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Priorities: Focus Your Attention

Updated: May 16, 2023

Priorities, priorities, priorities! Mark Twain said that to change your life, you need to change your priorities. As an executive coach whose job it is to focus on change, personal, team-focused, and organization-wide priorities come up in every coaching conversation. Priorities are how we match our ambitions with our capacity. Priorities shape organizational effectiveness, departmental focus, and individual contributions.

And priorities aren’t limited to industrial focus, they are also essential to spiritual life. In spiritual practices we refer to this as discernment, the ability to judge well and select among options. Discernment is at the heart of spiritual discipline, moral living, and raising consciousness; it’s about making choices. And priorities are just that, clear choices grounded in awareness.

Priorities signal to everyone what to pay attention to, where to deploy their Units of Attention. Here’s what I mean by that. Every day we wake up with an inventory of Units of Attention, and wherever we deploy a Unit of Attention is where we spend our energy and our time. If I give Units of Attention to making breakfast, my energy and time go to menu, cooking, eating, and clean up. If I spend Units of Attention on morning news, my energy and time go to thinking about weather and stock market and war.

You get the picture. When you deploy a Unit of Attention, you spend energy and time on that Unit – whether a person, idea, process, or object. And that spent Unit of Attention is non-refundable and non-transferable. This is really, really important. You cannot reclaim or reverse the time and energy you spend by deploying those Units of Attention. This is key. Priorities tell us where to place our precious Units of Attention.

In the words of Stephen Covey, “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” And to schedule your priorities requires both wisdom and power. Wisdom to discern what’s aligned with your values and enriching to your life. And power to set boundaries and advocate for yourself. Wisdom and power establish your priorities.

Priorities harness attention. This also works at group level. Team and organizational priorities direct how everyone applies their time and energy. And when we collectively attend to the same priorities, our collective efforts turn to amplification – power drawn from, “the whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.”

Well-articulated priorities have the power to heal one of the most crippling organizational maladies – silos. When departments don’t focus on organization wide priorities, they spend their Units of Attention – time and energy – on their own ideas, and miss the power of amplification. Establishing priorities gets people and functions to collaborate, and effective collaboration is the key to amplifying power.

Here, for your consideration, are six elements for your priority process.

1. Align on a clear picture Get alignment on what the key business challenges are and how to solve them, this begins alignment on priorities or what defines success. Get everyone on the same page and define your guiding light, your “north star.” (For coaches, it’s helping clients create a wellness vision that serves as their north star. You and the client are aligned in the direction to move) *

2. Signal collective propulsion Because department heads tend to prioritize their departments, they can be a little myopic of the bigger picture. Help functional leaders understand the big-picture goal and how they are going to help achieve it, so they can be connected to what’s most important. (As a coach, set aside your ideas about the next best step. Listen to your client. Defer to their genius. They know the way.) *

3. Set the pace and sequence Priorities combine pace and sequence, and near-term and long-term balance. Step onto the balcony and review priorities with the lenses of: running the business better today, building capability for tomorrow’s business, and growth bets for the future. (Your client likely has big dreams and goals, but it all takes time. Know your client's direction, then help them break that down into the now. Help orient them to how the goals they have for today, this week, feed toward the vision.) *

4. Communicate to resonate If people can’t relate their jobs to what you’re saying the company needs, and what they can do to help, they will automatically disconnect. So make priorities accessible and understandable in the context of daily work activities. (Clients need to have resonance for what they are working toward.; those goals and activities need to relate to their values and their lives.) *

5. Set in-process milestones We don’t just track priorities at the end, but along the way, too. Set “in-process” milestones for people to see if they are “on track” or “off track” that’s how they can make corrective action. (Weekly or bi-monthly coaching sessions help clients keep their focus while attending to the other day-to-day demands of life.) *

6. Celebrate wins, then rapidly move on It is essential to create momentum, and even a movement, by celebrating early successes and leveraging this success to other areas. And then challenge the status quo by running rapid experiments and capturing the learnings of successes or failure. Oh, and celebrate these, too. (No success is too small for acknowledgment. Take the win, however small or big!) *

Dan Millman, author of Way of the Peaceful Warrior, once said, “I learned that we can do anything, but we can’t do everything… at least not at the same time. So, think of your priorities not just in terms of what activities you do, but when you do them. Timing is everything.”

Do this not just for your sake, but because as a leader you are a steward of your people. Without priorities, people pull in different directions, give their Units of Attention (their precious energy and time) to different tasks, and weaken the overall effectiveness of the collective.

By making your priorities explicit you are guiding attention, effort, and direction; you enable your people to pull together and generate positive power toward achieving meaningful results.

Reprinted with permission

*Information in parentheses are Wellcoaches additions.

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