Eyes on the Prize: Prioritizing What Matters at Work

In a world where everything is "important," how can we know where we can make the biggest impact?

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It’s 5 o’clock. You’ve been working furiously all day, attending to meetings and emails, barely taking time to breathe let alone eat, drink or pee. When quitting time comes, you take a look back and see what you’ve accomplished…nothing. 

It’s OK, I’ve been there. I’ve been there so many times that I’m the mayor of “there.” 

A notorious “can’t sit still” person, I was (and honestly still am) always inventing unimportant work for myself just to feel useful. Ironically, none of this extra effort ended up being useful at all.

How do I, and so many others, allow this to happen? Two reasons:

  1. We have not clearly defined our priorities
  2. When we do have “priorities” we don’t actually prioritize them 

This article will focus on Reason #1, defining our priorities, and next week’s will explore how to stay focused on them. 

Defining Your “One Thing”

A few years ago, when I was finding myself barely treading water and buried in a mile-long to-do list of largely unimportant tasks, I read The One Thing by Gary Keller.

Gary Keller’s name may sound familiar to you: He is the “Keller” of Keller Williams Realty. As much as it seemed like no one could possibly be busier than me, I conceded that Mr. Keller might be the exception, so it was worth listening to what he had to say. 

In the book, Keller shares that each morning (or the night before) he asks a focusing question: “What is the one thing that I can do that will make everything else easier or unnecessary?”

For the first half of his day, he works on that thing and only that thing. No meetings. No email. No nothing. 

How can a real estate mogul manage to focus on one task at a time? Well, Keller is the master of boundaries (more on boundaries here). He eliminates all distracts on his phone and even goes so far as to physically hide from people. 

Tim Ferris, author of The Four Hour Work Week, offers similar advice, recommending you ask yourself, “If I only get these 2-3 things done today, will I be satisfied with my day?” To some, broadening your focus from one thing to two or three may be more reasonable. Be warned of the slippery slope, however. Two to three can very quickly become eight to ten if you aren’t diligent. 

Do It Like Google: Implementing OKRs

My company has recently adopted a system used by Google, IBM, and other top tech firms to help us explicitly define our priorities. 

The system is called OKRs, which stands for “Objectives and Key Results.” You can learn more about OKRs in the book Measure What Matters and at whatmatters.com, but here’s the gist:

Every quarter everyone identifies a few key Objectives (no more than five) that they will work towards. Objectives are usually broad and aspirational (e.g., “Improve client relationships”). Each Objective has 2-3 accompanying Key Results, which are measurable outcomes that demonstrate you are on track to meet the Objective (e.g., “X% score on client satisfaction survey” or “Y% client retention rate”).

When determining how to spend your time, you should always ask yourself whether or not what you are doing helps move you closer to achieving a Key Result. 

Hopefully you can see a parallel between the One Thing and OKRs. They are both about explicitly defining the way we can make the biggest impact and focusing on that before anything else. 

What Comes Next

Defining what is important is half the battle. Give yourself some credit for doing the work and setting your priorities! The next challenge is keeping those priorities top of mind and not letting external factors (or yourself) derail you. 

More on that next time. Until then, happy prioritizing 🙂

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