As a leader, do you scramble to get your work done at the very last minute or tend to cram the night before a big meeting? Are your team members often confused about what to do and unable to complete their assignments on time? These problems can usually be solved if you learn to improve one very important leadership skill: managing priorities.
Without clear priorities, you will struggle to get anything done, because everything will seem equally important and you won’t know how to most effectively spend your time and energy. Similarly, when your team doesn’t have clear priorities, individual members will struggle to coordinate their efforts. They will feel overwhelmed by all the work coming their way and the team will generally lack an understanding of what needs to be accomplished.
Four Steps to Managing Priorities
Managing priorities means identifying which tasks are most important and allocating appropriate time to accomplish them. In our extensive research and testing of nearly 800 executives for my book THE LEADER HABIT, my team and I discovered that there are four behaviors that effective leaders practice when they prioritize:
1. They break down the larger project into smaller tasks and assignments that are clear, concrete, and actionable, so that everyone knows exactly what to do.
5-Minute Leader Habit Exercises to Turn Managing Priorities into a Habit
Once you understand that the four behaviors described above are the key to managing priorities, you will need to internalize them for yourself, turning them into habits. Based on our finding that it takes 66 days to turn a behavior into a habit, we have created four simple exercises that will help you improve your ability to manage priorities. Below are the four exercises.
Break down projects into tasks.
Although you probably won’t start a new project every day, you can get in the habit of breaking down your daily tasks into smaller action items using this exercise: After picking a task from your to-do list, write down 2-3 things you need to do to complete the task. For example, if one of your tasks today is to create a presentation, your two action items could be to create the slides and then write the speaker notes.
Divide your tasks into more and less critical pursuits.
You can get in the habit of doing this behavior by starting your workday with this simple exercise: After sitting down at your desk to start your workday, write down the 2-3 most important tasks you must complete that day. Of course, you should work on these tasks before anything else.
Allocate appropriate time for completing your work.
This behavior requires you to make an accurate estimate of how much time it will take you to complete a given task. Without accurate time estimates, it is difficult to plan your work and complete it on schedule. To turn this behavior into a habit, practice this exercise: After adding a task to your to-do list, write down your estimate of how long it will take you to complete the task. For example, you might estimate that it will take 30 minutes to draft an email informing your team about a new client project.
Be clear why something is a priority
When prioritizing projects or tasks, make your rationale for the decision clear to yourself and others on your team. Use the following exercise to practice this behavior on a daily basis: After describing a project (in an email or a conversation), briefly explain why it is a priority by saying, “This is a priority because …” For example, you may prioritize a project because it is for your largest customer.
At work, managing priorities is crucial to implementing new business strategies or aligning your team with an existing one. The same is true for situations when you are charged with improving products and services. If you cannot readily break down larger projects into smaller tasks and prioritize them, you will struggle to bring your team’s activities into line with the organization’s planned objectives. By making a habit of managing priorities, you will be well on your way to improving your skill as a leader.
Martin Lanik, Ph.D., author of THE LEADER HABIT, is the CEO of Pinsight®, a global leadership software-as-service company known for its disruptive HR technology. His leadership programs have been implemented by more than 100 companies – including AIG and CenturyLink – and have received awards from Chief Learning Officer and Brandon Hall. Lanik holds a Ph.D. in industrial/organizational psychology from Colorado State University. You can learn more at: www.pinsight.com.