How to Prioritize When Everything Is a Priority

When it feels like everything is an emergency, how can you manage your work without taking on the weight of the world? Modern Mentor shares her favorite strategies for keeping your priorities in check.

Rachel Cooke
5-minute read
Episode #689
The Quick And Dirty

Effectively prioritizing when everything is on fire comes down to these simple strategies:

  1. Begin with boldness
  2. Assess the whole landscape
  3. Look for—don't reinvent—the wheel
  4. Consider options beyond yes and no
I talked to a client last week, the president of a business I’ve worked with for years. In the past, I would have described her as generally cool as a cucumber. But not this time. 
In this conversation, she showed up with an almost frantic energy, seeking help with their organization design, her span of control, a plan to re-engage an overwhelmed and exhausted workforce, a talent retention strategy, and an employee development roadmap.
I let her put it all out there. Then I asked if she could prioritize for me. She told me that was her prioritized list!
I don’t think she’s alone. And I don’t think it’s only upper management feeling this way.
These days we’re all feeling like everything is on fire. And as more of us are working remotely or in a hybrid fashion, we’re missing those in-person cues that help us interpret where our leaders are feeling the greatest angst.
For those of us who are high-achievers (ahem), our default tends to be to just prioritize everything. Which is, of course, the worst idea. Because it heightens the risk of burnout, of a ball dropping, of the quality of something suffering somewhere.
Wading through chaos is a rule and no longer an exception. It’s a skill we all need to build and show off on the regular.
So what can you do when it feels like everything is a priority and there’s just no way to get it all done well?
Here are four steps you can take.

1. Begin with boldness

Sometimes, overfilling our plates can leave us feeling like superheroes. But candidly—and here comes some tough love—it’s kind of the lazy person’s game. Because pushing for clarity takes courage, energy, and a willingness to be vulnerable—to admit you can’t handle everything (because of your being human and all).
So, start by recognizing it’s your job to seek clarity, to raise the flag. Likely you’re the only one who really knows just how much is on your plate. No one else is keeping track. Therefore, it’s on you to step up and manage your boundaries and your energy.
Doing this well and with confidence means shifting your mindset from victim to victor.
Here’s what this might sound like in practice.
Instead of “I’m really sorry—I’m struggling to handle it all,” try “I’m unwilling to let anything fall through the cracks, so let’s prioritize all these tasks/projects to ensure the most critical are getting our best energy and focus.”
You know you’re impressed by that bold confidence to say we need to prioritize. 
This mindset shift positions you as someone thoughtful, strategic, and in control. Remember, your energy is a company asset. You’re the only one who can protect it.

2. Assess the whole landscape

Predictability is so very 2019. Uncertainty is the name of the game, and likely will be for some time.
The reality is that what’s important today may be irrelevant tomorrow but back on fire the following day. Everything is relative.
I’m sure if you were to look at each task or project on your plate in a vacuum, each of them would come out high as a priority.
The key is relativity. Look around you. What’s going on today? Has anything important popped up?
My client, Megan, was preparing for an upcoming quarterly business review, interviewing candidates for an open role on her team, and reviewing customer feedback data in order to advise the client management team. These were her top priorities. 
Her boss pinged her the other day to ask her to oversee a review of all their sales materials.
Now on its own, reviewing sales materials is an important task. But given the fact that she’s got an empty headcount, some customers are grumbling, and that quarterly business review can’t be postponed, she considered the ask in context and had an honest conversation with her boss.
Given everything she had on her plate, Megan knew she couldn’t simply add this to the list. She didn’t apologize for not being a superhero. Instead, explained to her boss what she was already working on, and then asked if he agreed that reviewing the sales materials fell to the relative bottom of the list.
He agreed, thanked her for being thoughtful about what was realistic, and asked another member of his team to take on the review.

3. Look for—don’t reinvent—the wheel 

High-achievers are great at many things… but leveraging things built by others often isn’t one of them. 
Truth is, when something at work needs to be done, chances are something has already been created that can either solve the problem or offer a solid head start. We don’t always need to reinvent the wheel.
Borrowing from others doesn’t make you lazy, it makes you strategic and frees you up to invest your energy where it matters most.
As Megan began preparing for the quarterly business review, rather than starting from a blank page, she asked her colleagues to share materials from past reviews that went successfully. This gave her an idea of how to structure and format her data and tell her story in a compelling way.
What do you have at the top of your list? Do you need to develop a pitch or write a customer service script or develop a new policy or procedure? Whatever it is, before you begin, do a little digging around you.
Borrow the great work that someone has already done, give credit where it’s due, and remember that your job is to deliver the best outcome—it doesn’t all have to be hand-crafted by you.

4. Consider options beyond yes and no

One of the themes I hear in nearly every leadership program I run is “We know we’re supposed to prioritize, but it’s so hard to say no here.”
And I regularly push back, asserting that “yes” and “no” are two of many options available to us.
“Yes” is the answer when something is obviously urgent, important, and positioned to mitigate a big risk or deliver a major outcome or result.
But when a hearty yes isn’t an option for you, here are a few alternatives to “no” you might consider:
  • Delay: I’d love to take that on, but I’m currently managing [X projects]—can we reassess next month once some of these have wrapped?
  • Collaboration: I’d be happy to help. Would you be able to create an outline or first draft and then I can add my point of view?
  • Suggest an alternative: I hesitate to take that on as it’s outside my area of expertise. I’m pretty sure [insert your favorite subject matter expert] could do it much more accurately and efficiently!
The key is to recognize there are many ways to add value without taking on the entire burden yourself.
So there you have it. As you look at your plate, how full is it? Is your workload manageable? If you’re feeling overwhelmed, borrow one of these strategies and see how it works out for you.

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.