Prioritizing lightens the mind. Unravel the day. It streamlines life, so we can focus on what really matters. All that we know. And yet, when we face a new day, unforeseen events and emergencies hit us with full force, causing us to forget our priorities. Thus we can end up submerged in a tangle of small inconsequential tasks that become black holes that suck our time and energy.
We have to learn to prioritize tasks. We know. But how do we prioritize when everything seems urgent? How to prioritize when the world pushes us in another direction? How to stay on course if all the unforeseen are presented as if they were a matter of life and death?
How to prioritize when everything is urgent?
For people who are very demanding of themselves and those who find it difficult to delegate, the “default option” is usually to assume everything. Take care of everything. Prioritize everything. Obviously, it’s a bad idea because the specter of exhaustion will end up knocking on their door sooner or later.
However, in a fast-paced world where everything seems urgent – but few things really are – learning to avoid that chaos and assign each task the relevance it deserves is an essential skill if we don’t want to end up overwhelmed, stressed and frustrated.
• Assuming that we do not have to be able to handle everything
We live in a burnout society, fundamentally because each of us carries his own “forced labor camp”, paraphrasing the philosopher Byung-Chul Han. We self-exploit and believe that we are fulfilling ourselves, but in reality we only manage to take ourselves to the limit, physical and mental.
Of course, overloading ourselves with tasks can make us feel like superheroes. Thinking to be able to cope with everything feels good. But it is not sustainable in the long term. Therefore, the first step to prioritizing is to stop demanding so much of ourselves and recognize that we cannot do everything – and that it is not even necessary. It is about admitting that we are human and that many of the tasks that we carry out on a daily basis are probably not contributing to our well-being.
• Developing a global vision
Uncertainty has long been established in our lives. And it is likely that we will have it as a traveling companion for a long time. Because of that uncertainty, what’s important today may be irrelevant tomorrow. Therefore, it is convenient to take note that in many occasions we lack a broad and long-term perspective.
If we look at just one task, blinded by present circumstances, we are likely to give it more importance than it deserves. To escape this trap, the key is relativity. Look around us. Try to see things from a broader perspective. We must not focus only on what is happening now, but look beyond. How important will that task be an hour from now, the next day, or the next week? Or even: how important is it in our life plan?
• Differentiate what is urgent from what is priority
Wrapped up in the dizzying pace of everyday life, it is easy to end up confusing what is urgent with what is important and assigning wrong priorities. Therefore, it is convenient to always keep in mind those things that are really important in life and to which we must give priority.
The word urgent comes from the Latin urgens or urgentis, so it refers to that which urges or causes haste. However, everything that presses us – or all those that are pressing us – does not necessarily have to be important and, of course, we do not have to prioritize it. Creating a list of the really important things and giving them an order of priority will allow us to compare them with the urgent ones and quickly decide what level of priority we can give them in our lives.
• Consider options beyond “yes” and “no”
One of the main problems when it comes to prioritizing is that it is very difficult to say no. Of course, it is difficult to say no to the people we love or to our superiors, but we must not forget that between “yes” and “no” there is range of options.
“Yes” is the most appropriate answer when something is obviously urgent, important and a priority. “No” is the answer for all those tasks that do not correspond to us, are not important or with which we simply do not want to commit ourselves because they do not fit into our priorities.
However, there are other alternatives that we could consider:
1. Procrastinate. Those tasks that we could perform, but not immediately. Therefore, it is enough to explain to the person that we would love to be able to take care of it, but that right now we cannot. Instead, we can tell him when we will be available.
2. Collaborate. Those tasks that we are not willing to take on in their entirety, but in which we can lend a hand. In those cases, it is enough to explain that we are happy to help, as long as the other person collaborates.
3. Alternative solution. Those tasks that we are not going to assume it in any way, but we can contribute in some way to their solution, such as recommending an expert or software that can do some of the work.
Finally, we must bear in mind that the people around us may not be fully aware of the effort we are making. After all, it is easy to swim out of the water. Therefore, it is likely that we also have to “educate” them, especially if we have always been available to them and it was difficult for us to say no.