Stressed. Overwhelmed. Multitasking. Too busy. These are all words you either hear on a regular basis from your co-workers, bosses, and friends, or are words that you find yourself using all too often. I’m sure you’ve read article after article about how society as a whole is in a “go, go, go” mindset more and more each year, taking on everything at once, while also reading articles about how no one can truly multitask successfully. Let’s face it, even when you think you’ve got your workload under control, we all know a wrench can be thrown in at any time, forcing us to reprioritize our tasks and then those all too familiar words start to pop up.
Through this article we’ll walk through the principle of Prioritize & Execute, one of the top four lessons from Extreme Ownership that we utilize as an agency, and provide an action plan to help you take control of both your current workload and future workload.
Prioritize & Execute
Both in the book and in agency-wide training sessions we’ve had, Navy SEALS and co-authors Jocko Willink and Leif Babin put high focus on Prioritize & Execute, giving real-life battlefield and workplace examples of how this principle allows an individual, team, or company to have the best outcome in their task at hand.
Imagine a chaotic, hostile battlefield, where a Navy SEAL platoon is needing to vacate a building surrounded by enemy fire. In prepping for and leaving, your platoon is faced with problem after problem; IEDs (improvised explosive devices) at the door that are on a timer to detonate, a cement wall needs to be taken down with one sledge hammer, one of your men falls 20 feet to the ground, and your SEALS are out in the open for your enemies to see and you still haven’t received a full headcount to ensure the whole platoon is there. In this situation however, your Navy SEAL platoon commander, Leif Babin, has been trained to “remain calm, step back from [my] his immediate emotional reaction and determine the greatest priority for the team.” While everyone wants to get to and save their fallen comrade, this cannot be done if the whole platoon is out in the open for the enemy to attack, so Leif decides the top priority is the platoon’s security. Nothing else can be done until this one priority is achieved. From there, the next priority of getting everyone from out in the open can be achieved, then once reaching the fallen man, a headcount can be done and it’s finally time to vacate the building and move down the street before the IEDs go off.
A leader must relax, look around, and make a call on the highest priority task for the team in order to execute that task. Being a leader also means staying “at least a step or two ahead of real-time problems” to help the team keep focus on their task and prevent new issues from arising. On the battlefield, had Leif not been thinking of what the enemy would have done seeing his platoon out in the open as they are focusing on saving their member, the day could have had a considerably different ending.
Another point in Prioritize & Execute is that you should prioritize your problems and take care of them one at a time. If you try to tackle everything at once, you won’t be successful no matter how “great at multitasking” you may think you are. This isn’t to say you need to absolutely ignore everything else while you focus on one priority, as you need to “maintain the ability to see other problems developing,” which goes hand-in-hand with being ahead of real-time problems.
Action Plan to Take Control of Your Workload
Before you start to take control of your current workload, it’s important to pause for a minute, step away, and take a breath. If you’re trying to take control and prioritize but are worked up emotionally and are already feeling overwhelmed with how much you need to do just to try and figure out your priorities, you may just end up even more frustrated and stressed. Unless your task list has life-or-death situations that need to be handled immediately, your tasks and projects can handle a couple minute break while you rest. Try an app like Calm or Headspace to help you reset your mind.
Once you’ve taken a break, it’s time to dive into getting your task list prioritized so you can focus on and execute each task efficiently and effectively. While these tips are written as if you are taking control of your own list, they of course can translate to a manager or leader taking control of their team’s workload or a team working together to prioritize their projects.
First thing’s first, make sure you have a list of all current tasks, projects, and priorities written down, either electronically or the old-fashioned way with pen and paper. If you think you may be forgetting something, go through your last few weeks of emails to ensure you didn’t commit to a deadline that you never wrote down. If you’re on a team, review your list with them in case they think of something you may have missed.
Take your list and rank each task in order of priority. If you’re unsure on the priority level of a task, reach out to a coworker, the person who gave you the task, even your boss or client. You may think a certain task isn’t a high priority to you, but to the person who is waiting for the task to be complete it may be a high priority to them. Also, if you have multiple projects from one person or client, talk with them to understand their priority rankings for the assigned tasks. Too often a client may expect their priority is the same as yours, but when you give them a completed project that isn’t the one they were anticipating, conflict can arise. As the book Extreme Ownership notes, “priorities can change, so communication is key.”
Once you’ve organized your list by priority, it’s time to start scheduling the time to work on each priority. If your calendar is wide open, it’s very easy to think “oh I have no meetings this week, I’ll be able to get all of this done in no time.” Then, as more and more tasks get added to your plate as the week goes by or meetings start getting added to your calendar, you quickly run out of days in the week to get your prioritized tasks done. An easy way to help prevent this from happening is to schedule out working time on your calendar (preferably digitally as things happen and your schedule will more than likely need to shift around) where you will devote time to specific priorities. If you think priority #1 on your list will take you five hours to complete, block six hours on your calendar for “Working on Priority #1.” This one-hour buffer will allow you extra time for when emails, meetings, or coworkers pop up and take your time away. Continue filling up your calendar with time devoted for each of your outlined priorities and be sure to include due dates for each of the priorities, potentially setting up a reminder at least a day in advance of upcoming due dates.
Ongoing and Future Workload
Once you’ve prioritized your current workload, it’s time to keep incoming to-dos organized and prioritized so you can execute on all of your tasks as needed.
As new tasks present themselves, write them down right away. This could be in the notebook you have during a meeting where the task is given, a sticky note list on your desk, your phone to-do list, or through a flagging system in your inbox.
At the end of each day or the start of each day, look over what you’ve listed or flagged for the day and consolidate your lists into one. This will bring you back to step #2 in the “current workload” section, where you will focus on prioritizing your list of tasks that came in.
From your prioritized list, schedule out when you’ll work on each task by priority. Remember, give yourself some buffer room and be sure to add due dates of each task on your calendar. If priorities need to switch around or your “working” time needs to move, keeping those deadlines on your calendar will help you remember a priority is due soon.
Repeat. As each new task comes in, continue to make your lists, consolidate and prioritize those lists, then schedule out your work and reprioritize as needed.
Recommended Tools & Resources
Here are a few helpful tools and resources to use to help you take control of your workload.
Extreme Ownership Resources
- Clip from Jocko’s Jocko Podcast discussing How to Prioritize & Execute
- Extreme Ownership Book
- Zion & Zion Top Four Extreme Ownership Lessons
Apps for When You Need a Break
Tools for Keeping Track of Your Task Lists
- Your email’s flagging system
- Your phone’s built-in To-Do List
- Post-It Notes
- Voice recorders
Tools to Schedule Your Work
- Google Calendar
- Apple Calendar
Though most of us won’t be faced with battlefield situations in the office like the Navy SEALS face, we can still take pieces of their training and apply it to our everyday life. While it may be overwhelming at first, getting control of your workload and training yourself to prioritize and execute can prevent a lot of stress in the future and help you be successful in your work.