A coaching client of mine is managing partner at a very large law firm, and one of the issues we’ve been working on is how to cope more effectively with the intense demands on his time—clients who expect him to be available, firm partners and other employees who want him to address their concerns and resolve disputes, an inbox overflowing with messages from these same (and still other!) people, and an endless to-do list. Compounding this challenge, of course, is the importance of making time for loved ones and friends, exercise, and other personal needs.
When faced with potentially overwhelming demands on our time, we’re often advised to “Prioritize!” as if that’s some sort of spell that will magically solve the problem. But what I’ve learned in the process of helping people cope with and manage their workflow is that prioritizing accomplishes relatively little, in part because it’s so easy to do. Let’s define the term: 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. While this involves the occasionally difficult judgment call, for the most part it’s a straightforward cognitive task. When looking at a meeting request, a to-do list, or an email we have an intuitive sense of how important it is, and we can readily compare these items and rank-order them.
Here’s the problem. After we prioritize, we act as though everything merits our time and attention, and we’ll get to the less-important items “later.” But later never really arrives. The list remains without end.
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 inboxes are never empty.
What trips up so many of us is imagining that we can keep lowering that threshold—by working harder, longer, “smarter” (whatever that really means) in the futile hope that eventually, someday, we’ll get to the bottom of that list.
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.
The first step is to reframe the issue. Viewing a full inbox, unfinished to-do lists, and a line of disappointed people at the door as a sign of our failure is profoundly unhelpful. This perspective may motivate us to work harder in the hopes of someday achieving victory, but this is futile. We will never win these battles, not in any meaningful sense, because at a certain point in our careers the potential demands facing us will always outstrip our capacity, no matter how much effort we dedicate to work. So the inbox, the list, the line at the door are in fact signs of success, evidence that people want our time and attention. And ultimate victory lies not in winning tactical battles but in winning the war: Not an empty inbox, but an inbox emptied of all truly important messages. Not a completed to-do list, but a list with all truly important items scratched off. Not the absence of a line at our door, but a line with no truly important people remaining in it.
The next step is to stop using the wrong tools. We expend vast amounts of energy on “time management” and “personal productivity,” and while these efforts can yield results at the tactical level, they’re futile when it comes to the strategic task of triage. Remember: this is not about making a list but deciding where the cut-off point is and sticking to it.
Finally, we need to address the emotional aspect of triage, because it’s not merely a cognitive process.
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.
This process may well be occurring right now. A moment ago when you read the phrase, “no truly important people,” above, you probably flinched a little and thought it was somewhat callous. I flinch when I read it, too, and I wrote it! But this understandable response is exactly why we devote time and attention to people who don’t truly merit the investment. There’s a fine line between effective triage and being an asshole, and many of us are so worried about crossing that line that we don’t even get close.
To triage effectively we need to enhance our ability to manage these concerns and other, related emotions (and “manage” does not mean “suppress”). As USC neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has written (and as everyone’s surely experienced first-hand), 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.
Improved emotion management is a complex undertaking, but there are a number of steps we can take that help:
- Adjust our mental models to reflect emotions’ importance and the role they play in rational thought and decision-making. Our beliefs shape our experience.
- Take better care of ourselves physically. Regular exercise and sufficient sleep demonstrably improve our ability to both perceive and regulate emotion.
- Engage in some form of mindfulness routine. Meditation, journaling and other reflective practices enhance our ability to direct our thoughts, helping us sense emotion more acutely, and provide a new perspective on our experiences, helping us make sense of those emotions.
- Expand our emotional vocabulary—literally. Having a wider range of words to describe what we’re feeling not only helps us communicate better with others, but also helps us to more accurately understand ourselves.
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.”
Ed Batista (@edbatista) is an executive coach and an Instructor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He writes regularly on issues related to coaching and professional development atedbatista.com, he contributed to the HBR Guide to Coaching Your Employees, and is currently writing a book on self-coaching for HBR Press.