Urgent Priorities and Working Styles

I sat down at my desk this morning with a number of projects to work on, all of which had equal priority.  Then an email came in which had equal priority with the other tasks.  I teach time and priorities management, so this article is partly about the objective strategies I teach, but I realised that my working style was influencing my decisions so that I wasn’t being objective.  By working style, I am referring to the impact on work practice of the “driver behaviours” described by psychologist, Eric Berne. 


Berne said that we make decisions early on in our lives about what we need to do to be safe and loved.  We make these decisions out of awareness, or sub-consciously, and they are based on the limited view of the world that we have as children.   They all have their strengths, but they are called “drivers” because they influence us out of our awareness, pushing us to do something in a way that feels “natural” or “necessary”, but which doesn’t represent a considered and balanced choice.   For that we need to be aware of our drivers and be assertive with ourselves about their influence.  Drivers are more likely to affect us when we feel under pressure.


There are five drivers and Berne said that we were likely to have two which played a stronger role than others, although we may recognise the influence of all five at some time.    Here’s a brief description of all five and how they might influence your prioritising decisions followed by some other strategies which might help when you’ve got some objectiveness back!


Be Perfect.  “You’re only OK if you get everything right.”  This is characterised by a need to do things the “right” way and not let anything be left undone.  It’s my strongest driver and its strength lies in accuracy and conscientiousness, but, this morning, it was making it difficult for me to decide the priorities because each one seemed to need “mulling over”, to make sure I would have done it right, not missed anything out.  It can also encourage the doing of small, less important items, because you can feel the satisfaction that you’re more likely to have  done them “right”.  The antidote to the effects of this driver is to tell yourself that “You’re good enough” and I realised that on my first task I could do a perfectly good enough job and get it done quickly as well.


Please Others.  “You’re only OK if you please people.”  If you are influenced by this, you have the strength of being thoughtful about others’ needs, but where there are equal priorities, you may highlight the ones which meet others’ needs over your own.  The antidote is to tell yourself that “It’s OK to get your own needs met”, and learn to say “No” to other people’s emergencies which, when you talk to them, may be more flexible after all. 


Be Strong.  “You’re only OK if you hide your feelings and wants”.  If this is a strong one for you, you probably keep going long after others and long after it’s good for you, and you may persist longer with a problem because of your principle of doing things by yourself.  It may be that you will get things done quicker or more easily if you tell yourself that “It’s OK to ask for help”.  You don’t have to be an island.  That other viewpoint, or extra piece of information may be just what you need to zip through that task.

Try Hard.  “You’re only OK if you keep trying hard at things”.  If this is one of yours, you may start lots of different things, and pursue lots of ideas at once, but have great difficulty finishing any of them.  Then your list of equal priorities can become very long.  You’re persistent but you need to make some decisions about which things you are going to do and then be tough with yourself about finishing them.  I had to do this to come up with the relatively short list of equal priorities I started with!   Tell yourself “It’s OK to do it” and then set yourself a timetable for getting that job finished.  Avoid going off at tangents as there will be many which present themselves.


Hurry Up!  “You’re only OK if you do everything right now”.   In many cases this gives people the virtue of speediness, but with equal priorities, you’re left in a paralysis of indecision or in a whirlwind of multi-tasking.  Tell yourself “It’s OK to take your time”.  OK, I know you can’t always take that literally, but it means that you can apply some objective criteria to what needs to be done first.  Some of these are the strategies I used today and I advise people to consider.


Prioritising Strategies

Which task will provide leverage by allowing others to move forward?  Doing that will mean you are making life more productive all round and will get the benefits yourself.


Which task is most time sensitive? – That is, which will have the most difficult repercussions if you don’t get it done pretty quickly?  (And if you’re a Please People person, I don’t mean just that others will be put out).   Perhaps you need to take account of other people’s availability to complete the task, or losing a discount, or missing a regular slot or an advantageous meeting opportunity.


Which is highest value?  Which of your job outcomes is most important to the role you have and which task has the highest value in terms of that outcome?  So, if your most important outcome is to finish the project, then prioritise the task that will go furthest towards fulfilling that.  Or, which tasks will have the most impact on your other tasks?


Another strategy I like is one I call the Mark Forster strategy because it comes from the work of the Time Coach Mark Forster (www.markforster.net).  It involves making a short list of the types of work you need to do, e.g.

  • Answer e-mails
  • Prepare for meeting
  • Project X
  • Project Y

You then work down your list with the help of a kitchen timer, doing 20 minutes on each and moving on when the timer goes off, until you’ve either had enough (about half a day, I find), or you need to go to a meeting.  New items which arrive go into the categories and have to take their turn there.


Lastly, another Mark Forster strategy is to do the thing you’re avoiding, instead of getting stuck into the one you want to do most.  It is probably the most important, will not be nearly as bad when you start, and you’ll feel great when you’ve finished.  Especially if you’re a Be Perfect or a Try Hard!

Valerie Fawcett

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