Soft Skills: Competing Priorities and the Importance of Mental Awareness

Given any hard skill, mission objective, workplace, or even in your own personal life, there are times when a list of things that needs to be completed can be overwhelming. One of those times is when you have set competing priorities and there’s no clear indication as to which one should be tackled first.

Competing priorities refer to a situation where multiple tasks, objectives, or goals demand attention, resources, or effort simultaneously, leading to a potential conflict in allocation. These tasks or goals often hold equal importance or urgency, making it challenging for individuals, teams, or organizations to decide which should be addressed first. Competing priorities can arise in various contexts, such as within the workplace, personal life, or broader societal concerns. The struggle to find a balance or make effective decisions in the face of competing priorities often stems from limited resources, such as time, money, or manpower, forcing a choice to be made on which priorities take precedence.

Steve Tarani teaching

Addressing competing priorities effectively requires skillful prioritization, strategic planning, and efficient decision-making. It is essential to evaluate each priority based on its urgency, importance, and potential impact, considering both short-term and long-term consequences. Decision makers must also weigh the opportunity costs and benefits associated with each priority, as the pursuit of anyone may mean sacrificing another.

To better manage competing priorities, individuals and organizations can employ various techniques, such as time management strategies, delegation, goal setting, and open communication. Ultimately, navigating competing priorities is a critical aspect of personal and professional development, fostering adaptability, resilience, and effective problem-solving skills.

list of competing priorities

Following are ten tips that you can use to increase your understanding, develop your skills, and be able to effectively manage competing priorities.

1. Prioritization Criteria

If you can list each item in order of priority then there’s no difficulty in selecting which ones bubble up to the top. Which one needs to get done before the next and why? What are the due dates? Due dates are an excellent identifier. If the dates are the same, then who needs it and for what? Is that person or is that need the higher priority?

An often-used prioritization criteria-setting tool is the old W.I.N. acronym which stands for “What’s Important Now?” What is the level of urgency, importance, and gravity (consequence) and how will it impact others?

2. Path of Least Resistance

Failing the above methodology and if a list of tasks cannot be prioritized in any manner based on criteria and all are truly equal in every aspect, then there is another method you can use to get through your checklist.

Assuming all the items on the list are equivalent and random then it doesn’t matter which one you get done first. It’s in our human nature to take the path of least resistance so one methodology is to take the smallest bite out of the list. Identify the smallest or easiest things on the list and move these to the top. Then prioritize them in order of how quickly or easily you can get them done.

3. Control Chaos

Failing the above three, what if there are simply too many items? And they need to get done all at the same time and there are absolutely no prioritization criteria whatsoever, including size and ease. At this point, you’re trying to control the chaos.

The third method is the answer to the question “How do you eat an elephant” and the answer: one bite at a time. Just start anywhere. Take any one priority and get it done then take another and so on since the order doesn’t matter. At least you’re chipping away at the list and you’re getting it done.

chaos written on chalkboard
(Creative Commons)

4. Mindset and Focus

You have at least two personal choices when addressing high-stakes competing priorities. You can come unglued, be panic-stricken and turn yourself into a raging stress ball. The other option is to cultivate a positive mindset and razor-sharp focus. In high-pressure situations, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and lose sight of what truly matters. Train your mind to remain calm and composed under pressure, and you will find it easier to sift through the noise and identify the most pressing tasks at hand. Visualization, meditation, and breathing exercises can be valuable tools in opting for mental clarity.

5. Time Management

Time management is crucial in addressing competing priorities. Break down your tasks into smaller, manageable chunks, and allocate a specific time slot for each task. By doing so, you can maintain control over your schedule and ensure that you’re making progress on all fronts. Utilize tools such as calendars, to-do lists, and time-tracking apps to help you stay organized and monitor your progress.

stopwatch in hand, illustrates time management and competing priorities
Strategies like time management and delegation help us manage competing priorities. (Pxfuel)

6. Delegation and Teamwork

No one is an island, and this holds true when it comes to managing competing priorities. If you are part of a team, delegate tasks to your colleagues based on their strengths and expertise. Encourage open communication and collaboration, as this will not only foster a sense of camaraderie but also ensure that tasks are completed efficiently and effectively.

7. Ongoing Evaluation and Reassessment

Regularly evaluate and reassess your priorities to ensure that you’re on track and making progress. Circumstances can change, and new information may come to light, necessitating a shift in focus. Stay adaptable and be willing to modify your plan when necessary. Set time for check-ins, either with yourself or your team, to discuss progress, challenges, and any adjustments that may be needed.

8. Maintain Balance

It is essential to strike a balance between professional and personal responsibilities when managing competing priorities. Don’t neglect your personal well-being, as burnout and fatigue can severely hamper your ability to perform at your best. Make time for self-care, relaxation, and activities that recharge your mental and emotional batteries. A balanced approach ensures long-term success and prevents the negative consequences of excess stress.

9. Learn from Experience

Each experience of handling competing priorities provides an opportunity to learn and grow. Reflect on your successes and challenges. Identify areas for improvement as well as strategies that have worked well for you. This self-awareness will help you become more efficient and effective in the future, as you’ll be better equipped to handle similar situations.

10. Embrace the Suck

Last but certainly not least is to embrace the suck of managing competing priorities as an opportunity for personal and professional growth, an opportunity to develop resilience, adaptability, and problem-solving skills that will serve you well in all aspects of life. Competing priorities are a natural part of life, and mastering the art of managing them will undoubtedly contribute to your personal success.

tough mudder PA (Flickr)
Embrace the suck (Flickr)

Managing competing priorities is a critical skill that can be developed and honed through experience, self-awareness, and strategic planning by employing prioritization techniques, time management strategies, effective delegation, and maintaining a balanced approach.

The keys to success lie not only in the strategies you employ but also in your mindset and attitude. Stay positive, focused, and resilient and you’ll be better prepared to tackle the challenges that come your way. As you progress in your personal and professional life, the skills you develop in handling competing priorities will prove invaluable. You will also gain a deeper understanding of your own strengths and weaknesses, allowing for continuous growth and self-improvement.

So, whether you’re navigating the demands of a high-pressure career, juggling personal responsibilities, or simply trying to make the most of your valuable time, your prioritization abilities can be honed and refined over time. Try using some or all of these tips and you’ll be well on your way to mastering the art of managing competing priorities.

Steve Tarani is a former fulltime CIA protective programs employee, small arms and defensive tactics subject matter expert who served on POTUS 45 pre-election executive protection detail. He is the lead instructor for NRA’s non-ballistic weapons training program offered nationally. Tarani is also a DoD and FLETC-certified federal firearms instructor who has been on staff at Gunsite Academy (AZ) as a Rangemaster for over twenty years. Formerly sworn, he is also a former federal contractor and service provider for the US Defense Intelligence Community, US Naval Special Operations Command and other government agencies. Tarani additionally serves on the National Sheriffs’ Association Committee for School Safety and Security.

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