If you want to be an effective leader, you need to learn to prioritise. As the rather terrifying title of Oliver Burkeman’s new book reminds us, we only have about 4000 weeks on this planet, if we’re lucky, and so we’d better be darned sure we are making the most of it. At work, at home, and everything in between, a key element of making sure that you are squeezing the most out of the best bits is prioritization. And as a leader, who probably always has too much to do, it’s even more important to you than to others.
As a leader, you should prioritise the things which will add value to your life, whatever value means to you.
Whether value is pay, happiness, promotion, a great family life, being a really great leader, or learning to play the Polynesian Nose Flute, you need to work out what you should do versus what you should stop doing.
You’re trying to make sure that the most important things float to the top of your to-do list more often than not.
I find an analogy helpful here, popularised by Steven Covey. Imagine your tasks as three different sized stones: we’ll call the big, important priorities rocks, the middle-sized, slightly less important ones the shingle, and the small tasks, like the forms and the check-ins, as sand. Imagine that your working week is a jar, and you need to fill it with sand, shingle, and rocks.
Many of us have the tendency to fill the jar with the sand first. Then the shingle. And finally, the rocks. But the problem with this is, the rocks don’t fit if you do it in this order. The only way to get everything to fit in the jar is to put the rocks in first, then the shingle, and then the sand can be poured in last of all to fill in the gaps. You can find a visual representation of this here.
What this means is fitting your big important priorities into your diary, and therefore your life, first, before you think about anything else. Putting aside hours, mornings, days, to accomplish them, either wholesale or step-by-step. By doing this, you’re allowing yourself to prioritise what is really important to you. And then fitting the less important things around it.
But how do you work out what the rocks are?
You should see your most important objectives as the rocks. The things that you would like to be seen as part and parcel of who you are, and your life’s work. This might be the big project you’re leading on which is going to finally establish you as the go-to-person in your field. Or it might be becoming an incredible leader and therefore prioritising the leadership coaching that you’re receiving once a week. It could be something related to being a great parent or friend, or to prioritising self-care, or travelling the world, or getting a Master’s degree in marine archaeology.
Also, they don’t have to be big, time-wise, but they have to be important, to count as a rock. For example, leadership coaching isn’t a big-time commitment if it’s an hour a week or month, but it could have a big impact and so it’s worth prioritising.
Once you have identified your rocks, you can work out what your shingle and sand are. Your shingle may still be important but isn’t building towards your life goals in quite the same way. It might be your weekly check-ins with your peers and your manager, which allow you to do your job well, or the client presentations that you give on a semi-regular basis that allow you to retain those clients. You need them to be good at your job, to be well-thought-of, or to keep the senior team happy, but they’re not what you want to be remembered for. And then the sand is all those small, diary-draining tasks which aren’t important at all in the grand scheme of things, but which you just have to do because you do. You need to find time in your diary for them somewhere. They could be the forms you have to fill in, the news scan you need to perform on what’s happening in your sector or keeping on top of emails.
Once you know what your rocks, shingle and sand are, you can make sure you load them in the jar in the right order. That means, setting time aside for your rocks first. Then your shingle, then your sand. This is prioritising at its best: being really self-aware, and purposeful, in working out what you want to focus on, and then focusing on it. As a leader, you’re also setting a really good example for your team if you do this successfully. They will see your effectiveness, and your wellbeing as a result, and will want to emulate it. Luckily, this technique is very teachable, so you can share it with them, too.
If you’ve read this article and feel motivated to make a difference, then you should try to create yourself a table like the one below, with all your stones, and then some examples of shingle and sand. Once you’ve done this, you should write a list of your stones and keep it somewhere you can look at it regularly. This act of keeping your major priorities top of mind will repeatedly remind you what to focus on when you face tough decisions. And, you should organise your diary around your stones and be able to say, with confidence, that you are giving enough time to prioritising your stones, and then fitting the shingle and sand around them.
You’ll be able to use this technique to manage your own competing demands and thus to prioritise your work, and if you are a leader, to encourage your team to do the same. You may even want to share this article with them right now.