Wandering Priorities: How to Regain Control


Focusing on the things that really matter can prove rewarding for your work and personal life.




Have you ever experienced a time when you had a zillion things to do and did not know where to start? Or worse, have you ever tried to tackle all of them at the same time and really made a mess? Maybe you're not willing to admit it, but I am. It's happened to me and to a lot of those I have worked with over the years.

One of the greatest encumbrances to being a good manager is not being able to prioritize our activities in a way that will ensure focus. Focus is essential to accomplish the tasks we have deemed important to successfully carry out our job responsibilities. If we do not focus, we will begin working on one challenge only to leave it mid-stream as we jump to something else. If care is not taken, this process could turn into wandering priorities, resulting in nothing getting done in a timely manner.

If you're not a highly skilled juggler, you will drop a ball or two if you have too many in the air at one time. Have you ever noticed what usually happens when a juggler drops a ball? An interruption in focus and concentration results in all the balls falling onto the ground in rapid succession. To avoid this happening to you, you need first to limit the balls you are handling and focus on those that are important to the successful completion of your objectives and the objectives of your company. Most of us seldom take the time to determine what is important and what is not important. We just load the wagon or let someone load it for us. However, by pausing to analyze what the consequences will be if we ignore issues and consider what the rewards will be if we address these issues, we can begin painting a clearer picture in our minds of what is indeed important.

By looking at the demands on your time and cutting out the unimportant, you should be able to get your "to-do" list down to a reasonable number. This list of important items can still be quite overwhelming. Now you must decide what you can delegate to others. As a manager, this is the only way you can leverage your knowledge, skills and time. You absolutely have to empower and entrust others to do things for you. Finally, you should set priorities on what you are going to delegate to others as well as your own list.

Making a `To-Do' List

One of the most effective tools I have used over the years to set priorities within a complex "to-do" list is a work sheet. This idea has been around a long time, and I put it on an Excel spreadsheet. However, it can be used without the aid of a computer by simply drawing a matrix. I have had plant managers, sales managers and supervisors use it very effectively. First, let's set up a situation.

You are the maintenance area administrator (or supervisor) for your plant and your two-man team definitely has a zillion things to do. You know that your first priority is to fix any breakdown in the plant that will cause a bottleneck or affect safety. What about other requests the Plant Manager, Engineering Manager, Human Resource Manager and others have put on your plate?

Here is your hot "to-do" list:


  • Move the Rye into the new mirror cell
  • Install new CNC router
  • Replace noisy bearings in moulder
  • Replace filter bags in dust collector
  • Fix leaking kiln line
  • Repair crack in planer frame
  • Conduct safety meeting
  • Fix leak in roof over computer room before storm
  • Repair hole in floor in aisle
  • Take parts inventory and order

Developing a Priority Matrix

The first step is to make a char. List the items you want to prioritize in any order you wish. Next, starting at the top with item A, "Move the Rye into the new mirror cell," compare it with each item below. Ask, "Which is more important, item A or B?" Enter 1 in your choice. Then move down one and ask, "Which is more important, item A or C?" Likewise enter a 1 and move down the list.

After you have finished the first item, move to the right and down to compare item B to C in a like manner. You will use all the input you have received by others and your management skills to make each of these individual judgments. Don't try to figure out how things are going to turn out. When you have finished, go back to the first item and in the right-hand column record the total number of "1s" that have been marked under A, B, C and so on. (You can use a spreadsheet or you can draw up the chart and circle the priorities and then total the circles.)

The item with the highest number is the top priority for you to work on next. In this example, it is to get the roof fixed before the storm hits this week. The lowest number will be last. You should update your list as soon as your plate is too full to focus on the most important items. In a dynamic situation, such as maintenance, you may use this as a daily planning tool. On the other hand, when working on broader issues reviewing once every week or so will suffice.

Ten items were listed here. To have 12 is possible but 15 is really pushing the limits of what you can handle. If you have more than a dozen priorities on your matrix, you probably need to break them into priority groups and then do this exercise for each group. You can then extract the top items from each group and make another worksheet from those. Following down the list in a like manner will let you prioritize the larger list a few items at a time.

No matter what position you hold in your firm, you can use this simple tool to make you and those who work with you more effective. Just pull the form out of the drawer or up on your computer whenever you don't know where to go next or show other symptoms of Wandering Priorities. In addition you will eliminate total frustration and reduce your blood pressure. Share it with your associates. It can be used anywhere prioritization is needed, from the lumberyard to the board room or at home.

Six Symptoms of Wandering Priorities

You say you don't have enough time in the day to get everything done.

You tell one of your associates you're sorry you did not get back to them as promised, but...

You carry a briefcase home with you full of some of the "zillion" things on your plate.

You seldom meet a deadline you have set.

You never seem to get around to resolving that big problem.

You break out in a cold sweat each morning when you see your desk.


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