Nutshell: Prioritisation is our friend – or is it?

Written by
Future Talent Learning

06 Jan 2020

06 Jan 2020 • by Future Talent Learning

There seems little doubt that prioritisation is a leader’s friend – until it gets in the way.

If you’re reading this while trying to juggle a full working life, studying and a busy home life, you may feel a little less than charitable towards the Roman philosopher Seneca and his 2,000-year-old treatise On the Shortness of Life. For Seneca, “it is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it”. We often fail to treat time as a valuable resource, even though it is arguably our most precious and least renewable one. “Life is long,” he said, “if you know how to use it.”

We may instinctively know that Seneca is right; we should have the time we need to live our lives. But simply not having enough hours in the day seems to be a condition of modern life. We’re all maxed out at workplaces that have long ago cut away any of the slack that might have given us some respite. The ubiquity of tech means we’re ‘always on’ and available, feeling the pressure of immediate response, trying to keep in touch lest we miss out. We’re expected to be active parents, perfect friends, have beautiful homes. It so often feels that there’s just not enough of us to go around. 

This can feel especially acute for managers and leaders, who inhabit a sort of ‘squeezed middle’, with stakeholders both above and below us making demands on our time. Balancing our own tasks with requests for that monthly report and making time for those one-to-one catch-ups with our teams can feel positively Sisyphean. We might be working at incredible pace and intensity, but, at the same time, making very little apparent progress. 

Busyness as a vice

And just when we might be feeling especially overwhelmed, this might be the perfect time to introduce the thoughts on the subject of 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who saw busyness as nothing more than a ridiculous vice – a conscious decision by people who fill their diaries as a distraction from what really matters in life: who we are and what our lives are for. Easy for him to say, we might think; he didn’t have to deal with Dave from Accounts' repeated requests for us to resubmit our expenses on headed paper. 

But let’s not judge Kierkegaard too harshly yet. His thoughts on busyness are part of a wider diagnosis of what makes someone unhappy: too much focus on external events, people or things. Instead, we need to be attentive to ourselves, present to our own wants and needs, and understand what’s really important to us. Once we’ve worked that out, we can then identify the things we can shed, and those to which we should devote care and attention. We can make ourselves less busy. 

It’s an interesting prism through which to view the unending busyness of our working lives. If prioritising what’s personally important to us might make us personally happy, might setting the right priorities at work help us to navigate multiple calls on our time and identify how we can best add value? If we can learn to unclutter our lives by eliminating non-priorities, we free up our time to focus on what really matters. Little wonder, perhaps, that an industry has grown up around the models and techniques we can use to help set those priorities and enter time-management nirvana. 

Prioritisation: the leader’s friend

There’s no doubt that effective time management is a crucial aspect of managing ourselves at work, especially as we rise up the ranks and start to assume a broader range of responsibilities alongside more operational day-to-day tasks. We’ve already seen how difficult it can be to find the time to “be” as well as to “do”. Prioritisation, being able to see the wood for the trees, to focus on where we can add most value, can make a real difference. 

The myth of multi-tasking

There could be a very good reason why we seem to achieve so little when we find ourselves switching between competing demands on our time. That’s because attempting to do anything other than the simplest cognitive tasks simultaneously simply doesn’t work. The tempting idea that a clever, driven, successful person should be able to work on more than one task at a time, answering emails, while writing a report and listening to a true-crime podcast, is no more than a myth. 

Research in neuroscience tells us that the brain doesn’t really do multi-tasking as we thought or hoped it might. In fact, we just switch tasks quickly. Each time we move from one to another, our brains have to stop doing one thing and move on to the next. Rather than saving time, this stop/start process costs time. It’s less efficient, we’re more likely to make mistakes and it can sap our energy. When we attempt to multi-task, all we do is diminish our chances of optimal performance. It’s just an impressive-sounding way to say we are giving in to our anxieties around competing priorities. 

Rather than attempting to do everything at once, the process of prioritising helps us to make informed decisions about what we need to do, what we don’t need to do, and when we need to focus on certain tasks. It’s about being proactive rather than reactive, intentional about how we use our time by identifying, as Kierkegaard suggested, what’s really most important. We know that if everything is urgent, everything loses its urgency; if everything is important, nothing is important. 

Prioritisation forces us to look again and really make informed choices. We need to be strategic about when to give 100%, rather than waste effort on less important tasks. Deep down, we know that cherry-picking that one thing we love to do, or trying to clear out small, urgent things before we tackle the big beast that will really make a difference, is not the way forward. 

Being able to prioritise is also associated with a whole host of benefits: 

  • better focus and productivity
  • enhanced creativity (more time to think)
  • improved motivation
  • lower stress and a better work-life balance
  • that warm feeling of accomplishment when we tick things off our to-do list

Whether it’s Warren Buffett’s famous two-list prioritisation system or Ivy Lee’s classic daily lists, there seems little doubt that prioritisation is the leader’s friend.

Or is it? 

When prioritisation can get in the way 

In their book Algorithms to Live, Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths explore some thorny contemporary conundrums by asking in each case “what would a computer do?”. Like humans, even computers can get overwhelmed by the sheer weight of tasks, and they’re no better than we are at multi-tasking. Might the computer science of scheduling give us some insights into the very human issue of how best to manage our time? Christian gives the example of a familiar challenge we all face: the email inbox.

Prioritisation might suggest that we should scan our inboxes to identify and tackle those messages that are most important. The danger of this approach is that we might spend more time scanning and prioritising than actually answering emails, making it a less efficient approach than simply working through messages in chronological order or even completely randomly. Sometimes, giving up on doing things in the perfect order may be the key to actually getting them done. 

Like all models and processes, the trick to prioritisation is to understand when you need to plan and when you need to do. When prioritisation becomes more than simply a means to an end, it can become the source of distraction rather than a call to action. 

The psychological underpinning for this comes from the concept of social reality, developed by psychologist W Mahler in the 1930s. Mahler found that, if we announce the solution to a problem (or even that our goal is to solve a particular problem) and have this publicly acknowledged by others, the solution or goal tends to come to feel, in some way, like a “social reality”, even if that solution hasn’t actually been achieved. In other words, announcing to others that we are going to do something feels surprisingly like we’ve already done it. So, by developing extensive plans to prioritise and rank the things we need to do, there is a danger that the process may make us feel a sense of accomplishment that’s unfounded.

Setting intentions is great – and necessary – but the difference between planning for something and actually succeeding lies in action. Overmanaging our to-do lists can become a form of procrastination and inaction in its own right, just like the teenager who repeatedly creates revision timetables in beautifully coloured patterns, all the while studiously avoiding doing any actual revision.

Prioritisation may well be the answer to workloads and pressures that seem insurmountable, but be aware that it’s a tool and not, in and of itself, the answer. The great Mahatma Gandhi told us that “it’s not just words. Action expresses priorities.” At work and beyond, that’s not a bad guiding principle when it comes to managing ourselves and our time and balancing that much-needed planning with essential action. 


Test your understanding

  • Why is multi-tasking a myth according to neuroscience?
  • What does the concept of ‘social reality’ mean?

What does it mean for you?

  • Consider whether ‘overprioritisation’ may be getting in the way during your working day. Are you creating too many ‘revision timetables’?


Register for insights and updates or implement one of our levy-funded leadership programmes by clicking on the buttons below.