fire extinguishers

Stop Fighting Fires: How to Prioritize When Everything is High Priority

One of the most common frustrations we hear from team leaders who don’t have robust project management practices in place is a feeling of constant firefighting, leaving them unable to complete projects on time or within budget. In fact, in a recent PwC poll, only 2.5% of companies successfully completed all of their projects.

Firefighting is a natural human response to a chaotic workload as a means of “getting more done”. But it’s not an effective way of getting the right things done at the right time. There are two intertwining approaches to building an effective model for prioritization. Firstly, we need to change our organizational mindset; and secondly, we need to ensure we have the right project management tools in place to support this mindset.

Adapting your organizational mindset

Fine-tuning our prioritization skills won’t necessarily happen overnight. But if the burden of firefighting exceeds the level of productivity it actually achieves, then it’s time to stop and reassess our current methods. Here are some of the most effective ways we can begin to make that change.

Understand urgency versus importance

This may sound obvious, but there is a clear difference between an urgent task and an important task – a distinction that should not merely be measured by how long it might take or who may be shouting the loudest.

What is not so obvious, however, is that many of us are failing to make that conscious assessment, which hinders our ability to prioritize effectively, and leaves us feeling drained yet unproductive, day after day.

It’s easy to prioritize workload by the time it takes or is perceived to take, to complete each task. Indeed, it’s also quicker to prioritize in this way as you are only using one metric to make those quick-fire decisions. But it can leave you and your team with a greater workload in the long term.

The Eisenhower Decision Matrix encourages us to be more responsive (thoughtfully considering the outcome or longer-term impact of completing the task), rather than reactive (automatically scrabbling to complete a task because of the urgency with which it has been presented). The latter mindset is known as the ‘mere urgency effect’, which dictates that people are more likely to act on a request that seems urgent, even when that urgency has been artificially created.

Interestingly, according to a recent JCR study, respondents were more likely to attend to an unimportant task that had spurious urgency, for example, an “illusion of expiration”. The researchers concluded that “people behave as if pursuing an urgent task has its own appeal, independent of its objective consequence”.

Of course, there will be several tasks which are important and yet also urgent, but we still need to consider the matrix – and make that assessment – before we begin to tackle them. If we can make a conscious decision to disregard any artificially-created urgency, and instead make up our mind as to why a task may be more or less urgent than the next, we’ll feel better about the order in which we prioritize projects, and more productive once we’ve completed the task in hand.

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Put priorities into practice

Once you’ve applied the ‘urgent vs. important’ test to your to-do list, you can then implement your strategy for completing each project throughout the day. In a recent article, we talked about ‘eating that frog’, i.e., tackling the task that is perceived to be the most challenging or time-consuming first. Alternatively, you could adopt the 1:3:5 rule, whereby you focus on one substantial project, followed by three medium-sized tasks, finishing with five smaller items on your to-do list.

Sufficient breaks away from your desk should also be factored into the plan. Taking time out from tasks allows our unconscious mind to get to work, not only by systematically processing all the overwhelming decisions we’re unable to deal with in stress mode but also by generating those brilliant ideas which help boost productivity when we resume our work.

Read on: Should You Manage Your Time or Your Energy?

Revert to realistic goals and deadlines

If you’re continually missing deadlines, it could be for the simple reason that you’re putting too much pressure yourself and your team, either to impress a client or perhaps demonstrate efficiency to the board, when in fact, the opposite is happening.

By changing the goal posts and setting realistic deadlines, you can manage client and/or board expectations from the outset, giving the team a reason to celebrate – and the client a boost in confidence – should you complete the project ahead of schedule.

Eliminate interruptions

Once we’ve decided which frog to eat, we need to set aside a block of time for intensive, focussed work. However, as Computer Science Professor Cal Newport observes, with all the technology that surrounds us, many of us have lost the ability to engage in periods of ‘deep work’.

We spend our days in a “frantic blur of email and social media” – not to mention instant messaging and videoconferencing – in fear of missing out on the world around us or missing that “urgent” communication from a colleague.

Instead, we need to consciously consider all of the things we do subconsciously, daily, that we can cut out during our period of deep work. As Newport highlights, there is a clear distinction between ‘shallow work’ (checking email, responding to your team’s Slack notifications, or updating a project progress report) and ‘deep work’ (focussed, billable client work).

Having established which activities constitute shallow work (and therefore an interruption during deep work), we can start to think about how to cut them out, e.g., by leaving our smartphone in another room, or deleting social media apps/bookmarks from the device we are using to carry out our deep work.

Dare to delegate

Every team leader worth their salt will know they need to delegate to be more effective. But putting this into practice can be difficult as it often challenges our inherent aversion to relinquishing control. As part of adapting our mindset, we should consciously remind ourselves that in exchange for a small investment of time and training, entrusting another team member to help drive a project will increase overall productivity substantially.

According to self-development author Brian Tracy, effective delegation involves determining the parts of a project to delegate, the right person for the job, and how to monitor and evaluate performance. If there isn’t a team member available who has the capacity or relevant skill set, consider outsourcing part of the project to an agency or freelancer. Spreading the load in this way will instantly lift the pressure and allow you to get back to your own (deep) work.

Supporting your organizational mindset

It’s perhaps unsurprising that team leaders today feel overwhelmed by their workload when projects land on their desk, or rather, devices, from so many channels. Client RFPs via email, team communications via IM, conferences via Zoom, change requests via a ticketing system – where does the technology end?

To combat the chaos, more and more teams are implementing project management tools to help to drive productivity. In fact, according to PwC, 77% of high-performing projects use project management software. But how can you be sure the software you choose is worth your investment? The key is to opt for an end-to-end platform that provides a complete – and fully customizable – view of your projects.

Read on: How to Choose the Right Business Management Software

A panorama of priorities

Accessing projects in different places makes it harder to resolve the urgent-important dilemma and harder to switch between projects as and when they require attention. Conversely, using a platform in which individual team members can create their own dashboards and build their own reports – for example by filtering views by start date, end date, duration, deadline, work completed, work to do, overscheduled work, etc. – enables effective prioritization in a few clicks.

Anyone in the team can check in and assess which projects need their attention at any given time (or over a period of time), as well as having the foresight to check which projects are likely to overrun and for how long. Being able to manage project overviews on the fly empowers teams to intervene and adapt their strategy as necessary to save the maximum amount of resource – meanwhile freeing team leaders up to focus on their core objectives.

Developing a more considered approach to prioritization by adjusting our mindset – coupled with customizable software support – means we can finally stop fighting fires and confidently settle the burning question of whether that task is urgent, important, or both.