By Sarah O’Brien
If you’re like most people, you begin your work day by making a list of what needs to be accomplished by the time you leave your office or shut down your computer.
Maybe you’re an expert level planner, and you already made your list the day before, organized by deadlines, importance, or the value that it provides to your own professional development. Maybe you are not a fan of big lists and just use a notebook on your computer to keep track of your tasks. Regardless of which one you are, we are all measured based on our performance at work.
Take a minute to look at your “to-do list,” and then consider how you approach these tasks on a daily basis. How are you prioritizing what gets done today, and in what order?
I’m willing to bet that your priorities are organized and influenced at least a little by personal preferences, some that you may not even be aware of.
Regardless of intentions, your professional priorities are impacted by your personal goals and tendencies. This can be helpful in many ways, but some of our tendencies can become problematic if we aren’t mindful of them, or if we don’t cultivate a little discipline to manage our professional priorities. And, as with most things, finding balance is key.
Most people try to balance their personal and professional goals to achieve work/life balance.
If you’re lucky enough to work for a company that values learning, then professional development is intertwined with everything you do. Your work is meaningful and you are given the chance to do what you do best on a daily basis. You have supervisors or mentors that care about your growth, and the rest of your team is engaged in the same way.
Increasing employee engagement is a fairly popular initiative among organizations, and one that most companies plot somewhere on their spectrum of priorities, but it may not be quite at the top. If your company is not as focused on developing a learning culture, you can still prioritize your work in a way that provides you the most opportunities for doing, learning and achieving your career goals.
Achieving work/life balance
Whether we like it or not, our work affects what we prioritize in our home, and vice versa.
For instance, you may not accept a promotion if you need to travel and be away from home for extended periods of time. You may not work those extra hours because you want to make it to your children’s basketball game, your dog’s graduation, or your favorite weekday TV show.
The relationship between work and life influences your priorities, even if you try and keep the two separate.
Another factor that influences your priorities is how high the priority is for another person. Sometimes a priority for someone else inadvertently becomes a priority for you. It’s important to discern here the authority this someone has over you, as well as the impact on your own priorities if their task jumps to the front of the line.
Managing project deadlines
Is there a deadline to consider? Chances are that a chunk of your to-do list has a due date, and the closer you get to that due date the more that project becomes a priority. There are three different approaches to deadlines: you either thrive under pressure, think you thrive under pressure but don’t, or you know you can’t work under pressure so you have become an expert non-procrastinator (in which case, you deserve a medal).
Prioritizing based on deadlines is sometimes appropriate, but can lead to an overwhelming workload if other things come up. Not everything can or should wait until the last minute.
Regardless, we can all improve our priority-setting process by focusing less on deadlines, and more on the importance of finishing the task simply because it requires completing.
This gets us a little deeper into the very human parts of our brain that impact what we prioritize. Often times we will put off projects that are timely because they aren’t things that we like to do.
I know what you’re thinking; “I do things all the time that I don’t like doing because I’m a grown person and that’s life.” And you’re not wrong, but how often do you add the thing you enjoy least on your to-do list, and finish it last because it’s not a priority to someone else or close to the deadline? You are still doing these tasks, but you’re allowing your personal proclivities to impact how you prioritize their completion.
Additionally, prioritizing based on what we do and don’t like to do can lead you to add value or importance to certain priorities based on how important you think it is. There is nothing wrong with prioritizing things based on what is important to you, but when it comes to what is a priority at work, it’s possible that what you think is a priority may not be a priority to your team or organization.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of what influences your priorities, and each has its value as well as its pitfalls. It’s important to take a step back from your routine every once in a while to evaluate what drives your priority setting to make sure you aren’t creating false priorities, and that your goals and timeline are in alignment with those you work with.
For more information on understanding, setting and managing priorities, check out the “Setting and Managing Priorities” series of video lessons in The BizLibrary Collection.
Watch a 1-minute preview of “Identifying Personal Priorities” from The BizLibrary Collection here:
For more tips on managing and identifying priorities download our competency guide on priority setting.
Sarah O’Brien researches and writes on a variety of business topics, including workplace dynamics, HR strategies, and training trends and technology.