No matter what you read, most entrepreneurs and business leaders talk about how critical ruthless prioritization is as a singular driver of success.
There are a lot of ways to figure out what your priorities should be, such as methods used by icons like Warren Buffett or a simple five-step process that the founder of a small business uses to make sense of her problem when everything becomes a priority.
I use three to five strategic filters or hurdles that every new item needs to get past to even be considered as a strategic priority. It weeds out most things.
But this isn't an article about how to figure out what your strategic priorities should be. If you are like me, as an entrepreneur or leader you know what those things are.
When he was alive, my dad used to joke that companies spend the most time working on the least important things and the least time on the most important things. I think we've all felt that at some point.
The battle I face every day is how to get the strategic things done while simultaneously playing some sort of AR video game in which I try to knock out all of the "urgent" things that keep popping up like whack-a-moles.
Often, the problem isn't not knowing what the priorities are but why you can't seem to prioritize the priorities. Why does that urgent whack-a-mole stuff keep rising to the top and getting in the way?
On the surface, "just do it" seems like the answer. If you know your priorities, you need to just rigorously do those things. But sometimes you need a little help figuring out how to "just do it."
Here are some things I have done that really work:
Set up an infrastructure to prioritize your strategic priorities
That might sound like circular mumbo jumbo, but there's actually something important in it. Without formal structure for the strategic priorities, you might just swing the bat at whatever comes your way first, which is usually nonstrategic urgent stuff.
You need to create formal space for the strategic. Try these three things:
1. Allocate formal time for the strategic at the beginning of every week.
Every Monday, I spend the first half of the day just working on strategic things. It is a formal meeting in my calendar that is not movable and can't be interrupted unless the apocalypse is beginning (or something slightly less catastrophic).
I turn off my email and don't keep my cell phone near me. I remove myself from any form of distraction. It's like a strategic retreat at the beginning of every week. Regardless of whether I do anything else strategic for the rest of the week, I've already secured and used solid strategic time.
2. Make it a formal practice to never do email first thing in the morning.
Email can be a rabbit hole that you may not come out of for hours (if you're lucky). We've all been there.
"I'll just respond to this one and then get back to what I was working on ... "
Three hours later, you're still in there, responding urgently to the email about the kitchen refrigerator's getting cleaned out at 2 p.m. in a desperate attempt to save your bagel sandwich from being tossed (I actually did that once and am coming clean on it now).
Email is reactive by nature and requires a response. It's a good way to lose big chunks of time.
Try getting critical things done in the morning, and then checking your email.
3. Set up formal urgency filters.
It may seem basic, but without some way of determining what constitutes urgency, way too many things become urgent simply by default. This is especially true if the person waiting for your response on something believes that thing is urgent.
There are lots of urgency filters you can put on things. My criteria is to ask myself if there will be any significant degradation to key parts of my business, in particular financial, customer service, or perception in the market, if I don't respond to this thing right now.
Most of the time there won't be. By putting these urgency filters on, I actually reduce what is urgent, which by default leaves more time for the strategic.
You can determine what your urgency filters are, but simply having the filters helps you figure out which moles to whack and which to leave alone.