Someone asked me this once, and it forced me to stop and think hard about the answer. I always considered myself a great multi-tasker and someone who was able to manage a ton of things at the same time. I assumed that my awesome multi-tasking skills meant that I had also had awesome prioritization skills. But was I actually prioritizing or was I just spinning in circles trying to get everything crossed off my list?
We’ve all been there- juggling way too many responsibilities and trying to make everything happen. At the same time we’re stressed out and burning the candle at both ends, we’re putting on a front like everything is fine and coming together just as expected.
But when the crap hits the fan, that’s when we really start to understand what matters, and what we really care about putting back together. What do you instinctively want to fix? What is the most important thing to spend time on right now? When things start falling apart, we are forced through necessity to start prioritizing.
Note that I didn’t say balance. Balance is a word I don’t like, because it implies equal and even distribution of your time. That’s not what prioritizing is trying to achieve. Prioritization is about understanding the importance and value of what you are doing and distributing your time accordingly.
If you are in school and your class load is intense, think about which classes are most important to succeed in right now. Do you have a paper or project due soon in a class that will require more attention than others? Then that class is the first priority. You will likely need to spend more time on that class than the others for that week or two. Think about your commitments outside of school. You might ask to take a couple days off at your internship so you can focus on your schoolwork during midterms week (of course with advanced notice!). School is your first priority.
For those of us who are working and balancing work and personal life, it’s still just as important to understand what is priority. First week of school for your kids? Work might take a back seat while you get them settled into their new routine. Big project for work coming up? You may reschedule a family dinner or zoom call with a friend until you get through that next week or two of work.
The point is, you are going to have to put something down. You can’t constantly juggle everything. And what you put down is your decision - no one can make it for you and there’s no right or wrong answer. One week your family may be the first priority, and everything else might take a back seat. Other weeks you may have to be work focused or school focused. That’s ok.
Instead of waiting for a crisis situation and things to fall apart, you can start to think now about what you prioritize. Think about all the responsibilities you have in your life right now. Why are you involved in them, why do they matter? With your family and friends, the answer is obvious. But be specific.
Is it more important to jump on a zoom call with your friends or to study for your test this week? Is it more important to show up at family dinner or go to another networking event? Depending on the week and the day, those answers can (and should) change.
Prioritization is a skill that can take years to master. But the most important step is understanding that your time and energy is not infinite. It’s limited, so make sure you prioritize how you spend it.