One of the easiest ways to torpedo productivity is to create a culture of false urgency, in which everything must be done right now. As the wise saying goes, “When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.” It can be easy to fall into this trap in our hyper-connected workplaces, where everyone is always accessible with the click of a button.
Research from McKinsey & Company shows that 28 percent of a typical work week is spent just sending and responding to emails. When notifications, alerts and incoming messages are constantly bombarding your employees, it’s crucial to their success—and yours—that you help them prioritize.
In a Salary.com survey of 750 American workers, 89 percent of respondents said that they waste time at work—and that they’re doing it now more than ever. If your team members are unsatisfied with how they’re spending their time at work, they probably lack clear direction on company priorities. One way to help your employees get engaged and accomplish more is to be clear about the “why’s” of a task or project. Articulating the bigger picture of a priority will help your team to align with a company or division-wide goal.
Since you’re the boss, it’s especially important to remember that your team will naturally think anything coming from you is a high priority; they may even drop what they’re doing to work on your specific ask. Thus, it’s even more important to explain the “why’s” of the task (including the deadline) to ensure your team succeeds in a productive and efficient way.
And even when companies (and managers) do a good job communicating the long-term vision of the “why” behind the organization, the “when” of the projects that help the company reach that vision is often forgotten. A key element of helping your team prioritize is making sure you include the project’s deadline— and its relative level of urgency—to everyone involved.
Employees are often reluctant to tell their manager that they’re having a hard time prioritizing. So one of the most important things you can do is open the door to this conversation by offering them help. By making this a “safe” conversation, you eliminate their concerns that they might look unable to prioritize their own time. When someone comes to you asking for help in ordering their priorities, be encouraging and thank them for letting you know. It will reinforce your team’s belief that you’re a support system for them, which is well established in the research world as a way to help people accomplish goals.
Introducing your team to the Eisenhower method is another great way to help them prioritize. If you’re not familiar with it, it comes from a famous quote from former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower: “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” It’s become a well-known decision-making matrix that helps people differentiate between the urgent and the important. (You can see a clear visual of it below.)
Here are a few ways you can help your team prioritize:
Make reviewing priorities part of your employee touchbase time: If you don’t already meet with your team members individually on a regular basis, institute weekly time (in person, by video conference or phone) to review priorities. Having someone as a sounding board often helps people prioritize in the moment and work through any roadblocks.
Keep a team calendar of key deadlines: Meeting deadlines is a critical part of any business. Having a public calendar that includes relevant deadlines will help the team align on goals and understand how best to support each other. Duke psychology and behavioral economics professor Dan Ariely notes that calendars can help people envision the different ways they can spend their time.
Give your team members freedom to experiment with how they prioritize best: Research shows that people who feel that they have free will at work are more satisfied with their jobs. You can point your direct reports to avail themselves of a productivity tip called the Schultz Hour, which encourages reserving time on a regular basis to prioritize long-term goals, or to other strategies for prioritizing like making a top 3 list every morning.