Setting Priorities

One of the biggest requirements of leadership today is knowing how to be effective in an environment of competing priorities and continuously growing demands. The challenge of balancing competing priorities can leave the best of us overwhelmed and exhausted.

This has, perhaps, always been true. But, I can’t help but think that technology has made the task of balancing priorities even more of a challenge over the past couple of decades.

Besides the sheer number of distractions that we are exposed to every hour of every day, there’s an increased temptation to focus on what’s “hot” or new, often at the expense of our highest goals and core purpose. Sometimes early adaption (or even late adaption) to the latest and greatest is the best decision we can make. Other times, it just causes one more fireball issue we must deal with.

Juggling the constant barrage of issues and decisions is just a fact of leadership. If we are to lead effectively, we must evaluate and prioritize every issue and decision based on how it will affect our organization today and in the future. In other words, leadership requires a crystal ball. If you don’t happen to have a crystal ball at your disposal, being able to quickly prioritize competing demands is the next best thing.

One Question to Help Get Your Priorities Straight

According to Dusty Staub, author of The 7 Acts of Courage, there is one question we can ask ourselves when we need to acquire some perspective about the most important thing in any given situation:

“What is the ONE thing that is missing that, if added, would make the biggest positive difference in my life / relationship / work /organization?”

Asking this question does a couple of things for us. First, it forces our brains to narrow the focus to ONE thing. This is great, because although we rarely face situations that require only one action or decision, we are generally only capable of doing one thing and making one decision at a time.

When faced with a thousand possible actions or decisions, it’s easy to freeze up, paralyzed by too many options. Asking the question, “What is the ONE thing…” can create the focus we need to move forward in a meaningful way.

Second, asking this question causes us to hone in on what’s most important. Dwight D. Eisenhower is famously quoted as saying, “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” This is a powerful distinction that can instantly help us prioritize our actions.

Urgent tasks need immediate attention. They are the, often unavoidable, tasks that require our attention right now. The customer who needs assistance, the employee who has a question, the school calling to tell us our child is sick, the email reminding us of a deadline. All of these are urgent. They need to be dealt with, but in the vast scheme of things, are not all that important.

Important tasks are things that contribute to our long-term mission, values, and goals. These are, without a doubt, the most difficult things to make time for. Why? Because most of our day is consumed with urgent tasks.

In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen Covey sets forth a useful decision making matrix based on the distinction between urgent and important tasks.

The Eisenhower Matrix is one of those elegant systems that can transform your day from one spent treading water to one where you are able to finish the race. It has this power for one simple reason: It helps us prioritize.

Asking the question, “What is the ONE thing that would make the biggest positive difference…”, helps us determine what’s important vs urgent in the first place. And knowing what’s important is the only way to successfully align priorities with the goal.

Without consciously setting priorities it’s too easy to follow the path of least resistance. We allow urgent and unimportant tasks to consume all our time, leaving the more difficult – but most important – tasks for later. Not the most effective way to lead, would you agree?

Author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote, “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” Our job as leaders is to determine the things that matter most and ensure that they never fall prey to the revolving door of other options.


About Dan Finerty

Dan Finerty is the Director of Marketing at the Mountain West Credit Union Association, a Credit Union champion, a Credit Union Development Educator (CUDE), and an award-winning marketer. Dan has over 14 years of marketing experience in communications, retail, packaged goods, and, of course, Credit Unions. He believes that Credit Unions have an incredible story to tell and works with some of the brightest Credit Union professionals to help promote Credit Unions to the public. Dan holds two Bachelor’s of Science in Marketing and in Management. He is also a swell guy.

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