Importance != Priority

In today’s modern economy workers in every industry are facing a common challenge. Do more with less. The less part is a particularly interesting constraint, because it adds to the number of concurrent tasks per team member. You constantly hear about this situation and a person’s ability to “juggle multiple priorities”. But I personally reject this line of thinking on the basis that the statement itself is flawed, unproductive and ultimately impossible.

When we say a task is a priority, what we’re really saying is the task is important. You can have an unbounded number of important items on your list, but importance describes the task in its own space. Priority however describes a task in relation to other tasks and as a result, you can truly only have a single priority at a time. That doesn’t reduce the importance of other tasks at hand, but it does clearly identify an item as the single most important thing on the docket. Priority is binary and global across the scope of work that you’re performing. Lets use an example to help clarify.

You have a presentation that you’re giving to C-Level executives. It’s the type of presentation that careers are made of. You’ve been prepping all year for this one moment. Right before you’re about to go up, you get an email that says there is a huge problem with the financial system and your assistance is needed. Normally this item would cause you to drop everything and address it right away. But today, this board meeting is the priority. It doesn’t detract from the importance of the financial systems problem, but that item has to be delayed behind this board presentation. You’ve clearly identified the priority at the moment. You’re not going to check-in with the progress of the financial problem during the meeting are you? It gets tabled and or delegated (and possibly made someone else’s priority) so that you can address the real priority, the board meeting.

Now sticking with that same example, you’re about to go on in front of the board when you get a phone call. Your significant other has been in a car accident. It’s pretty bad and they’re currently being air-lifted to a nearby medical facility. What’s the priority now? Are you going to deliver the board presentation from the car? From the hospital? I doubt it.

The example is extreme but it highlights a few things.

  1. Priorities are fluid
  2. Priorities are (usually) obvious

This means that sometimes important things slip. It’s the nature of the world. We like the idea of multiple priorities because it makes it easier to rationalize your choices. “I’m not saying work is more important than you honey. You’re both my priority.” But that’s bullshit. You’re not at dinner or at the zoo with your kid, you’re in your office working.

The idea of a single priority forces us to stare the reality of our choices right in the eyes. You’ve chosen this over that. Own that choice and everything that it implies. Or re-evaluate your priority.

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