• Jeffrey Shaw

How To Prioritize When Everything is Top Priority


When it comes to prioritizing, “decide what’s most important” doesn’t cut it for self-employed business owners. It’s all important! The demands on our time and an endless list of things to get done won’t disappear with glib advice. And for the self-employed, it’s just as crazy at home--if not more so--than it is at work. We don’t have the luxury of “what happens at work stays at work.” There is no division between our work and our personal lives, so everything can feel like a #1 priority. That’s just our reality.


As a small business consultant and business coach for entrepreneurs, I see it all the time. Clients want help prioritizing everything they feel an urgent need to get done. At the same time, they confess that they are exhausted and overwhelmed. It sounds like this: “Help me figure out how to get everything done,” and “I’m so tired I can barely stand.”


If you think that sounds like two freight trains moving in the same direction, you’re right. And the collision of urgency and overwhelm never ends well.


Rethinking prioritization


So how do we reroute those two freight trains to avoid a collision? I’d like to offer some suggestions about prioritizing that are a bit more substantive--and realistic--than “decide what’s important.”


It starts with dividing all the tasks and projects you want to accomplish by a certain time into three categories:


  1. What has a deadline imposed by someone other than me?

  2. What has a deadline imposed by me?

  3. What does not have a deadline?


Now, I bet you’re thinking I’m going to say to set aside the things that don’t have a deadline for last. But here’s where I suggest doing something different. Because the truth of the matter is that those things that don’t have deadlines tend to be our bigger projects. Our longer-range plans. The ideas that are brewing in the back of our minds that we know are great and could really change our business.


I’m actually going to suggest that you make one or two of those your top priority.


Why? Because as self-employed business owners, we all know what happens if we put those projects off. We get caught up working in our business rather than on it. We prioritize what seem like more pressing issues at the sacrifice of bigger projects. And we lose out on opportunities that could pay off in the long run and change our business.


I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve been doing that. I know I need to get working on outreach for speaking gigs for my new book. That should be a top priority because it will have the biggest impact on my business a year from now. But no, I get caught up in the tasks that are right in front of me instead. It took being reminded of writing this blog for me to refocus on the long-term payoff of prioritizing speaking gigs.


Bottom line: Give top priority to what will have the greatest impact a bit further down the road. If you do, maybe a year from now you can hire someone to complete some of the other so-called priorities.



Creating priority “bookends”


Step one in rethinking prioritization is to give precedence to one or two long-term goals without deadlines. Step two is to look at the tasks that have deadlines imposed by others. If the deadlines are imposed by others, you don’t really have a choice about whether or not to do them. So get those tasks on a calendar, giving yourself enough time to complete them without urgency.


In other words, plan ahead.


Meeting those deadlines is sort of like planning for a holiday, like Christmas. I mean, we know the deadline. It’s the same date every year. Why is it always so hectic? Wouldn’t it be better to plan ahead for the deadlines we know about in advance? When in doubt, remember: hectic is not glamorous.


So now you sort of have two priority “bookends.” On one end is the big thing or two that you are making your top priority. On the other end are the deadlines you don’t have a choice about. Now you can begin filling in the other things you want to get done that are self-imposed deadlines.


Because you have these two big bookends there’s only so much time and energy left for other priorities. It’s important here to evaluate how many more tasks you can realistically handle. Then you can begin to fill up your available time and energy with projects that have self-imposed deadlines.



Keeping track of your investments


So how do you decide which projects with self-imposed deadlines to keep, which to postpone, and which to ditch? There are two terms I’d like to introduce you to that will help.


The first is ROTI, or return on time investment. Ask yourself, what is the real reward for that task or project? Does it provide any real value to your business? Your time is valuable. Consider the amount you spend on the task, as well as the time it takes away from other priorities. Really evaluate whether the time invested in this task is worth it. If not, postpone it or get rid of it.


The second term is EI, or energy invested. Like your time, your energy is something you give away at the sacrifice of having energy for something else. You might have started out giving away your time in order to build your business. But as your business grew your time became more valuable. You realized you have to charge for your services. Then maybe you charged even more. And more again because your time became a valuable commodity.


We need to start thinking of our energy the same way. Especially now when the world feels so crazy, our energy is one of the greatest commodities we have. And it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking of energy as an endless reservoir. It’s not. Energy runs out. It depletes. So if that thing that feels so important is going to suck too much energy from you right now, postpone it. If it’s going to keep you from putting your energy towards something else that will serve you better, drop it.



That’s it. Three steps to prioritize:


  1. Make the big longer-range thing your first priority.

  2. Add in the deadlines imposed by others that you don’t have a choice about and plan ahead to complete them.

  3. Evaluate your time and energy invested to decide what’s worth keeping, what should be postponed, and what you can drop.


By rethinking prioritization you can ditch the overwhelm, be more productive now, and set the stage for an even more successful future.




Are you looking for support as an entrepreneur or small business leader? Subscribe to The Self-Employed Life Podcast here, and find the inspiration, resources, and camaraderie you need to serve your audience with authenticity and success.


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