you can say, “Okay, we have these ten projects on our plate. Let’s take a step back. What is our main business/career goal right now?” Let’s say you work in a corporate setting, if you’re launching a product or you’re getting a website up or you’re trying to expand your audience, you know best what the different big overarching strategies might be. What is that goal, and then let’s look at these ten projects and say which of these projects are we most excited to do but also which will move the needle the most or the fastest or whatever might be the case for you towards that goal, the best. Then we’re gonna say, “You know what? Let’s pick this one, and then this one is next and then this one is next, and then we’re probably gonna have to eliminate the rest.”
Again, by the way, when you start plotting them out in your calendar — which I’m kind of jumping ahead to other things right now, and when you start plotting them out in your calendar, a la Bright Method, you might even have to revisit and say, “You know what? We really only have team capacity and energy to do one and two of these projects. We’re gonna even have to push number three.” You might not be able to make these decisions unilaterally. You might not be able to make the call and what is the one overarching goal right now, but you can have discussions with your boss or your team about this. I recommend that you even propose what you see as the major goal right now in your organization and therefore what one, two, or three projects should be prioritized to accomplish that goal and then be very express that that means that we’re leading projects four through ten behind right now, and we can reevaluate whether we pick them back up in a quarter or we punt them back out six months or whatever might make sense to you.
You’re smart. You can play with this, but really start coming up with a proposal about this so that, one, maybe your team will run with it, which is great, but two, even if you’re wrong, you’ll learn so much about, “Oh, okay, that’s not the priority, and actually these are the priorities, and these are the projects we need to prioritize.” But you’re starting a conversation that’s critical to have, and that is wonderful. Even if it doesn’t play out the way that it worked for you.
I truly believe by having these conversations where you go in and you say something along the lines of, “It seems like we’re really overstretched right now. I’m worried that we’re not going to accomplish any of the goals that we’re working on because we’re so overstretched, from where I’m sitting, and I might be wrong, it seems like X is the main priority that we need to work towards right now. If that’s correct, then I propose that we prioritize this project because it would bring cash in the door the fastest,” or whatever it might be, “and this project because blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I do believe that we also need to punt XYZ projects six months, and we can reevaluate at that time. But I believe if we prioritize these two projects, we will accomplish these things which gets us close to accomplishing the overarching goal, and that’s what’s critical here.”
Now, that to me, by bringing up specifics, by having proposals, makes you look like the leader that you are. I’m bringing this up because you might be like, “This is super random,” but I think we have a fear of when we say no to work, we will be viewed as weak. But I believe that when you have these particularly proactive conversations when you’re demonstrating that you’re looking at the higher strategy and proposing projects in that way, you exhibit a lot of leadership and you look stronger, even if you’re wrong. Even if you’re wrong, it shows you’re thinking this way and being strategic, and that makes you look good. So just throw that out there.
Now, it might not go in your favor, and you might get the message of, essentially, you’ve got to do it all. But to me, that is critical information for you to have because when a company shows its colors, then you can decide what you want to do with that. So you might decide it’s time to leave. You might either decide that’s not the right choice or that’s not an option for you right now. But you stop killing yourself and sacrificing the rest of your life for a job that is not being reasonable with you because if it’s an impossible workload, them just demanding you do it does not make it possible, and so, that allows you to realize, okay, I’m gonna lose if I play by their rules no matter what I do, so let me figure out what winning would look like for me, and we’ll see if this works for this company. Got a little off topic there, but sometimes I get really passionate about this stuff! I just kind of have to keep going.
All right. Bringing myself back to prioritizing. The related point here kind of when we’re deciding, like when we’re trying to decide what to prioritize, is don’t prioritize things in isolation, and I think this is one of my biggest problems with kind of traditional methods that are like look at a thing that you need to do and label it high, medium, or low. Then you look at the next thing you need to do, and you label it high, medium, or low. And then you look at the next thing. To me, when I look at things in isolation, I’m like everything looks important. It seems like I need to do all of it. That’s not very helpful.
This is a very simple example. Let’s say you have half an hour left in your day, and you’re like, “I need to do this. I need to do project X. I need to do task X,” and then you’re like, “Ooh, but also to-do Y also has to get done.” When you can see them side by side in that last half hour of the day that you have, it becomes pretty clear which one’s most important. You’re like, “Oof, I didn’t see that one. Definitely need to do Y. Screw X. I’ve got to do that later.” That’s very valuable. I find that when I can compare tasks and see the limits of time, then I can make a more informed decision, and it becomes more clear to me which one has to get punted and which one has to happen now without any labeling of, “This is high priority. This is medium. This is low.” I’m just like, “Ope, can’t do both of these things. This one has to go because this one definitely needs to happen,” or, “I need to do both these things. I don’t have enough time or energy or focus to get X done really well, so I’m gonna focus on Y, and I’m gonna find a right time to do X.”
When you can see things play out, I kind of think of it almost like a March Madness bracket going on where it’s like, “This task against this task; this one wins. This one against this one given these constraints; that one wins,” and you just kind of move things around in the realities of your calendar in a way that you’re tying task to time and also building a game plan at the same time while you do this without any kind of arbitrary labeling.
So, in short, what I mean here is that it’s critical that when we are evaluating to-dos and projects, that we’re not doing it in a vacuum where you’re looking at just that on its own and being like, “Is this important or not?” Because a lot seems really important when we do that, but it’s not until we kind of put our tasks in our calendar and see them duke out over space and time in there that we start getting clarity on what has to give for what, without even worrying about what’s high or low.
Now, granted, this kind of went back to you still have to do that point number four where you get clear on what is the overarching goal right now so that we can really be clear on kind of taking a first cut at what even should be on our plate, but once we decide, “Okay, these things are on our plate,” then we even just have to help them find time for them in our calendar, and it becomes a lot more clear of what has to happen when, when you do that. Now, again, kind of going back up to eliminating, you might have thought you picked a reasonable amount of workload and then you start putting it in your calendar and you realize, “Oh, man. It’s still unrealistic. I’ve got to eliminate more,” and that might happen. I’m just warning you that that might happen. But solid time management comes back to accepting reality and not fighting it or living in the ignorance of it. But accepting reality and prioritizing what you need to do and protecting time in your calendar for those most important things even if it means eliminating some stuff that you don’t want to really eliminate. But when we work with reality, that’s when we create realistic game plans that we can actually accomplish. That helps you go to bed feeling good about what you got done instead of beating yourself up for not accomplishing a completely unrealistic work plan to begin with.
So I hope that helps. I know that this was maybe not the most practical thing I’ve ever shared, but hopefully it has helped shift your approach in maybe how you were thinking about prioritizing before this.
So, first, you’ve really got to get clear on your capacity. Do you have a car full of things, a checked bag, or a carry-on? How much space are we talking about here? Because if you have a ton of space and time, then maybe you can do a ton of this stuff. Maybe you don’t have to prioritize and eliminate so ruthlessly. But if you have a lot less time, then you’ve got to be a lot more ruthless on what you’re saying yes to.
Similarly, don’t forget about those invisible to-dos. Make sure you’re aware of and accounting for what is already in there, kind of like your time management underwear and that kind of stuff that you always have to bring.
Then the third point is don’t forget about eliminating. Prioritizing doesn’t mean we just stuck high, medium, low priorities and we still have to get everything done. We do have to eliminate some stuff, I almost guarantee it. I think the chronic problem right now is that we are overworked and trying to do too much, and if you want to actually accomplish what’s most important, you’re going to have to eliminate to give time and space and energy to that most important stuff.
Then, when it comes down to how to prioritize, you’re like, “Okay, we’re pretty clear we can’t do it all. We’re gonna have to eliminate some stuff,” how do I decide what goes in there,” have the clarity of what your main personal and main career goals are right now (only one of each), and then what things serve those goals and what doesn’t, and that will help you kind of decide what gets room in your calendar and what does not.
Then, along those lines, is even once you’re kind of clear on that, you still want to be prioritizing projects not in isolation. You want to kind of see them together, how they interact, and what kind of kicks out the others for time and space because it’s clearly more important to you. So don’t prioritize in isolation. Don’t look at one task and decide if it’s important. Don’t look at another task and decide if it’s important. Really see them together and say, “Cumulatively, can I do all these things? No, so which one has to give?”
I hope this helps! We’re gonna dig into more of these things in the future, but I just had to share because I think that there’s a lot of discussion around these things that’s missing from a lot of the dialogue around prioritizing which leaves a lot of people confused. So I hope this was helpful!
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