Being Skilled at Setting Priorities is More Important than Time Management Skills.

setting priorities

This is a message worth repeating. I have found in my mentoring that when stress and overwhelm take control of leaders’ lives, they tend to automatically think that the way to manage it is to develop better time management skills. That’s my experience with leaders who come to me for help. The way through, however, is about being very skilled at setting priorities.

But this requires leaders to have a clear mind and that is not possible when they are stressed and overwhelmed and attempt to set priorities on the fly. This is why the first step they need to take is to Stop, Step Back and Recharge . That recharged space is not just for relaxing and reducing the stress, it is also about reflecting on what kind of leader they want to be. When they have the answer to that they will then be able to better discern their priorities, aligning them with who they want to BE as a leader, not just with all the things they need to DO as a leader.

So What Kind of Leader Do You Want To Be?

All of you in leadership today know that managing time is impossible. You are living and working in very changing times. There is so much uncertainty and unpredictability. Even if you have a plan as to what you are going to do with your time on any day, within a very short period that plan has gone out the window to be replaced by something more urgent and important.

As Eben Pagan says: The term “time management” is a misnomer. We need to manage ourselves, not time. Or that quote from some wise person whose name I do not know : Time flies, but you are the pilot. What that means is that your first priority needs to be you and the development and enhancement of your self-leadership skills. Leaders today need to heed what the late Jim Rohn said: You work as hard on yourself as you do on your job. There are four crucially important skills that I believe will enhance your self-leadership and resource you to be the leader you need and want to BE. They are Self-Awareness, Resilience, Emotional Intelligence and Proactivity.

Self-awareness is about knowing yourself and what makes you tick. It’s about knowing your strengths, but also what challenges you the most in your leadership role. Why do I keep saying “Yes” to everything that is presented to me? Why can’t I say “No”? Why do I consistently abandon my priorities and realise later that often I didn’t need to? Why do I procrastinate when I know it only increases my stress levels? Why do I spend so much time putting our bushfires, rather than doing what is important? Why am I always questioning whether I am doing the right thing? Why do I wake up at 4 am every morning and worry about what I did or didn’t do yesterday?

Emotional Intelligence is about managing your emotions in a mature, professional and intelligent way. Too much of our time is often taken up with doing things for emotional, rather than strategic, reasons. Why am I prioritising this activity is a good question to ask. Just knowing what you are feeling sometimes is challenging and being able to get clear about that frees you to decide how you want to manage that emotion when it emerges. Knowing what and who presses your buttons and then discovering why is very liberating. Being able to communicate with people who are angry, resistant, aggressive or demanding, for example, and do so in a calm and professional manner sets you apart as a leader. You very quickly can be recognised as the” CEO of Relationship Management” in an organisation because of your highly developed emotional intelligence.

There was probably no more important leadership skill than Resilience in these COVID times. It’s the psychological strength and mental toughness to rise above and move through every challenging situation. Resilient leaders don’t bounce back. They don’t bounce forward. They stay in the one spot and draw on a well-developed psychological strength and mental toughness inside themselves to lead through whatever challenges they face. As a leader you can “waste” so much time deciding on a particular course of action, even when you know what you need to do, because you don’t trust your psychological strength to make it happen. Nor do you trust you have the mental toughness to stand by your decision in the face of the challenges it presents and the opposition you may get from it.

Hand in hand with resilience is Proactivity, that ability to be a non-reactive, solution focused, forward thinking, “can do” leader who assumes responsibility for whatever happens while constructively taking the initiative to bring about the desired outcomes. If ever we needed proactive leaders it has been in these COVID times when the goal posts shift almost every week, if not every day. It is so easy for you as a leader to find yourself spending most of your time reacting to what is happening, struggling to take your organisations forward, feeing you have no time to think about what is important and take action in an agile, innovative way.

All those skills will see you better able to determine what’s important and not just urgent, what your negotiables and non-negotiables are and be better able to set your priorities. More importantly, you will have the confidence to change them during the day, often more than once and still keep all your balls in the air – or at least simmering away on the back burner until you can attend to them.

You won’t allow stress and overwhelm to take control, because you will be much more aware of how to manage yourself and not let it happen. The first thing I get the leaders who come to me for mentoring to do is to stop, step back and recharge (put link in here) . You need to give yourself some space to rediscover the leader you want to BE that has been lost in the overwhelm. Only then can your true self set priorities for your leadership and tap into the skills you need to focus on to sustain commitment to the action you need to take.

So How Do You Go About Setting Priorities?

1. Look to your KPIs.
What are your priorities there at this point of time in your organisational time – today, this week, this month, this year or prior to the next Board meeting?
Are their priorities you have that you need to add in there? For example, I know a CEO who looked at her KPIs and reflecting on them realised that if she was going to be able to be able to perform at that level, she needed to prioritise her health and well-being. She added a number of additional KPIs around that and asked that her performance reviews pay as much attention to evaluating her on those as on the others.

2. Gain clarity about the difference between what is urgent and what is important when setting your priorities. Make sure that you are not consistently prioritising the urgent and neglecting to attend to the important.

3. What are your negotiables and non-negotiables? This helps to clarify priorities that are unchangeable and do not shift, regardless of what is happening. These are well-known by those with whom you work.

I recommend that when you take these 3 guidelines into consideration and go through this process of setting priorities you do it away from your desk and that you do it on paper, not on your computer. This is not merely a strategic exercise of time management in disguise. As I have said above, it is really about you prioritising your self-leadership, about reflecting on the leader you want to Be and setting priorities that enable that to happen. No one reflects on digital devices. There is a very different process in train there. If you don’t believe me be be open to giving it a try. If you need further convincing, read what happened for Dr. David Rock when he moved away from his desk when on holidays.

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© Maree Harris, Ph.D.

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