Having too many priorities is a common problem in our workplaces. Leaders pile “critical” work onto everybody’s to-do list and stress levels increase. Cracks start to appear in the fabric of our teams as the pressure mounts.
People who were great colleagues become irritated and frustrated, butting heads as competing priorities start to clash. Culture eventually suffers as teams pursue conflicting goals and crash against each other like warring armies.
Too Many Priorities and the Illusion of Progress
When there are too many priorities on which to realistically focus our effort, the feeling of progress we create is an illusion. Almost every organisation I have worked for is trying to do too much, with too little.
A list of fifty tasks or initiatives running simultaneously looks good on paper.
The paper doesn’t necessarily tell you the complexities involved or that you don’t have adequate resources to deliver them all at the same time.
It’s easy to commit to a lot of work, because commitment only takes words. We can say that we will accomplish 100 things this year, which sounds fantastic.
The inevitable conclusion is that many of those initiatives will be cancelled or suffer delays along the way.
We say we’ll do 100 things, and we finish twenty. However, if we said we’d only do twenty at the start, everyone would say that it’s not ambitious enough.
Smart leaders know that if they set priorities that are realistic, they’ll be able to actually achieve them. Be careful of the illusion of effectiveness you create by promising to do too much work.
Isn’t it much better to promise a reasonable set of tasks or initiatives and then over-deliver and have the capacity to achieve even more?
The Consequences of Doing Too Much
When we have too many priorities, we agree to take on too much work. The obvious consequences at an individual level include stress, feelings of overwhelm, with the potential for burnout. All of these lead to potential issues with health, wellbeing and disengaged teams.
At a cultural level, there are consequences too. Organisations and the teams within them start to build a culture of failure. People joke about failing projects and expect delays. Teams keep working to the deadline they know is impossible, until someone tells them to stop.
There is a quote from Patrick Lencioni (author of “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”) which I rather like. He says “When everything is important, nothing is”.
If everything is a top priority, you actually don’t have any priorities and you’ll struggle to focus your effort.
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What You Can Do When You Have Too Many Priorities
Have you noticed that many organisations and leaders tend to push their people to the limit, until they find a good reason for them to stop? This situation sees team members working long hours and under high stress for long periods.
Then a team member gets sick. They come down with the flu. Suddenly, they aren’t available to do the work.
All of a sudden, it’s OK to delay a little. When that same team member was working 60 hours per week and stressed, delays were not acceptable.
Usually a crisis like illness, a funeral or a national disaster forces people to adjust their priorities.
It is unfortunate that we need to wait for a calamity before we can step back and make rational decisions about our workload and what we can actually accomplish.
If we are looking for an excuse to stop something, perhaps simply creating a realistic plan should be a good enough excuse.
We usually blame organisations for creating this type of culture. However, organisations are made of individuals, who lead and work in our teams. That means it’s up to us to make a positive change.
Let’s take a look at what you can do as a leader, when you’re faced with the common problem where “everything is important”.
1. Do everything
The first approach you can take is to try to do everything, working to achieve all the priorities. This is the path of least resistance, where you simply follow orders and try to complete everything that is deemed “important”.
Unfortunately, this creates a situation where you and your team are more likely to suffer stress and burnout. You may also damage your reputation as your team wonders why you haven’t pushed back on some of the less important work.
2. Demonstrate the problem and ask for help
Another option you can take is to actually demonstrate the issue you’re facing and ask for help. This is a step that many leaders simply don’t consider.
When confronted with too many priorities, many people will simply try their best to accomplish them all. Nobody likes to let people down and disappoint their boss, so raising concerns about your workload is an option that is often avoided.
Asking for help is nothing to be ashamed of.
Especially when you’re doing it to safeguard the wellbeing and motivation of yourself and your team. After all, you can’t deliver anything with a burnt out and disengaged team.
However, nobody is going to be able to help you (including your boss) if they are never aware that there is a problem. Often we stay silent and stoic, trying to do it all. The most sensible option might actually be to raise your hand and have a discussion about the situation.
To go along with this, it’s helpful to be able to actually demonstrate the problem. Otherwise, you run the risk of being labelled as a “whiner” or someone who just complains. This might mean creating a plan for the work that you’re being asked to do, to show that your team is overcommitted.
If you make a good case, you might be able to convince your manager that more help is required (in the form of extra resources) or that maybe the list of “important” items should be reassessed.
Remember that nobody wants to look stupid. If you can present a reasonable plan and proposal to fix your workload issues, leaders will look silly if they ignore it and just keep going as if nothing is wrong.
3. Critically examine the deadlines
Deadlines are great things, and can definitely motivate a team to reach a goal. However, if you have a list of important priorities a mile long, it’s worth taking a critical eye to the deadlines involved.
Not all deadlines are created equal.
There are real deadlines, where there are significant consequences for not meeting them. Then there are fake deadlines, where there is no really good reason that the target date was selected in the first place.
A good option may be to critically examine the target dates for your pressing deadlines, to query the timelines and assess the consequences for not meeting them. When you’ve done this, you can make a case for potentially slipping some of the deadlines to a more achievable date.
Some managers like to use deadlines as a motivational technique, but this really only works when the deadline is real. Fake deadlines used to create urgency are ineffective when it becomes clear that the urgency doesn’t really exist.
There is nothing wrong with creating a deadline to try to achieve a target early. However, when faced with too many priorities, you’re likely to need to adjust your sights and aim for something more realistic.
4. Too Many Priorities? Why not let something drop?
Sometimes, drastic times call for drastic measures. When you are faced with too many priorities and your team are overwhelmed, sometimes the best thing you can do is to let some of the balls you are frantically juggling drop to the floor.
This sounds like a bad idea, doesn’t it? Simply failing to do your work looks unprofessional and you run the risk of looking like a bad leader, and an incompetent worker.
But hear me out for a second.
In some work environments, people don’t take the time to stop and think about workloads. They just keep pushing, doing whatever it takes to try to meet the targets, even if they are struggling the whole time.
Sometimes it can be good to fire a warning shot at your senior leaders, by simply failing to focus on some of your “important” priorities and letting them go unfinished. If you do this, there are a few possible outcomes:
- You find out that the initiative really was important, and you’ll be asked why you didn’t finish it on time
- Nothing happens. The work wasn’t really that important, and nobody seems to notice that it was never completed. Believe me, I have seen this happen more than a few times!
- Your manager asks you about progress, and you say you need another few weeks because of all the other things on your plate. You move the deadline and you have more time to finish the job.
Sometimes, your manager won’t take a step back to stop and think, unless you force them to do so. And one way to do that is to let some of your work drop, and stop trying to do everything.
5. Say “No”
The final very simple but often daunting option is to simply say “No” to a few things. You don’t need to be rude, or angry. You simply need to state the facts, and the reasons why you are unable to accommodate the work.
This approach takes courage and commitment. However, people do not push back and say “No” as much as they should. Leaders like their team members to be held accountable, but leaders need to be accountable too.
Pushing back and saying “No” is a way to hold your senior leaders to account, when they try to overload you with too many “important” priorities.
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Leaders and teams are often overloaded with too many priorities, putting them at risk of overwhelm and burnout. The wellbeing of our people is important and it’s our job to make sure it’s a priority.
Take the time to stop and think about the workload in your team. Being a leader isn’t all about following orders every time. Sometimes, you need to do what’s right, and hold your own managers accountable for the work that they are mindlessly delegating.
Saying “Yes” all the time is the easy path, but it often ends in overwhelm and failure. Is it time that you took the time to stand up and say “No”?
When did you stand up and challenge your workload? Or a time that you became overwhelmed and burnt out? Share your stories in the comments below or in the Thoughtful Leader Forum!