Balancing Priorities When It Seems Impossible

An array of planning tools and worksheets sit on a desk next to a pencil and a wooden cup with paper clips in it.

What’s the difference between urgent and important? 

When you have multiple irons in the fire, that can be a difficult question to answer. Everything is significant, but there are only so many hours in the day. Balancing priorities is a crucial part to productivity and success. When we try to do everything at once, we don’t tend to do any task very well. 

There’s a reason for that.

The human brain actually isn’t meant for multitasking. It’s an evolutionary trait that actually makes us quite smart, researchers say. Instead of doing many things at once, we’re able to switch between tasks more quickly. 

That makes the skill of balancing priorities one that’s important to master, whether it’s balancing time between work and a passion project, or balancing priorities that are important to you with priorities that are important to other people.

We can't do it all. Instead, we have to figure out how to switch mindfully between everything we have on our plates.

Flexibility and patience are part of the recipe. So are planning and strategic thinking. We have a lot of input competing for our attention these days.

It’s a process that starts with one big question: what are your priorities?

What are your priorities?

The best place to start is by making a list. Writing out your priorities will help you figure out exactly what you need to do, by forcing you to put everything into words. This can provide a lot more clarity than you might think.

There’s a famous example of this exercise from billionaire Warren Buffet -- and though Buffet later said it is apocryphal, the lesson is still extremely valuable. 

In the story, Buffet reportedly once advised his personal pilot, who wanted to know how to narrow his career priorities, to make a list of 25 goals. Then, he said his pilot should circle the top five goals. 

Everything that wasn’t circled, all 20 remaining goals, should be avoided completely, Buffet is said to have told the pilot. Those goals that didn’t rise to the top are simply distracting, diminishing success of the top priorities. 

Whether Buffet actually had the pilot make this priority list or not, the story does highlight one important thing: focus is essential to success.

Making a big list of all your priorities helps you to see them for what they are: the important and the not-so-important. 

Just gauging where your priorities are is an important first step in achieving balance. It’s easy for everything to feel important when it’s all in your head, so getting it out on paper can help you to see which goals are critical and which ones are just “nice-to-haves” that could end up being distractions from the important things.

Making a comprehensive list also allows you to identify what kinds of priorities you have. Health coach Micah McGuire describes two types of priorities that we often are trying to balance: project priorities and habit priorities.

  • Project priorities are the big things. These often take up more time, require more resources, and needs lots of planning. Think of these as special occasion priorities.
  • Habit priorities are the more consistent. You probably tend to these on a daily or weekly basis. You don’t need a lot of time to get these priorities done. 

In life, you need a mix of both kinds of priorities. Your habit priorities will build up into your project priorities over time, so you can’t only think big picture. Setting smaller goals will help you move effectively towards achieving bigger goals.

A good place to analyze your priorities, whether they occur just one time or each week, is in your schedule. First, look at the last few months in your planner or calendar. Ask yourself: 

  • How did I feel about what I have achieved recently? 
  • What is my stress level like? 
  • What has felt balanced? What didn’t?
  • Were there tasks that I made a priority that maybe didn’t need to be?
  • How susceptible to outside input/pressure are my priorities?

Looking back can give us such a clear picture of how we should move forward.

The Ink+Volt Priority Pad is another great place to start if you’re feeling overwhelmed by all of the jobs you’ve taken on.

This pad helps you slot all of your to-do’s for the day or the week into “priority” categories. What’s the most important thing today? What is urgent? What can be put off until tomorrow or later in the week if need be? 

Once you have a clear outline of your priorities, you can start to schedule your week in a smart way, where the most important work gets the space that it needs.

Your time is valuable, treat it that way

If time wasn’t so limited, perhaps balancing priorities wouldn’t be a necessity. Time is the most important currency we have, so we’re told to use it wisely. That’s why looking at our schedules helps.

When balancing daily priorities consider how to use time efficiently. Can you lump similar tasks together? Is there a more organized way you could be getting things done? 

For example, try scheduling all your meetings for one day of the week, so that you’re not being pulled out of your focused work time during the rest of the week. 

Or try utilizing time blocking or improving your inbox organization. Those are small things that, in the end, help us balance our priorities, or at least begin to think about our priorities in a more aligned way. 

Be flexible but focused

Priorities are constantly changing, especially at work, where changes in direction can come without warning from management. What is a priority right now maybe wasn’t a priority last week, and it may change even tomorrow. That’s okay! Flexibility is key to maneuvering through work a lot of the time. 

When life throws a curveball or your boss asks a favor last minute, your priorities may need to bend a little. This is where having a concrete list or organization system for your priorities becomes extremely useful -- you can simply refer to your Ink+Volt Priority Pad and see what priorities are flexible and which ones are not. This is how you create space without sacrificing your most important work.

In the end, balancing priorities is something that changes constantly. It won’t look the same all of the time, but that’s just life. All you have to do is get clear on the work that matters most, and create space for it, without overbooking yourself to the point of burnout or inflexibility.

You cannot do it all, but you can achieve your biggest goals with clarity and a little smart planning.

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