Skip to navigationSkip to content

The prioritization problem

Grace Danico
Grace Danico
This story was published on our The Memo from Quartz at Work newsletter, practical advice for modern workers everywhere
Published


A note from the ( 🆕 ) editor of Quartz at Work

As The Memo returns to your inbox after an August break, I’m excited to share a new format that we hope provides more depth on topics impacting today’s workplaces. As the new editor of Quartz at Work, I’m passionate about knowing the pulse of today’s workforce, leaders, and organizations and sharing that through our web coverage and weekly newsletter.

Each month we’ll examine a topic at the root of many issues plaguing organizations, leaders, and employees. We will discuss the topic in our weekly newsletter to deepen our understanding and gain skills to change. I’ve got a fantastic lineup of guest writers—leaders and innovation agents who are on the front lines changing the world of work in big and small ways.

First up for the month of September: prioritization.

As a culture and change practitioner, I’ve noticed that every company I’ve ever worked with or for has had capacity issues. Yes, every company. The lack of time often stems from taking on too much. The company declares four public goals but also works on 11 other shadow goals. The burden and capacity constraints cascade through the organization.

At a time when employee burnout is leading to resignations, reawakenings, and mindset shifts, and CEO confidence in their organization’s growth is declining, something has to change.

The Memo’s guest writer this month, Banks Benitez, brings the unique view of a founder and CEO who was forced to get better at prioritizing, while helping his company do the same. As we tackled this topic together, I asked Banks what role prioritization plays in his work:

“Effective prioritizing helps me see that not all hours and not all work is created equal, and it gives me permission to tune out busy work so I can focus on the most important work that will drive the company forward.”

This week, Banks lays out the problem many companies have with prioritization and the opportunities to handle it better. Next week, he’ll speak directly to the leaders’ responsibility for this. How employees can reclaim their time will be the focus in week three, and to wrap up the month, he will offer insights to help organizations build cultures that wisely prioritize. As always, your feedback is welcome.

Let’s get to work,

Anna Oakes


BY BANKS BENITEZBANKS IS THE FOUNDER OF SMART WORKWEEK, A COMPANY FOCUSED ON HELPING BUSINESSES TRANSITION TO THE 4-DAY WORKWEEK AND WAS THE CO-FOUNDER AND CEO OF UNCHARTED, AN ENTREPRENEURIAL ACCELERATOR.

The prioritization problem

Most organizations aren’t great at prioritizing. Most leaders aren’t either. I have no innate ability to prioritize the most important work. I’m a people-pleaser who struggles to say no. I believed hard work and long work were good, and I wasn’t even considering what smart work might be.

I did have some notion of what was important, but I could not determine what was unimportant. This was a problem.

When I stepped in to be the CEO of Uncharted, the social-impact accelerator I led between 2017 and 2022 before its acquisition by Common Future, I stacked our strategic plans with multiple priorities. Our organization ran at the fast pace of more is more. I would work late just to get the hit of productivity, with little thought given to the importance of each task on my plate.

Like many organizations, we used the pandemic to rethink how we worked as a team. We were interested in improving our organizational focus, reducing workplace stress, boosting retention, and reducing burnout. So in May 2020, we began a pilot of the four-day workweek.

Working four days instead of five served as a forcing function. It made us smarter as a team and made me smarter as a leader. I’m still not a natural prioritizer, but the constraints helped me. I realized we could reject the thinking that everything is urgent, important, and essential.

We began to view work prioritization as navigating a river upstream. When we don’t, we can feel caught up in a current of competing demands. When we prioritize well, we can chart a steady course toward what’s important.

🧗‍♀️ Priority isn’t plural

Sometime in the last century, we began to embrace the idea that multiple things could be a priority. (The word priority only became pluralized to priorities in the last 80 years.) In many workplaces, the norm is to pick up on cues that everything is a priority.

Is it any wonder that research from Microsoft shows that since the pandemic, the average workday has increased by 46 minutes and people now spend 2.5 times more time in meetings during their workday?

💪 The name of the gains

Getting better at prioritization is more of a daily and weekly fitness regimen than a one-time task. It requires apprenticing ourselves to the hard work of making hard choices. Strengthening the crucial prioritizing muscle doesn’t require moving to a four-day workweek. But it sure helped us.

My team and I got more assertive in setting priorities, and the results from our four-day workweek pilot reported no drop in bottom-line business metrics. At the same time, the mental health of our staff improved, and workplace stress decreased.

We paid our employees the same salaries as before to work four 8-hour days. Instead of telling employees to speed up, our team explored ways to get better at de-prioritizing non-essential projects so we could spend more of our 32-hour weeks on the work that drove the business forward. It wasn’t easy work, but it was critical.

Improving how we prioritize is not a panacea for all the problems within your organization. On the contrary, it will likely surface more issues and spark tough conversations in the short term. But it can be one of the best ways to improve workplaces marked by burnout, long hours, quiet quitting, and resignation trends so dramatic and widespread that they’re branded as “great.”

🛶 The course ahead

We’ll spend the next three weeks of The Memo exploring the art of prioritizing.

Week 2: How leaders can get better at prioritization for themselves and others

It won’t be easy for leaders to strengthen the team’s ability to prioritize while working to break old habits. We’ll address leaders’ unique challenges and share techniques to improve their prioritization.

Week 3: Employees can own their priorities too

As an employee, it can often feel like we have no control over our priorities. But you have more power than you think in prioritizing your work, designing your week, and gaining clarity on how others prioritize their work and yours.

Week 4: Build organizational cultures that prioritize

While we believe in the power of an individual to create change, we know the organization must support this shift with changes in mindset and process. So, in our final week, we will explore how organizations and teams, large and small, can develop a culture, a vocabulary, and a set of practices that help them prioritize better, leaving old habits behind.

If you know anyone who would benefit from strengthening the ability to prioritize in their organization, we hope you’ll consider sharing The Memo.

Further reading from Quartz at Work: The morale-boosting magic of better prioritization


Worth your time

🧠 Quartz linked the focus on priorities to the desire for ‘quiet quitting’ back in 2017 with a simple exercise to help us get clarity on what’s really most important to us.

Adam Grant’s response to the talk of ‘quiet quitting’ with one of the best quotes we’ve seen.

💻 Does Severance, Apple’s new show, have the solution for the quest for work-life balance?


You got the memo

We wish you luck and progress as you work to get better at setting priorities. Or, should we say, priority? Send any news and comments, and your thoughts on this ‘quiet quitting’ situation to aoakes@qz.com.

This week’s edition of The Memo was brought to you by Banks Benitez, Anna Oakes, and artwork by Grace Danico:

🗓️ Banks changed his brute-force leadership ways by moving his own company to a 4-day work week and now helps others do the same. With as little brute as he can muster.

🎁 Anna finds having one priority appealing and is asking our editor in chief for her early holiday present.

🤹 When asked about her priorities, Grace shared, “I juggle a full-time job, freelance, and being a parent to a toddler. It’s key that I determine what’s urgent, high priority, and low priority on a daily, short term and long term basis.” Happy juggling, Grace!

Get the most out of Quartz by becoming a member.

📬 Sign up for our weekly email on the future of work.

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.