Clarifying Priorities with 7 Powerful Questions

Clarifying Priorities with 7 Powerful Questions

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Why prioritizing tasks is a priority!

How would you characterize your days? Fast, busy, stressful, productive, unproductive, an unrelenting stream of new tasks? If any or all of those sound familiar, you are not alone. According to one study, 46% of our stress is workload related.

Another study found that "Excessive workplace stress causes a staggering 120,000 deaths and results in nearly $190 billion in health care costs each year." I wasn't aware workplace stress was that big of a problem, were you?

Clarifying Priorities with 7 Powerful Questions

But is it really surprising? You are being asked to do more, adapt quickly to a changing environment, keep up with the latest technologies, meet near-impossible deadlines, and hit near-impossible goals.

All the while you are pummeled with new tasks and urgent assignments on top of the never-ending stream of phone calls, emails, instant messages, and other productivity inhibitors. Your every day life is pretty stressful and distracted.

If you want a few simple ways to cut distractions and get more done, you want to check out our 3 Ways to Find Focus post.

You have to face these mounting stressors with limited resources of time and attention. Let's agree that your most important asset is time and it is a non-renewing resource. Your capacity to focus and make decisions is also a limited resource, but a renewable one.

When you are pulled in multiple directions simultaneously you have to choose what to do first, what's most important, and what's the best use of our time right now.

You constantly juggle priorities, tasks, and assignments. It's what you have to do just to keep your head above water.

Prioritizing helps you to make the best choices on how to use your time and limited attention. It's how you make sense of an ever growing to-do list. If you don't prioritize you will waste countless hours working on tasks that are unimportant and unproductive.

It doesn't matter how fast you run if you are going the wrong direction.

is Everything really Urgent?

The real problems surface when we have multiple tasks we consider top priorities.

Unfortunately, most of us prioritize poorly. I've conducted a workshop on The Power of Focus and what I've found with the hundreds of people that have attended is that far too many people rate most of their tasks urgent and important. This is a recipe for overwhelm and burnout.

Most people rate the overwhelming majority of their tasks urgent and important. This is a recipe for overwhelm and burnout.

When you feel that everything is a top -priority you get stuck because you can't determine where you should focus your limited resources. When you feel like everything is urgent ask yourself a few questions.

1. Who else could do this?

This is a question to determine if you can delegate this task. You can do it, but are you the best person to do it?

2. What would happen if this didn't get done?

This is the eliminate question. If nobody cares if it gets done or is expecting outcomes from this task, just get rid of it and move on.

3. How long has this been on my to-do list?

You know that you have tasks that have been rolling on your to-do list for a while. We all have them. If you haven't gotten to it by now the likelihood is that it isn't important or urgent. Honestly, it might be a task you can eliminate.

Reworking a line from the original Incredibles: When everything's important, nothing is.

How do you plan, organize, and prioritize your daily tasks?

So here’s the conundrum: you desperately need to prioritize tasks to keep up with your workload but prioritization is not as cut and dry as you would think.

So how do you get through the day and focus your efforts on the tasks that are most important. There are decision matrices you can use. As you consider your to-do list, ask this question of each task: is it urgent and is it important?

Decision Matrix helps in prioritizing tasks

Asking these questions will help you to quickly assess what needs your attention. But this brings us back to the problem most of us face… everything is urgent and important. If you have too many urgent tasks, repeat the process with those urgent tasks so you can move some to delegate or eliminate.

For more on tackling todo lists and setting longterm goals, check out Regaining Control of Your To-do List. I give you 6 ways to cut the clutter and get things done.

When you have passed your tasks through the matrix you will see which tasks really require your urgent attention and which do not.

Another project Inbound

But what happens when your boss drops another task, assignment, or project in your lap? How are you supposed to ?

How many times has a productive day gone to the dogs because you were sideswiped with a project you didn’t expect? I’m guessing more than once.

When your boss gives you a project, you see that project as a top priority. It’s not just you, nearly everyone I’ve surveyed in my workshops does as well.

Now this top priority from your boss hijacks your day (or week) and you get it done, only to submit it and hear nothing.

I mean absolutely nothing.

Why did that happen? Great question with a simple answer.

Do this when your boss drops another task, assignment, or project in your lap. You’re welcome.

Ask Better Questions

When you are faced with a new task you need to ask better questions. Actually, asking any question would be better than what most of us do. Does this sound familiar? You accept the new assignment, tell your boss you can meet an impossible deadline, and rearrange your plans for after work because the notion of “after work” just evaporated.

You are planning to take work home and steal time from your family. We discussed how not to do this in the Work/Life Balance: Fact or Fiction post.

But what questions would help you here? Here are the 4 questions I think might help you clarify your boss’s priorities, reduce your stress, and help you take less work home every night.

1. Where is this in your priorities?

Ask better questions so you can be on the same page as your boss and have the same priorities

This question gets to the bottom line quickly. By asking this direct question you are acknowledging that your boss has priorities. You are tapping into their need to show their bosses progress and accomplishments.

This is a question most people don’t think to ask because they falsely assume that everything they receive from their bosses is a top priority. Asking this question will open up a conversation and pave the way for the next question you should ask.

2. When do you need this?

Remember your earlier disappointment? The time you spent working on a new task only to submit it and hear nothing back. Asking when they need it allows you to prioritize the task in relationship to everything else you already have on your plate.

When you ask this question they may say tomorrow or ASAP. The first one may not be realistic and the second answer isn't an answer at all. Your purpose in asking this question is to see how urgent it really is to them and to set up your next important question.

3. Can I get this to you by...?

Now you start to negotiate. You know what you have going on and your boss might have some idea of your workload. If you don't feel their deadline is feasible, negotiate a better one. Most supervisors will understand because they have similar pressures from their managers.

Don't rush your answer, consider your workload and give them a date you feel confident you can meet. Expect them to counter your offer. Which brings us to the last and possibly the scariest question.

4. What do you want me to stop doing, so I can make this happen?

WARNING: Use this question when you have a good working relationship with your supervisor and be aware of your tone as you ask this. This isn’t a snide or sarcastic question, it’s an honest one. When your plate is full and you have a new high-priority task that has a short deadline, something’s got to give.

Normally you would make the call on your own and prioritize something or everything lower until you complete this new task. But accepting this new task doesn’t stop your supervisor from coming to you tomorrow asking for some other top priority item.

This questions is gold. With just these 14 words you are asking your supervisor to set your priorities. When your boss is setting priorities, you insulate yourself from the demands of the other tasks you have to put on hold. If they forget, you can remind them. It might not hurt to send a quick email to follow up.

This way everyone is clear about what you are and aren’t doing.

When you ask better questions you get better results and you are able to deploy your limited resources in the right places. When you fail to ask better questions you waste time, stress yourself unnecessarily, and do work that isn’t moving you toward the big picture goals.


  • Every task can't be a top priority.
  • You must be diligent about paring your tasks down.
  • Ask better questions of yourself and your supervisor.
  • Prioritizing tasks effectively can make you more productive and reduce your stress.

About the author 

Dr. David Arrington

David a husband, father and the principal of Arrington Coaching. He and his team work with leaders, teams, organizations, and entrepreneurs. He regularly speaks and writes on leadership development, team alignment, and peak performance.

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