Say No to things, Don’t Just Prioritize

PrioritizeSometimes we just don’t need to prioritize, we have to say “No” to things. When pressed for time, we’re often advised to “Prioritize!” as if that will solve the problem. Let me first define the word “Prioritize.” Prioritizing is the process of ranking things – the people who want to take up our time, items on our to-do list, messages in our Inbox – in order of importance. But prioritizing accomplishes relatively little, because it assumes that everything and everyone merits our time and attention – we’ll just get to the less important items later. But later never really arrives, so the list never ends. Our time and attention are finite resources, and once we reach a certain level of responsibility in our professional lives, we can never fulfill all the demands we face no matter how long and hard we work. The line of people who want to see us stretches out the door and into the street. Our to-do lists run to the floor. Our in-boxes are never empty.

The key is recognizing that prioritization is necessary but insufficient. The critical next step is triage. Medical staff in a crisis must decide who requires immediate assistance, who can wait, who doesn’t need help at all, and who’s past saving. Triage for the rest of us entails not just focusing on the items that are most important and deferring those that are less important until “later,” but actively ignoring the vast number of items whose importance falls below a certain threshold.

Decide where your cut-off point is and stick to it. You don’t have to get through your entire inbox or to-do list, you just have to get through the truly important messages and cross off the most important items. Actively ignoring things and saying no to people generates a range of emotions that exert a powerful influence on our choices and behavior. This is precisely what makes triage so difficult, and until we acknowledge its emotional dimension, our efforts to control our workflow through primarily intellectual interventions are unlikely to succeed.

To triage effectively we need to enhance our ability to manage these concerns and other, related emotions (and “manage” does not mean “suppress”). It is well obvious that emotions can undermine effective decision-making by creating an overriding bias against objective facts or even by interfering with support mechanisms of decision-making such as working memory. And this is exactly what happens to us when the active choice to ignore — the decision at the heart of triage — generates emotions that we fail to fully grasp.

When confronted by overwhelming demands on our time, we may feel anxious, scared, resentful, or even angry, but we’re often not sufficiently aware of or in touch with these emotions to make effective use of them. They flow through us below the level of active consciousness, inexorably guiding our behavior, but in many cases – and particularly when under stress – we fail to recognize their influence and miss opportunities to make the choices that will best meet our needs.

The ultimate goal is to expand our comfort with discomfort – to be able to acknowledge the difficult emotions generated by the need to triage so that we can face our endless to-do list, our overflowing Inbox, and the line of people clamoring for our attention and, kindly but firmly, say “No.”

So don’t just prioritize, say “No” to things. Go ahead and try that.


This post was adopted from “The Most Productive People Know Who to Ignore” by Ed Batista on Harvard Business Review here.

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