The Secrets of Priority Management

February 21, 2017 Marcus Varner

by Chris Brogan

For the last two or three years, I’ve been teaching something that goes against the grain of most productivity advice. I’ll tell you one part right away: to-do lists are the devil.

Want to be a hero?

Heroes don’t work from a to-do list. They work from a priority list. What matters most right now? That’s where they spend their time.

I’m not saying this in any cavalier way. I mean it. To-do lists are for stuff that won’t get your name carved on the side of a statue. No one cares whether Ben Franklin or Jane Goodall took out the trash or got their book back to the library. (Ben might care more than Jane as he formed the first public library in the New World.)

The secret is to focus on priority management.

How Bosses and Teams can Work With Priority Management

We all have jobs that need doing and we need to manage those. Inside the organization, there are projects that are more important than others, and sometimes there are “fire fighting” moments where a particular project or client needs some extra love to get things done on time.

Leading teams becomes tons easier when you know what everyone’s working on, and you can direct people to work on the stuff that’s most important. If you’re stuck in administrative tasks and micro details all the time, it means you’re working less and less on what matters most.

Think about something as simple as getting a document out the door at your company. How many people need to approve it? What if that document’s very important, but it’s not exactly the biggest project in the pile? It becomes important that you can surface those priority needs and then share them with the people in your company who can help you get it done faster, right?

Priority Management Beats Time Management

The old world of work was measured by “butt in chair” metrics. If you were in the office, you were “working.” Nothing could be less true. Lots of people (I’ll raise my hand here) get more done when they’re anywhere BUT the office.

“How will we measure, then, Chris?”

I’m glad you asked. Measure based on what priority work is getting finished. Measure on whether the larger drivers of your company’s values are being checked off fast.

We’ve accidentally trained everyone to get excited to complete lists of tasks. Swell, unless those tasks aren’t all that important.

Two Types of Priority: Client/Customer Stuff and REAL Growth

I came up with this idea a few years back. What if you devoted 3 hours every day to that which would move your life and business forward? This isn’t client work. This is goal/growth work. And it’s 3 hours, but there’s some cool flexibility built into the idea.

It’s not 3 hours all at once because that’s too tricky, finding all that time. Instead, take 3 hours split into 3 blocks of 20 minutes each. 3x3=9.

Enter: the 9Box.

If you drew it on a piece of paper, it would look like this:

Again, each of those boxes equals 20 minutes of time. What do you put in there? That’s the power move.

What goes in your 9Box every single day are tasks and activities that relate specifically to your priorities. This is the big stuff, the stuff that matters.

Let’s say at work you’ve got your day to day stuff. Maybe you’re a marketer and you’ve got client deliverables. That doesn’t go in the 9Box. That’s just work.

Instead, what goes in the 9Box is that project to launch a new internal learning series to help your teammates get smarter. Maybe it’s your “Learn Google Analytics finally” that goes in a few blocks, because you’ve been saying you would for a year already.

The 9Box is where you put your priority growth stuff, not your day to day. It’s not your client work. It’s work that grows your capabilities and connections.

Maybe you’ve decided to start a podcast because you hear those are hot. You’d put your research and eventual building of the podcast into those 9Box slots. It might be 2 hours of time spent taking my course on how to start a podcast (hey, I’m not really self-promoting!). Then, it’s a 20-minute slot on brainstorming topic ideas. You use up another 40 minutes working on a simple logo sketch. That’s your three hours for the day.

Another day, you might work on going through all the customer experience touchpoints in your company. What happens when someone signs up to your email? How does a new customer get on-ramped into the company processes? What do you do once you’ve completed their work? Imagine all you’d find if you went through those processes. That stuff makes for good 9Box work.

Three Core Elements of Priority Management

You need three really simple (but vital) elements to work from the mindset of priority management:

  • The ability to communicate changes in priority quickly to all involved.
  • A way to shift and manage work projects flexibly within your own team but also as they interact with other teams.
  • Tools to capture and measure the results of your work.

I can tell you that lots of companies make the mistake of thinking they have all this covered between their email platform and their calendar software. Nothing could be less true. Let me touch on that briefly.

Email has a magical ability of getting filed, flowing further and further down the screen, and either being under-sent or over-sent as a means of keeping tabs on work projects. Communicating shifts in various projects gets lost quickly in the day to day pile-up of other mail.

Calendar software simply tells you when something is scheduled or due. It’s not a great tool for managing priorities. Plus, everything is given the same weight in a calendar. It’s on there and it’s either scheduled for a certain time or not. (Though I’d agree that it’s important to schedule time to complete the projects that matter most and that by looking at your calendar, I’d probably see quickly whether you were working on priorities or not.)

I won’t prescribe anything, but I can tell you that the bullet points above are your three big challenges.

Priority Management in Life

I can tell you that this mindset works rather nicely in life, too. A lot of times, we chew up time doing things we don’t want to do. Sometimes, it’s because it’s “something we’ve always done.” Other times, we operate out of a sense of obligation. Often, we chew up time on less important things simply because we lose track of whatever it was we said was important to us.

One reason we let a lot of ideas and goals and aspirations pass by is that we don’t hold ourselves to what we said we wanted to do. We fail to make and keep commitments to our own plans. Sometimes, we just forget. Other times, we let life get in the way. But everything I just laid out as a business method works really well at home. You can track priorities and assign time to them just like you can at work. You can stop being a slave to your to-do list and work from your priorities instead. Sure, the trash has to go out, but if you said “spending time with my kids” is a priority, then maybe you can start planning projects and events to do with them every week.

The key is slotting the time for those priorities before you do anything else. There’s always time for the other stuff that needs doing. Make sure you slot the events and experiences that match what you said matters to you and then let the rest of it filter into place. And sometimes, that means some chore won’t get done.

I’ll tell you a secret: a few unmade beds here and there and a couple of carpets not yet vacuumed won’t be mentioned in your obituary, but that epic tube ride down the river with the family will be a story everyone will tell for years to come. Set up life this way. You’ll appreciate it, I promise.

About the Author

Marcus Varner

Marcus is a content strategist and producer who loves helping brands craft content that improves customers' lives, builds brand credibility, and demands to be shared. For the last 10 years, Marcus has worked in every type of content—from writing to video production to design—and is currently a senior content marketing manager at Workfront, where he oversees all corporate- and awareness-level level content. When he's not producing content, he's consuming it, in the form of books, movies, and podcasts.

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