When you are presented with a range of different tasks, all of which seem to be of equal importance, what do you do? Do you panic and do a little bit of all of them, but not to a very high standard - and stress about it? Do you do 80 per cent of one, then abandon it and move on to the next? Or do you not do any of them and go shopping for shoes instead?
All right, the last option was a trick - shopping for shoes is clearly always the most important thing.
I know someone who really struggles to prioritise and subsequently rarely achieves his goals. During our last conversation, he said: "It's all a priority." I sighed heavily. Only unskilled and inexperienced managers really believe that. When you give every task equal weight you are likely to do the wrong task at the wrong time. If you can't do all of them because it's physically impossible, then all you need to remember is this: YOU CAN'T DO ALL OF THEM BECAUSE IT'S PHYSICALLY IMPOSSIBLE.
For managers, prioritising is not about your own in-tray, but about the priorities for the team. All you have to do is choose - which of these competing tasks does your team need to do first? And why that thing rather than the other four million things expected of us? It's about making a decision. That's all.
And don't assume that the deadline dictates whether it is a priority or not. Douglas Adams, the late author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, once said: "I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they fly past."
Good management is about deciding what you and your team can do given the resources you have available to you, measured against the key objectives of your organisation.
Prioritising begins with those objectives. Ask yourself what you are trying to achieve. What actions will best help you do that? What resources do you have? Focus on the things that will help you achieve your objectives. Prioritising is painful because it means some tasks won't be completed. But that's part of what managers are paid for: to choose what won't get done.
- Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change and a trustee of MedicAlert