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Priority vs Priorities

I was listening to Greg McKeown the other day, discussing priorities.

He was speaking about how the word priority entered the vocabulary in the 1400’s. From then, for the next five hundred years, the word priority was singular.

Priority, not priorities.

It was only in the industrial revolution that we pluralised it.

The industrial revolution brought us many things, but it didn’t bring us superhuman skills, additional limbs or more hours in the day. So how have we managed to take what is meant to be the most important, first thing – and turn it into multiple things?

The glorification of busyness.

Before you look this up, busyness is now a word in the English language, defined by the state or condition of having a great deal to do.

It so easily rolls off our tongue when people ask 'How are you?'... "Really busy."

It's almost a cult. We glorify and indicate our status by our busyness. I believe this badge of honour we strive to earn is one of the reasons why priority has become priorities.

Our priorities vs others priorities

What can we do about it this busyness glorification? How can we cull these priorities to be manageable and achievable?

Think about your list for the day.

There are things on there that are your responsibility, only something you can do or accomplish. While others that require the assistance of other people. Maybe a task that you have prioritised a numero uno super doper most important – might be ranked 5 or 6 on their to-do list. Or vice versa?

How do you reconcile that?

Meeting with yourself

My first suggestion is to schedule a meeting with yourself. You have meetings all day with everyone else, so why not have a sit down meeting with yourself?

Ask yourself outside of emails, others requests and phone calls –

What are my most important tasks for today?

I recommend making some personal and some professional, and no more than 7.

Our brains can’t handle more than that.

Rate your priorities

Once you have this list, ask yourself the value of this task on a scale of 1 to 10. So, you know exactly what accomplishing this task means to you and what you are willing to barter for.

For example.

On your tasks for today, making sure you leave on time to ensure you get to your daughters 3rd birthday party, you have ranked a 10.

So, when someone approaches you late in the day to ask you to collaborate on a project that is likely to run into the small hours you can say no, without guilt, burden or confusion. Because you already have a 10 to accomplish that would misalign by adding their task to your list.

Once you have your value, and with a basic understanding of maths, you know what comes higher than your priority and what doesn’t.

Have honest, open, empathetic conversations so people understand your value system and listen for understanding to appreciate theirs.

Efficient prioritisation is about human connection, not a spreadsheet.

The sliding scale of Yes and No

In business we stigmatise Yes and No.

Good employees say yes to everything, saying no must mean you don’t care about the organisation.

I argue Yes and No are too binary – so here are some suggestions to have more of a sliding scale of Yes and No.


  • Yes, thank you so much for considering me, I would love to.

  • Yes, I would be happy to do that.

  • Yes, but I need more information. Can we schedule some time to dive deeper into this?

  • Yes, if you are willing to providing the following….

  • Yes, but to make that work, I will need….

  • Yes, I would love to, however I won’t have the time for a month or two. Could you ask me again then?


While I find maybe wishy-washy, Maybe provides a space to sit on the fence. Some people do it because they don't know how to say no, even if they want to. So, make sure you are using your maybe for the right reason.

  • Maybe, I just need to consider the other priorities I have on my list. Can I come back to you next week?

  • Maybe, perhaps it will work. Let me think it over.


  • Thank you so much for your enthusiasm and support! I’m sorry I’m not able to help you out this time.

  • No, I’m sorry I won’t be able to help you with that, but perhaps I could assist with... (suggest one small thing, not the whole task).

  • No, thank you so much for thinking of me, however I don’t know if I am the right person for this. Can I suggest you speak with…?

  • No, I love the idea and really support it, but I just have too much on my plate right now.

  • No, apologies but I’ve already promised to help on another project and don’t have time to do both projects.

Don’t underestimate the importance of saying no in a polite and constructive way. Over the course of your career, your professional reputation is not only defined by your achievements; it’s also based on your willingness to help your co-workers. If you don’t have the time or capacity to do this, you may end up shooting yourself in the foot – by well-intentioned overcommitting.

Your take aways?

- Give a numerical or representative value to your projects.

- Appreciate and learn how to say no.

- Try for 1 month, not to say you are busy.

Blue Mercury Leadership facilitates those conversations we are all too busy to have. Empathetic, authentic and honest conversations about how we can bring the best of ourselves to the office each day. Feel free to read more, or reach out to us at


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