Too Many Priorities

By | September 5, 2018

[September 5, 2018]  In my U.S. Army career, I had two commanders who were both smart and dedicated … yet each had a similar weakness.  Like every high-level commander, they ran large and complex organizations where they listed important priorities.  The problem was these two had too many priorities.

“The bottom line is, when people are crystal clear about the most important priorities of the organization and team they work with and prioritized their work around those top priorities, not only are they many times more productive, they discover they have the time they need to have a whole life.” – Stephen Covey, American educator and businessman

We’ve all heard the saying, “If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.”  I’ve been around many leaders who gave me a list of 7 to 15 priorities they wanted to be done (and wanted done “yesterday”).  Heard this before?  Yes, of course you have.  Anyone trying to figure out this long list is bound to get tangled up and confused over what is most important for the boss.

Too many priorities are like having too many toys as a kid.  You loved them all but could never play with all of them at the same time.  Not unlike you as a child, as an adult, you can only do so much with what you have to work (play) with.  That means you should concentrate on what is most important to you and your organization.

Neither of these two commanders was very successful.  They muddled through their two-year tenure and accomplished some important goals but it was not without considerable angst.  Their staffs were always overworked, their soldiers often idle, and civilian contractors happy to get paid for extra work.  Both units were known for their inefficiency, slow decision-making, and backtracking once a decision was made.

Too many priorities are simply unworkable.  Narrow it down to five or less.  No matter what you do, once you get more than this, problems about what’s really important is subject to debate and confusion.  Personally, as a commander, I only listed two priorities; (a) taking care of soldiers and (b) good-quality training.  This worked great and everyone understood where I was coming from all the time.

Please take it from someone who learned about establishing priorities the hard way (being on the receiving end of too many priorities), set your priorities only about what’s really important and don’t have too many.

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Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

20 thoughts on “Too Many Priorities

  1. Greg Heyman

    Great topic today, thanks. I love it whenever I reach a point that a good article will make me smile as this one did. Looking back I too made this mistake and saw in throughout my career. Good article.

    Reply
  2. Ronny Fisher

    Nothing like a good cup of coffee and a good read to start my day. Thanks Gen. Satterfield for keeping us in the “leadership loop.”

    Reply
    1. Ronny Fisher

      … and a good dog like my German Shephard. He has only food, sleep, and me as his priorities.

      Reply
  3. Dale Paul Fox

    Common problem, easy solution. Don’t have too many priorities and your life will be better in so many ways. The biggest problem is the unintended consequences of this common leader issue. Things pop up all the time that have to be dealt with right away. If you have too many priorities, you will not know where to start. Thanks.

    Reply
  4. Martin Shiell

    Not that long ago I had this problem not understanding the importance of having only a small number of priorities. It doesn’t mean other things are unimportant but they just don’t rise to the same level of effort.

    Reply
  5. Drew Dill

    At work or in the family, this idea applies. Best to talk through priorities also and why they are important and why and who they tie in with each other. Thanks for a worthwhile blog post to help us be better leaders.

    Reply
  6. Andrew Dooley

    It really doesn’t take much to screw things up as a leader and having too many priorities only leads to confusion and ultimately to failure. I’ve seen it in many of my bosses. One time I even told my new boss, a young woman, that perhaps she needed to rethink her priorities as some of them were clearly not important. She was quick to respond that everything was important and thus we had to do everything at maximum effort. She didn’t last long.

    Reply
    1. Maureen S. Sullivan

      So true. I wish more people would read about and apply what they learn from reading and practicing basic simple leadership skills. We would all be better off.

      Reply
  7. Danny Burkholder

    A problem that occurs more than we would think. Keep the great articles coming our way.

    Reply
  8. Doug Smith

    When I was a team leader in business just starting out, I told my team about all my priorities. It must have been 10 or 11 (can’t remember exactly). But that is the point being made here. Too many priorities, like in my case, means people cannot put their best effort into all of them. This creates unexpected problems especially when resources get tight or there is an emergency or disaster. Good article today, Gen. Satterfield. Thanks.

    Reply
    1. Janna Faulkner

      Good story Doug. I did the same thing. Good thing I had a great mentor who took me to the side and explained this.

      Reply
    2. Nick Lighthouse

      Same here. I’m happy I had the fortune to have good people working with me.

      Reply
  9. Georgie M.

    Great article. I hope people read and pay attention to this common problem among leaders.

    Reply
  10. Army Captain

    Wow, spot on with this article today. Leaders often confuse things by having far too many ‘priorities.’

    Reply

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