“How do you choose between equal priorities?” A few days ago my son asked me this question and I was puzzled for a moment. It was a pleasant sign of maturity for him to be thinking about these important issues, but also a very good reminder for me, since I face this question very often.

Imagine – now is 2pm and you have 3 tasks, all of which qualify as “high priorities”:

  1. You need to put the important information about Product A’s promo campaign on the website. The campaign started 2 days ago, but you only just now received a banner and a description. The task requires 30 minutes.
  2. You need to submit an expert article for the industry’s professional publication. The deadline is 5 pm. The article is almost finished, but needs a bit of polishing. The task requires 3 hrs.
  3. The boss called a few minutes ago and asked you to come at 4pm for an urgent meeting with a management team, not on the schedule.

And the question is – “what to do?”

Have you been in a similar situation? I bet you have. We all have.

We have different projects to manage, activities and tasks at work or in business or in life, and each of them has its own goals and priorities. Sometimes we face two or more equally important issues requiring our time right now. At this point it doesn’t matter why it happened, you just need to decide NOW what to do, then analyze and devise a preventive action plan later. So, what should we do in a situation like the one described above?

Our example is fairly typical, so let’s look at some general principles and criteria can help in many situations. I have found them useful in my life and business.

How to decide between equal priorities

Actually, when you have 2 or more high priority tasks or projects in hand and consider them equally important, you need to remember that only ONE of them can have the highest priority at a given time. As difficult as it seems, you will need to define and choose ONE to tackle first. You cannot do several things at once anyway 🙂 Your mind can focus effectively only on one thing at a time. So, focus on ONE thing at a time.

1. Define “Urgent and Important” first

When defining the highest priority, go through these 2 simple steps:

Step 1 – Define Importance

For each task ask the following questions:

  • Is this “high priority” task really “high”?
  • Does it contribute more than others to overall success and to the most important goals?
  • How did this task make the “high priority” list?

Sometimes, we are moving at a fast pace through our days and don’t have time to think about what we are doing and why. These questions can help us regain focus, see the big picture without stress, and redefine priorities.

Often the tasks we think are important, are not THAT important. The stress of the moment just does not allow us to see and think clearly.

Continue to the 2nd step only with those tasks about which that you can answer in the affirmative to these questions for “high priorities” tasks.

Don’t give any  attention at this point to the those tasks about which you cannot give affirmative answers.. It’s not their time yet 🙂

Step 2 – Define Urgency

  • Do this particular task falls into any of these categories:
  • Do I have a strict deadline for this particular task or step, or strict deadlines for the next related tasks or steps?
  • How urgent is this task or activity?
    • crisis
    • critical issues and problems related to customer service
    • important meetings, presentations that cannot be moved. Sometimes they are scheduled by other parties and you absolutely must be present, but many meetings can be rescheduled (even if  the meeting is with your boss)
    • a task coming directly from your boss that needs to be done now

Remember – it is your situation, you have a unique understanding of it and there is no “right” or “wrong” here.

2. Focus on this ONE task now

Once you have defined the task as “important and urgent”, devote uninterrupted time to this task and don’t get sidetracked! Otherwise you will end up in the same situation as in the beginning of this blog entry 🙂

Once you finish this task, take a break, reward yourself and get into the next task in the pipeline (the next “important and urgent”).

I guarantee you will achieve more in this day and it will be less stressful.

Back to our example

“Importance” test:

These tasks both pass the Importance test, since they are vital for the organization and for you. No doubt about it.

“Urgency” test:

This is the tricky part – which one should you tackle first?

  • Meeting with your boss at 4pm.
  • Submission of the article at 5pm.
  • You cannot postpone the promo campaign, as it has started already 2 days ago.

It means you have two hours for finishing the article and putting the promo campaign on the website. Putting the promo campaign requires 30 minutes of your time, so you actually have one and a half hours for the article. But you really need 3 hours for the article.

Well, lets think again about these tasks.

For sure, you cannot cancel the meeting with your boss, since the request came from the boss and more people are involved. This task stays on your agenda.

Can you postpone the submission of the article by a few hours? My guess is – you usually can, as 1 or 2 hours don’t make any difference for a publisher, especially when they know not everybody submits on time 🙂

Can you do the promo campaign later in the evening? You probably can. If it’s already 2 days late and the material was received later than planned, then a few more hours will probably not do any more harm than has already been done (if any).

So, you now face 2 options:

Option 1:

  • call the publisher about postponing the deadline
  • get the promo campaign on the website
  • do some work on the article
  • go to the meeting with the boss
  • finish the article

Option 2:

  • call the publisher about postponing the deadline
  • work on the article
  • go to the meeting with the boss
  • finish the article after the meeting
  • put the promo campaign on the website

It all depends on the new postponed deadline for the article.

I would personally go for Option 2 and find somebody to delegate putting the promo campaign on the website, since you don’t know how long the meeting with your boss will last. If you do not have anybody to delegate to, it can be done later in the evening anyway.

If the publisher will not postpone the deadline, you have a tough, but still manageable choice – you might work on the article, cutting some of the parts to shorten the time but providing the same quality OR you will need to consult with your boss to see if the meeting could be postponed 30-60 min later.

I personally believe that there is always a solution, especially if you can get other people involved in the discussion and explain your situation. People love to help, and will most likely be flexible 🙂

Looking forward to hearing what principles work for you to make a decision in a similar situation.

You might also enjoy:

The Eisenhower Matrix: How to Be More Productive at Work

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