Welcome back to the Positively Living Podcast. I’m your host Lisa, and I’m excited to dig into today’s topic because it has come up–no exaggeration–with every single one of my clients. It’s also been part of nearly every productivity conversation I’ve ever had. It’s one that resonates so much and connects to so many aspects of being productive that I had to cover it.

So let me ask you…Have you ever felt like everything in your life is urgent? Do you feel like the majority of your energy goes to putting out fires everywhere? Does life feel more reactive than proactive? That’s one of the most common reasons my clients come to work with me and if you feel this way, know that you are not alone. 

In this post, you’ll learn: 

  • The top three common issues when struggling to prioritize
  • Two reasons why you might leave the prioritizing to someone else
  • Prioritization techniques to consider, including one of my favorites
  • How to own your choices, no matter the outcome

Life has a way of pushing you around, especially when you aren’t clear on what you are trying to accomplish or how you’re meant to work. Prioritizing changes that, but it requires making choices, and for many reasons, we may struggle with that. 

Please note: I haven’t addressed scenarios where you work for someone who sets priorities. This is intended more for those who work for themselves, but the questions and principles can still be applied.

When Everything is a Priority, Nothing is

The fact is, when everything’s a priority, nothing’s a priority.

Today, let’s talk about why this happens and how to step out of urgency and into intentional choices that allow you to function your best on YOUR terms.

Because this topic connects to tasks, boundaries, and procrastination, I recommend listening to the following episodes to complement this one:

Episode 107 Five Ways to Make Procrastination Work for You

Episode 69 Tackle Your ToDo List in Four Simple Steps

Episode 66 How to Trust Your Gut to Make the Right Choice with Gwen Austin

Episode 53 Am I Codependent with Mallory Jackson

I have a future episode on boundaries in the works, but in the meantime, I want you to think about it this way: You have a choice to make based on a variety of factors. Use what you know and make that choice confidently. Then protect it. 

Easier said than done, I know, but that’s the crux of prioritizing.

Have you ever heard the Jerry Seinfeld schtick on taking and holding a reservation? That holding part is key! So let’s talk about where things go off the rails when it comes to prioritizing.

Top Three Common Issues when Struggling to Prioritize

Keeping it real, you likely already know the answer though it may be hard to admit. As we go through these scenarios, I want to stay curious and keep the judgment out of it. We all do these. It’s a matter of discovering WHY and moving past it that will change your prioritizing game.

Here are three common scenarios I see in my clients:

Scenario 1. You don’t have a plan. 

Prioritizing? We don’t need any stinking prioritizing! Let’s go with the flow. The fires tell me my path! 


So, how’s that working out for you? 

One of the first and most common mistakes when it comes to prioritizing is not even trying. You may have gotten into the habit of working with urgency. But remember, just because it feels like the norm doesn’t mean it’s meant to be your reality.

The fact is, it needs to be part of your tasks, in its own meta way, because prioritizing and constant RE-prioritizing are an essential part of being productive. 

Scenario 2. You try, but it’s overwhelming. 

You have too much to choose from, which means you have a list that is essentially mental clutter. And what does clutter do? We’ve talked about this in so many episodes. It creates distractions, demands your attention because it’s an attention hog, and encourages you to go find something else to do that’s much fun (procrastination time). 

Too many things to prioritize is a numbers game gone wrong. It causes decision fatigue when you have to sort through SO many options, and it only gets worse every time one is added. Just as organizing is easier with fewer things, so too is prioritizing. You can focus and choose much easier when you have a few items to sort than when you are inundated. What can you remove from your list today? (This is the first D–declutter/delete–in the 4D system to tackle your to-do list that you’ll hear in episode 69.)

Scenario 3. You leave it to someone else. 

We just discussed how overwhelming prioritizing can be, especially when you have so much to do. So why wouldn’t you want to defer these choices if someone else is willing to take them on? I believe it runs deeper than that, actually. Not only do weariness and overwhelm play a role but so might your tendencies and mindset. 

Two Reasons You Might Leave Prioritizing to Someone Else

In addition to allowing others to prioritize because it feels easier, you may also do so for these two reasons:

You’re a people pleaser. You want to be liked and “plays well with others” has ended up on report cards and annual evaluations for as long as you can remember. You’re a team player and often an Obliger. You want to help. And you’re happy to defer.

While there is nothing wrong with deferring in general, please keep in mind there’s a difference between being at peace because you know when to pick your battles and help others and being a doormat such that you don’t have a say in what’s important to you.

You defer too much to others because you don’t trust yourself. Ouch, right? Do you find yourself saying, “what if I choose wrong”? You don’t want to be the one to choose because this way you can’t choose wrong. Right?

While that might feel logical and safe, it is fraught with inaccuracies. 

First of all, if it’s your priority, how is it wrong? It might be perceived that way by someone who wanted you to prioritize them or their tasks but more often than not.  But your choice will work, in large part due to your confidence. If circumstances change, you can course correct and even pause and shift a task if necessary. Approaching it as your choice helps.

Scenario 4. You do prioritize. 

You lay out your options and place them in order fairly well. But don’t fight for your choices. 

This could very well be Scenario 3b because they are very connected. Not protecting your choice is a boundary issue. You know what you need to do and in what order, but you aren’t protecting the space and the right to do it. Ask yourself why? Does it go back to the issues of not trusting yourself or the desire to please? Is it a misplaced sense of urgency?

That’s the perfect segue into the idea of urgency and how we can make informed choices.

Prioritization Techniques To Consider

If you’ve struggled to shake the feeling that everything is a priority, you’ve probably researched prioritization techniques. But I wanted to talk about the underlying issues first. There are many of them, such as

The Eisenhower Matrix is one you probably know, even if you don’t know the name. The matrix is also known as The Eisenhower Method and The Urgent-Important Matrix. It’s a quadrant-based method of looking at your time and effort strategically based on combinations of urgency and importance. 

I like that it gets specific about the ideas of urgency and importance; because, although it may feel like everything is urgent when you start comparing things, you realize they are not equal.

In this system, there are four combinations: 

Urgent & Important

Not Urgent & Important

Urgent & Not Important

Not Urgent & Not Important

Let’s quickly define these: 

Important is indicative of significant worth or consequence. Urgent is calling for immediate action. 

You can see right away, I bet, that there are things on your list that the world would have you view as urgent that do NOT, in fact, require immediate action. You may also see quickly what is of great worth and consequence too.

Source: Asana

Stephen Covey, who wrote Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, mentions this matrix in Habit 3 specifically, which is prioritizing the important over the urgent. 

His recommendations are as follows:

Urgent & Important: These are your highest priorities. They demand that you act quickly.

Not Urgent & Important: These tasks have a much greater impact on helping you achieve your long-term goals. It’s a  sweet spot where you’re proactive and making time for meaningful work.

Urgent & Not Important: These are the daily fires that suck your focus, energy, and time. (These are prime candidates for delegation or delay – especially when someone else has imposed that urgency on you. This is probably the place you live the most and the place we need to get you out of.)

Not Urgent & Not Important: These tasks shouldn’t be on your to-do list right now. Get rid of them! (Again, that’s the first “D” in the Tackle Your Todo List episode.)

Any of the traditional prioritization techniques can work if you have figured out the root cause of your resistance to prioritizing and your preferred way to choose how to spend your time. It’s not about the technique; it’s about making a choice. 

When we don’t make a choice, the choice will be made for us. No matter the outcome, be sure to choose on your own terms. 

I will add that there is a distinction between choosing on your own terms and choosing on your own. It can be helpful to have a sounding board and an advisor, provided that person has your best interests in mind and understands how you work best. If you have someone in your life who can do that, wonderful! 

If you are searching, may I encourage you to message me so we can chat. I can quickly assess where you are in the process and what next steps might be helpful to take. Plus, I’d love to learn more about you! Go to http://www.positivelyproductive.com/call to book a time that works for you. I look forward to hearing from you.

Additional Resources and References

How To Prioritize What Really Matters In Your Life (forbes.com)

How to Prioritize When Everything Feels Important (zapier.com)

How to prioritize work when everything’s important (wework.com)

What To Do When Everything Is Urgent | TrueveLab (drdarria.com)

The Problem With an Always Urgent Workplace Culture | By Gustavo Razzetti (fearlessculture.design)

Where To Start When Everything Feels Urgent | Learning Forward

When everything that isn’t urgent feels urgent. (themindsjournal.com)