Stop Prioritizing and start Promising!

You would think that getting your priorities straight would be the answer to the overwhelming, stressful burden of too many commitments, too little time and scarce resources.  Well, you may want to think again!

Setting priorities is definitely a solution, but it isn’t the most powerful and effective one.

You write down everything you are supposed to do, want to do, said you would do and have to do. You then take that list and through some form of screening criteria, rank each in order of importance, sense of opportunity, urgency or obligation. You then tackle each item on your to-do list in order of importance starting with the “A” priorities then, as time and capacity permit, getting to those ranked “B” and “C”.

From a practical content standpoint, this method sounds very clear, logical and effective. However, in reality, things often don’t work out according to our lists. In addition, from a mindset standpoint prioritizing often gets us to compromise and sell-out too easily and quickly. .

Take the following real story (fictional name):

George was a very ambitious, driven and impatient sales manager. He had many things he wanted to achieve in his professional and personal life. In fact, he wanted to achieve everything right away. But he knew it wasn’t realistic, so he made a list of his six commitments and prioritized them from first to last. At the top of his list was to achieve a record sales year with his team, in the middle he had going to the gym at least 3 times a week and at the bottom, he had dating and finding a relationship.

His first priority was all consuming. He worked 80-hour weeks in order to achieve his sales goals and when he got to the weekend he was so exhausted that most of the time he simply couldn’t get himself to go to the gym, never mind going on dates. At first, he was frustrated with his inability to get beyond his first priority to the others. However, as time passed the frustration turned into resignation, apathy, and skepticism. He simply stopped believing that he could have a life beyond achieving his sales goals.

Every time one of his friends or family members would ask why he isn’t exercising or dating he would blame his work for it. In fact, when he would socialize with some of his other professional friends who had the same predicament he had, they would often talk about how “you can’t have a personal life while having a successful career, especially being a successful sales manager.” They all believed that.

In contrast, Kevin, a mid-level lawyer was also very ambitious and driven. He was putting in extreme hours hoping to become a partner. He was completely dedicated to his professional success but, like  George, he wanted a life beyond work.

Prioritizing and Promising are two completely different approaches to achieving your goals. They evoke and compel a significantly different mindset and behavior.

Prioritizing evokes the mindset of “I’ll do my best and if I can’t get to the other priorities it’s because the previous ones took too much of my time and effort…

Promising evokes the mindset of “I’ll keep my word no matter what. No excuse is acceptable…”

It is much easier to prioritize than to promise. The prioritizing approach has a built-in tolerance and acceptance to excuses, justifications and copouts. That is why when you don’t live up to your commitment it is so easy to say things like: “Something more important came up” or “I didn’t get to it because I was too busy with something else…”  After all, like in George’s story, it is acceptable that if you are so busy in your work you won’t have time to exercise, spend time with your wife or husband and/or kids and do other things that are important to you.

Neither of these approaches guarantees success. However, promising is a much more powerful approach.

It evokes a higher and more authentic mindset of ownership and accountability and it makes you much less determined and limited by circumstances. No matter what circumstances you have to deal with, when you make a promise you tend to not get stopped by these.

Making promises about what you will fulfill in your commitments could be more challenging because you have to be honest with yourself and own the truth about what really is important to you. You have to take a stand and not sell out on it. This requires courage. 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.”

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 relentless commitment from someone who has promised to do something.

No one keeps their promises all the time. Hopefully, we will keep them most of the time. However, there will be times when we won’t. That’s a fact. However, by making explicit promises you carve-out a clear path for action and fulfillment. This reduces the chance for surprises, excuses, and drama, especially when challenges arise.

While the dialogue around priorities is often a one-way street – you decide what your priorities are and you are the one to tell others that “you just couldn’t get to it today” the dialogue of promises by design is a two-way street.

Promises are really only effective if you make them to someone. In fact, if you promise your entire family that you are going to lose a certain number of pounds (weight) in the next 6 months, it’s probably going to be more powerful and effective than if you tell one person or tell no one at all. The minute you make a promise to others you are now tied at the hip. The promise is no longer just your commitment – it becomes our commitment. 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 bond, partnership, trust and owning each other’s success with the people you promise to.  A joint approach is more effective and fulfilling than going it alone.

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.

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. Together people can figure out alternative ways to fulfill the same commitment with new or different promises. This also strengthens the partnership and trust between the promise maker and receiver.

Obviously, if you don’t do what you say repeatedly your credibility and sense of partnership with others are likely to suffer. However, when you keep using the “lower priority” excuse and you assign the blame for not living up to your commitments elsewhere, it will also undermine your own sense of possibilities, ability, and power to make things happen and have the life you want.

The point of prioritizing is not to avoid responsibility and make excuses for the commitments you make, but rather to be more effective at making and keeping commitments. This being the case, making and managing promises, rather than hiding arm’s length behind “not-up-to-me” excuses of “priorities changed” puts us in the driving seat,

Which of these approaches appeals to you most?

 

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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