Prioritizing: How (Not) To Drive Yourself And Your Employees Insane

A side-effect of entrepreneurship no one mentions is routinely waking up between 2am and 4am filled with ideas, excitement and anxiety. The next morning, it’s always harder to differentiate between what’s actually urgent and what’s important but not pressing.

This entrepreneurial side effect was in full force when my colleague Kate helped save me from myself. I’d flown Kate in to help me record e-courses for women on workplace negotiations (she usually works with me remotely). At first, we perfectly navigated our time, interrupting long spans of recording with yoga and banter. As I sat under hot lights, Kate made me laugh, making the process fun and the videos feel authentic. I went to sleep thrilled at what we had accomplished. 

Then, after one of my classic 2am bursts of productivity, I awoke again at 7am with the realization that while we had the equipment, we should record a preview video for my website to introduce viewers to my playful style on the homepage. Instead of reflecting on whether this Big Urgent Idea was actually urgent (or realistic, since Kate was set to fly out in a few hours), I leaned into what — in that moment — felt imperative.

In the end, not only did we miss the yoga class we planned to attend, but Kate barely made it to the airport. Given the insanity of the morning, I wasn’t exactly at my most relaxed on camera. Unsurprisingly, we won’t be using the resulting video.

This isn’t the first Big Urgent Idea to sneak up on me like this.

Driving to the airport, Kate mentioned a pattern: I have an early morning flurry of ideas, wait until a reasonable hour to text her and suddenly want to start working on a new project. Kate’s observation provided a reality check — I can’t expect to be an effective manager or business owner (or functional human) if I pull the team in a new direction after every sleepless night.

The preview video drama was the wakeup call I needed to recalibrate, so I made a fun little Urgent/Important chart to help set priorities.

Up until last week, my biggest priority was the October 20th launch of our e-course series on workplace negotiations for women, so projects that weren’t time sensitive or related to the courses were automatically on the back burner. Here are the “buckets” I used to organize:

1. Not Urgent / Important: the Pause, Lelia! Put it on the road map to do at a later date bucket

After some healthy reflection, most projects fit in this bucket. I ask myself whether this is legitimately pressing or a good idea that can wait. That preview video I crammed into Kate’s visit? Definitely should have gone here.

2. Urgent / Important: the Actually do this today-ish bucket

This bucket only includes activities that align with current goals, accelerate the business or serve an existing client. Lately, the things that were important and urgent fell into three categories for me: they supported launching e-courses; served existing clients; or pertained to time-sensitive business development.

3. Urgent / Not Important: the Intern bucket

We recently lost our fantastic college intern, so for now, when these urgent but unimportant activities pop up like whack-a–mole, I knock them out as I go.That said, when something’s time sensitive, it can feel important, so I try to do a quick gut check about the task’s actual impact. These things just need to get done, and done is better than perfect. So what if my tweet isn’t the most eloquent thing I’ve ever written?

4. Not Urgent / Not Important: the Maybe one day, but for now, don’t bother bucket

Some things just don’t make rank — they aren’t time sensitive and don’t affect our priorities. Just because a random Facebook friend suggested an article doesn’t mean I should drop what I’m doing and start reading. I’ve got a hefty “To Read” file and “Awesome Sh*t I’m Thinking About” doc where I dump questions like “Should I join XYZ professional organization?”

When it comes to new activities during times of rapid growth for my business, if it’s not a “Hell, yes!” it’s a “Hell, no.” Since client meetings had me traveling for most of the last month, differentiating between the clear “Hell, yes!” pile and the “Hell, no — at least not until after e-courses launch” pile was what helped my team and me keep our sanity.

A version of this piece was originally published by Forbes.