Stop Prioritizing!

Crazy advice, right? Perhaps not.

“Get your priorities straight” would seem to be the obvious solution to dealing with the overwhelm, stress and burden of too many commitments, too little time and scarce resources. But there is a hidden pitfall to this thinking, which perpetuates the frustration, fatigue and endless lists of incomplete items that occupy our days (and increasingly, our nights and weekends).

“Setting priorities” typically involves writing down everything we are supposed to do, want to do, said we would do and have to do. We then typically take that list and through some form of screening criteria, rank each in order of importance, avoidance of pain for neglect, sense of opportunity or obligation.

In doing so we relieve ourselves of a significant amount of stress simply by getting things out of our head and onto paper or electronic list. However, just getting this far requires a level of diligence and rigor, which is beyond what most people have.

We then act upon each the items on the list in order of importance starting with the “A” priorities then, as time and capacity allow, getting to those ranked “B” and “C”. We check off what we have done, and add new items as they arise.

Beware of mischief

However, a more fundamental problem comes into play once these lists are made.

First, our “To Do” list is, at its core, a set of commitments that most often involves others from our professional or personal network – peers, subordinates, bosses, vendors, customers and/or family members – who have their own lists and don’t necessarily care how busy or important we are.

In addition, rightly or wrongly, when we miss a commitment to any member of our network people often interpret it as a lack of caring or commitment. When we prioritize and start working on our “A” priorities, leaving the “B” and “C” items for later – or never – we are implicitly saying that the individuals associated with the B and C tasks are less important or not important at all. Sometimes that may be the truth and sometimes it may not be. However, in many cases, it could be the feelings that others in our network have in these situations.

Consider that every time we don’t do what we set out to do or what others from our network expected from us and then we justify it with: “Well, I haven’t gotten to it yet – I had other priorities”, “I had a hectic day and couldn’t get to it. Hopefully tomorrow”, or “Sorry, but something more important came up”, we now have a de-motivated, less engaged partner in our midst, and this could well affect our ability to deliver on future commitments to which they are connected. And that is something we should be concerned about.

A new way to look

Please consider the following

First, that it is highly unlikely that any one of us will keep 100% of our commitments 100% of the time, or certainly within the timeframe originally stated. In fact, it might not be unreasonable to say that while keeping all our commitments all the time is honorable and desirable, if someone manages to do that consistently, he or she are probably playing it safe and not stretching themselves very much.

Second, that making commitments is more about creating mutual satisfaction regarding specific commitments, opportunities, issues or concerns, therefore, how we manage our commitments is more influential on the ultimate level of satisfaction than a simple binary accounting of whether or not we delivered what we said.

For example, you could be in a situation where you have delivered on a commitment, but you still don’t feel satisfied or confident because you feel you are carrying the burden of the project alone and you don’t have a strong enough partnership with others who are critical for continuous success. On the other hand, you could be in a situation where you haven’t delivered on a commitment, but you feel genuine satisfaction and confidence because you have strong partners who are co-owning the game with you, and together you’ll continue to do better in the future. I am sure you have experienced both sides.

How you manage your commitments has everything to do with your own peace of mind, sense of fulfillment, and the level of engagement of those around you.

As an example: a recent Harvard survey indicated much higher levels of patient satisfaction among patients who felt their doctors cared about their well-being, independent of whether or not the advice they were given actually cured their illness.

Start promising and stop prioritizing.

If you embrace the notion that we are continuously engaged in a dynamic process of managing commitments, “promising” becomes a much more powerful tool than “prioritizing.” Why?

  • People have a different relationship to promising than they do to prioritizing. As my friend’s 8-year old son said to his dad: “Daddy, if I make you a promise, I’m going to keep it.” Of course, there are no guarantees. But we’ve already recognized that prioritizing has a built-in “something more important came up” excuse that can be invoked should we fall short.
  • When people promise to do something it creates a much stronger level of ownership and accountability on their side. I don’t know about you, but if I am going into battle with someone, I want them fully committed, not merely “doing their best…”. You are only going to get that level of commitment from someone if they promise to do something.
  • As mentioned, there are times that we will keep our promises and times that we won’t. That’s a fact. By making explicit promises to each other we are carving out a clear path for fulfillment. By doing so we are reducing the chances for surprises, excuses, and drama, especially when challenges arise, and we are increasing our mutual confidence and satisfaction.
  • While the dialogue around priorities is often a one-way street – I decide what my priorities are and I am the one to tell you that “I just couldn’t get to it today” the dialogue of promises by design is a two-way street. The minute I ask you to promise and you do so we are now tied at the hip. The promise is no longer just your commitment – it becomes our The success of this project is now our success. The dialogue of promising evokes a much deeper and more powerful dynamic of open, honest, courageous and effective communication, and trust. It also generates a stronger sense of owning each other’s success. A joint approach is more satisfying and fulfilling than going it alone.

To summarize – when people have a more earnest relationship with their promises it causes two things.

First, they are much less casual about saying “I promise” than the myriad of ways people add a priority to an already overflowing list. “I’ll do my best”, “Let me see what I can do”, “I’ll get to it as soon as I can”, “I’ll try”, “Leave it with me”, and many other half-hearted statements that fill the conference rooms and corridors of corporations. This makes sense – given the impossibility of fulfilling every commitment, people are hesitant to be unequivocal about whether or not their backsides are really on the line. However, this behavior just perpetuates the problem.

Secondly, when people make a promise to do something, and at some point prior to the time it is due they realize their promise is in jeopardy of not being fulfilled, they are far more likely to reach out to the receiver of that promise and attempt to negotiate – in advance – a mutually agreeable solution. While this may appear to be no different than the “it was a lower priority” justification, the experience to the receiver is more empowering, and together people can figure out alternative ways to fulfill the same commitment with new or different promises.

Obviously, if you don’t do what you promise repeatedly your credibility and the sense of partnership could erode or evaporate. However, the “lower priority” case simply assigns the cause elsewhere, leaving the receiver feeling devalued and the promisor off the hook for the eroded level of partnership and engagement their behavior produced.

The real point of prioritizing is not to be off-the-hook for the commitments we make, but rather to be more effective at making and keeping commitments that ultimately lead to mutually satisfying interactions and accomplishments. This being the case, making and managing promises thoughtfully and rigorously rather than hiding arm’s length behind not-up-to-me excuses of “priorities changed” puts us in the driver’s seat, and makes others feel like partners with whom we are committed to long-term, mutually beneficial relationships.


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Founder and President of Quantum Performance Inc., a management consulting firm specializing in generating total alignment and engagement in organizations.

His work has encompassed a broad range of industries including banking, telecommunications, manufacturing, entertainment, real estate, retail, startups and non-profits.

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