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On the Importance of Prioritizing and Defining a Desired Outcome

Every day multiple things require our attention: projects that are due, recent developments in the office, last-minute changes, unexpected calls and emails from colleagues, bosses and clients, and the list goes on. A constant flood of information, requests, updates and demands doesn’t stop and wait for us to catch a breath, regroup and brace ourselves for more to come; we get frequently interrupted, frustrated and more and more overwhelmed by new and important additions to our already full plates. This may sound like mayhem to some, but to others it is just another day at work.

So what do we do when there is so much that needs to be done? Trying to manage everything at once or as soon as it presents itself clearly doesn’t work. In fact, this strategy only leads to more frustration, stress, mental and physical exhaustion, and eventually to the mere thought of going back to the office filling us with intense loathing for our jobs. In order to avoid such a disaster, it is important to stay organized and focused, and NOT try to do everything or please everyone. There is one fundamental truth that is essential to remember so that we continue to remain in control of our work life: Multitasking is not an option – it really doesn’t work when everything we need to do is important to us.

The strategy that does work is prioritizing. Unlike multitasking, prioritizing allows us to use two of our most valuable resources – time and energy – in the most efficient way possible. In the long run, prioritizing will help us make better choices, focus only on the value-added tasks and activities, and get more work done with less effort. In other words, while multitasking can lower our productivity, prioritizing will allow us to be more productive and less stressed.

In many cases, employees are struggling with competing priorities. They might say they prioritize, but then the boss walks in and says, “Here is a new priority”! Most leaders don’t realize the negative impact on employees of inconsistent or competing priorities: wasted resources, delays, errors and strained relationships with colleagues who may all be trying to succeed but measure success differently.

Having too many priorities is a popular problem in business. An article in the Harvard Business Review journal reports that in a survey of 1,800 global executives conducted by Strategy& – a global team of practical strategists that is a part of the PwC network of firms – 64% of the surveyed executives admitted struggling with too many conflicting priorities.

It’s not just the executives who struggle with competing priorities; we all have been in a situation where we had to deal with multiple competing priorities and conflicting responsibilities at least a couple of times in our professional and social lives. Working under several managers or on a number of concurrent projects is very common in a modern-day workplace, and it often requires us to cover multiple fronts simultaneously. Not doing well is not an option, but the funny thing is, the better we do our jobs the more responsibilities we get, and the list of our priorities continuously expands. Finally, there comes a time when we can’t effectively manage all of these priorities any longer and must say “no” to some of them. But which priorities should we reject and which not? Although the choice can seem difficult, it doesn’t have to be. In order to make the right decisions we must answer one question for ourselves: What is our desired outcome?

In the S.H.I.F.T. model™, defining a desired outcome is the very first step of the process and for a good reason: How can we reach our destination if we don’t know where we are going? To identify our desired outcome, we must first define what success means to us – both quantitatively and qualitatively. One person’s idea of success will be different from another’s, as success includes multiple components and aspects that for each one of us are mixed in different proportions. We must be very clear on our personal idea of success – what do we want to achieve and, more importantly, why do we want to achieve it – because it will determine what opportunities we are going to pursue as a result. This step may take a bit of time and some figuring out, but in the end any amount of time or effort spent on it will be worthwhile, as knowing our desired outcome can help us focus our energy on the priorities that really matter and bring us one step closer to our goals.

Having defined our desired outcome, we can begin working backward from it on mapping out our road to success. Defining our desired outcome will allow us to identify which of the competing priorities we should say “no” to and what sacrifices we will need to make. Understanding what success means to us will also make saying “no” easier, since we will know exactly why we have to give up certain things and what we will be able to obtain in exchange for it. This step is the most important in the S.H.I.F.T. model, and done correctly, it will help us to avoid unnecessary stress and panic, manage our time better, invest ourselves into relationships and activities that are going to benefit us in the long run, and regain control of the progress toward our goals.