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The Employee Playbook for Prioritizing

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

BANKS 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.

EMPLOYEES NEED MORE POWER TO PRIORITIZE

Every company I’ve worked with or in has had issues prioritizing. While that seems daunting, there is great promise in the high return on effort and impact. With minimal effort, we can achieve significant individual and collective progress. But, that progress depends on consistent, coordinated effort from all levels of the company.

While leaders have unique responsibilities and pressures in getting clear on company priorities, declaring priorities for their team, and managing individual workloads, the individual employee can also create a large amount of change with small tweaks in their approach. Our September guest writer, Banks Benitez, not only brings us his perspective as a founder and leader of a fast-growing startup but also as a habitual people-pleaser and multi-tasker.

Whether you want more capacity in your day or to increase opportunities to grow and learn, I hope you’ll pull out one idea to help you set better priorities and improve your day.

Let’s get to work,

Anna Oakes

Editor, Quartz at Work


THE EMPLOYEE PLAYBOOK FOR PRIORITIZING

BY BANKS BENITEZ

Banks 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.

🤔 GET CLARITY BY MANAGING UP

In fast-paced organizations, it can often feel like everything is urgent; everything is a priority. You’re not alone if you’ve struggled to manage all the different projects, tasks, and meetings. When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority, so it’s worth connecting with leadership to understand what the most important work is.

To understand expectations and gain your leaders’ support, try one of these scripts:

  • “Here is what’s on my plate for this week. Can you help me understand what is most important? Is there anything I can deprioritize to make sure I can complete the most important work?”
  • “I am working on several projects right now, and I want to make sure I’m spending my time effectively. Are there some projects that are more important than others? Are there projects that can be delayed to focus on the most important work this week?”

As the founder and CEO of Uncharted, I was grateful when my team would tell me when we were taking on too much or asked for help in balancing conflicting priorities. Their honesty held me accountable to identifying what was important, and it opened up a dialogue where we could discuss priorities, deadlines, and capacity constraints. When we set our sights on improving prioritization, we also took big action, like moving to a 4-day workweek, to get better at it.


⛔ HOW TO SET BETTER BOUNDARIES

We’re often afraid of setting boundaries, but when you establish them proactively and frame them around what enables you to do your best work, you will be better positioned to take control of your time.

It’s valuable to align expectations, working norms, and boundaries before a new project starts. Consider asking yourself the following questions when a new task or opportunity is assigned:

  • What clarity do I need on expectations, timelines, and responsibilities?
  • What needs, boundaries, and conditions will I need to be at my best (while also meeting my other responsibilities)? Who do I need to share these with?
  • What working norms and expectations would I like to establish with other project team members?
  • What is the time commitment needed from me?
  • What adjustments will I need to make?
  • What support and resources do I need from my leader?

Clarifying what’s important is all about understanding tradeoffs: when you say yes to something, you likely have to say no to something else (which could simply be saying no to your free time). When getting your leader’s input on balancing competing projects and priorities, you raise their awareness of the often unspoken tradeoffs and motivate them to change their behavior as well.

For example, you might say: “I understand that our project deadline is two weeks from Friday. I am 100% focused on this project on Mondays and Wednesdays but committed to other projects the rest of the week. Given my availability, what is the best cadence for collaboration and communication to hit our deadline?”


⚔️ COMPETING PRIORITIES AND LEAVING WORK UNDONE

If you’re a perfectionist like me who loves to cross things off your to-do list, it’s almost painful to leave things undone. Intentionally not completing work can feel quite uncomfortable. Despite making progress on large projects and prioritizing my time, I often felt unsatisfied because my inbox was full, and there were dozens of small things I hadn’t checked off my to-do list. It still felt like I hadn’t been productive despite everything I had finished.

Yet, I reminded myself that their urgency is not mine, not every email deserves a long reply (or even a reply at all), and not every small task is necessary to reach my key milestones.

Understanding the relationship between effort invested and results produced will increase your comfort with work undone. If you have read the cliff notes of a book in college instead of reading the full text (while still acing the exam), you recognize that some effort is more valuable than others. The same is true in the workplace.

After being trained to multitask and get it all done, it can be uncomfortable to feel like you are dropping balls. I’ve found success in focusing just on my email. Reaching inbox zero might feel like a productive day, but won’t move big initiatives forward.

To experiment with right-sizing your effort on certain tasks, reflect on the following:

  • What task or work have I been doing that no one would miss if I stopped doing it?
  • What work am I doing that seems necessary to reach the desired goal, but isn’t a critical intermediate step?














🧭 5 PROMPTS TO OWN YOUR CAREER PATH AND GROWTH

In growing organizations, there are numerous ways that capable employees can bring value. With a focus on company culture, it’s easy to get involved in everything and say yes to every new project that’s offered. It’s tempting to be seen as the one who gets things done and always steps up. I used to pride myself on wanting to say yes and doing whatever it takes to contribute. However, I realized that working long hours was often more a function of what I volunteered to do as opposed to what I was held accountable to accomplish. If you aren’t clear on which opportunities are most important to you, you might find yourself saying yes to projects that add work to your plate but aren’t valuable to you in the long-term.

Consider the following prompts to help you get clear on what opportunities you want to reserve space for:

  • What skills or behaviors would I like to gain or strengthen over the next 12 months? Over the next 24 - 36 months? Why are these important?
  • With those in mind, what types of experiences, exposure, or education should I say yes to?
  • What types of projects and opportunities might come along that fall outside of these goals? How will I handle those opportunities? What will help me stay focused on the skills and behaviors that I defined as priorities?
  • What support and resources will I need from my leader? Others? How will I communicate this to them?
  • How will I track my day-to-day priorities and these development goals to stay on track?

🔔 DEEP WORK MINUS DISTRACTIONS

Modern workplace technologies can streamline collaboration for remote teams. Still, they can also distract us with constant notifications, preventing us from getting into the deep flow state needed to truly focus. So it’s worth considering how our technology might be in the way. How are notifications and constant pings keeping you from your most important work? What behaviors or habits do I need to instill to allow me more focused work time during the week?

Here are two of my favorite habits to stay focused:

  • Turn off notifications for emails and other internal messages, and establish 2-3 dedicated times to check your messages throughout the day. Knowing you have preset times to tackle email will give you the peace of mind to work on other things and avoid the temptation to reply to an email immediately.
  • Establish deep work zones throughout the week where you turn off notifications for 1-2 hours, put up an away message, and focus on achieving a specific, measurable goal with that block of time. One variation of this is the Pomodoro Technique, where you set a timer for 25 minutes and define a goal to achieve within that block of time, punctuating 25-minute sprints with 5-10 minute breaks.

When we transitioned to a 4-day workweek at Uncharted, we set team-wide deep work zones on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. We agreed to no Slack notifications or internal distractions so that we were simultaneously heads-down. It was tempting to schedule external calls during these windows, but we got better and better at keeping this time sacred. The power of aligning deep work time across an entire team is in how it creates an organization-wide norm, making it easier for individuals to avoid distractions.

Prioritizing is a very personal process dependent on the individual, those you work with, and the environment. Some methods and tools work in some circumstances, while others don’t. Given there are no grand, unifying best practices, it’s best to approach this as an experiment. Recognize your power to shape your work and time while you reflect, test, adjust, and repeat.


👀 Environment matters

In next week’s The Memo, we’ll focus on the company’s responsibility to create the environment where prioritization can thrive. To see last week’s email about the unique challenges of prioritizing as a leader, click here.


🔗 Join us: Workplace technology is advancing. Are companies keeping up?

From the rise of remote work to demands for innovative, user-friendly systems, the tech needs of the workforce are quickly evolving. The tools to move businesses forward are advancing to meet these challenges—but many companies aren’t keeping up. Join us for an expert panel to discuss the needs of today’s workplaces, and strategies to align the operating systems of your company with the tools that can make a difference.

Friday, September 30, 12 pm-1 pm EDT / 5 pm-6 pm BST

Speakers:

  • Larry Gadea, founder and CEO, Envoy
  • Sophie Ruddock, vice president and general manager, Multiverse
  • Stephanie Hallford, vice president and general manager, Business Client Platforms at Intel (event sponsor)
  • More speakers coming soon!

Moderator:


💌 YOU GOT THE MEMO

🍀 September’s four-part series on prioritization comes to a close next week with a focus on what companies need to shift in order to provide the environment where priorities can thrive. If you’ve got questions, we’ve got answers.

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

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