You can't have more than one top priority. You just can't.
Deciding to prioritize one thing means, by definition, deciding not to prioritize something else. This is as self-evident as it is easy to ignore—which is why it's important to be intentional about it. The alternative is trying to do everything, which defeats the whole purpose of setting priorities.
You can't dedicate forty hours to five different projects next week—at least, not without some kind of Hermione Granger-type time travel. We all know this, in the abstract, but fail to keep it in mind while planning. It's easy to make every project the top priority, but that actually means that we have no priorities.
I've been burnt out enough—and confused by time travel plots enough—to know what that leads to: getting nothing done. That's why it's a good idea to be explicit about which projects aren't a priority, not just which ones are.
Take a look at what the Zapier Learning and Development team has to say about how to build and strengthen prioritization muscles.
A weekly list of deprioritized projects
We've been thinking a lot about priorities at Zapier this year. Everyone here writes a weekly Friday update, which until recently was more-or-less a weekly list of completed tasks. That approach lacked focus, so we changed things up: now everyone outlines what their top priority was in the past week and what their top priority will be in the week to come. This exercise forces us to think about which project is most important and commit to making progress on it.
But, like I said, there's a flip side to deciding on a priority, and that's deciding what's not a priority. Michael Shen, Director of Advertising and Paid Media here at Zapier, decided to make this explicit every week. In a recent Friday update, he wrote:
We have resultslogs, changelogs, and researchlogs: we don't really have deprioritized-logs; didn't-get-to-it-logs; something-came-up-logs. To combat this, I'm taking time in each Friday update for the foreseeable future to talk about a few things that I didn't get to.
And so he has, using his weekly update to catalog not only the things he prioritized, but also the things he intentionally didn't prioritize.
"Deprioritization is normal, but we don't yet do a great job of it at Zapier," Michael told me, adding that making this change has given him both clarity and balance. "Since making this change, my work-life balance has been so good that I feel pretty guilty about it."
He shouldn't feel bad—he set a priority and stuck to it. For Steph Donily, Head of Content and Communications at Zapier, publicly admitting to deprioritizing projects is, in part, about setting a good example when it comes to work-life balance.
"It's not comfortable admitting that I can't do everything myself," said Steph. "But I have to deprioritize projects because I want to make it clear that it's ok for my team to do the same thing."
It's important to note that deprioritizing something doesn't mean not doing it—it means not doing it now. Both Steph and Michael are explicit about this in their updates, stating that these are projects they will get to eventually. They just weren't the most important thing to invest time in at the moment.
Decide how you will, and won't, invest your time
You only have so many hours in a week, so make sure you're using them for the things that matter most right now. Pick one priority every week and stick to it.
You might be able to finish five projects next week. That doesn't mean all five projects are your top priority. Prioritization is about figuring out which things you will invest your time in, in the short term. Deprioritization is about figuring out which things you need to put off until later.
Prioritizing one project means deprioritizing something else. That's just how it is. You can ignore this reality, or you can be intentional about addressing it.