Setting priorities has never been more important than it is today, when everything moves at light speed and your attention is constantly being pulled in a thousand directions. Your phone is dinging with messages, your email notifications are popping up every minute, your social media feeds are flooded with articles you’re eager to find time to read. Companies and individuals are constantly pressured to accomplish more—faster, cheaper, and better. But all of this is just wasted time and effort without a plan to know where you're going—and why.
In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey writes, "If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster." It's so true. Organizations small and large have been heeding the call to set strategic priorities to help their businesses focus their time, energy, money, and human capital on those things they do best, and they establish goals and metrics for measuring success in meeting those priorities.
Leaders should take a page from their businesses and develop their own personal strategic priorities at work. Just as strategic priorities help an organization focus its time and attention on those things that matter most, so too will personal strategic priorities help you plan where to place your attention, time, and energy. Formalizing such priorities helps you determine where you can do the most for your organization and your team, and helps you identify those times when you start veering off track. In addition, developing personal strategic priorities at work can have the added benefit of keeping the rest of your life in balance. When you know what your priorities are at work and you stick to them, you can devote more time to your health, family, and community.
Setting your personal strategic priorities:
Establish Your Priorities. What are the top 3 - 5 areas where you need to succeed as a leader? How do these align to the priorities of your organization or the team you lead? Likely there will be some overlap, but there will be areas where you need to more deeply focus. Also think about which activities you personally are uniquely able to move forward that others can’t. For a CEO or Founder, this can often be things like meeting with key stakeholders or being the public face of the company.
Determine Metrics. Once you have determined your 3 - 5 personal strategic priorities for work, it's time to define the metrics that will measure your effectiveness and success. What are the results you want and how will you get there? How can you break down each priority into smaller steps and what is your timeline for each? How often will you review these metrics and are there apps or other tools that can help keep you on track?
Examine your current reality & adjust course. Think about how you’re spending your time and resources currently. How does this align with the priorities you just set? If a bulk of your time is being spent on things outside these priority areas, whether on other organizational priorities, external requests or day-to-day administrative tasks, you’ll need to make some shifts. Can you redirect requests to others, delegate tasks to teammates, or hire support staff to take things off your plate? This will help you focus on the areas where your unique skills will provide the momentum your organization needs.
Revisit and Review. Your personal strategic priorities are a living document, and as such they will change from time to time. As Kenny Rogers puts it, “you've gotta know when to hold them and know when to fold them.” Avoid tossing out a strategic priority because it seems too hard or simply for the sake of change. But also know that as your organization changes, your personal strategic priorities might need to change as well. So, take time to review your priorities on a monthly or quarterly basis. And if you accomplish a priority and can strike it from your list, be sure to set another one to take its place.
Tools and resources:
Template. Here is a template we use for establishing and reviewing priorities. It’s helpful to capture everything on one page, have sufficient detail to know if you are on the right track, but not so much to be overwhelming.
Support in drafting priorities and aligning your time with them. Some leaders may seek support with setting their priorities and checking in regularly to see how they are progressing. A chief of staff can be a great partner to help leaders with this process. They can audit how you are currently spending your time, how that needs to change, and identify things they can take off your plate. They can make sure your priorities are always relevant and hold you accountable to meeting your goals.