How many #1 priorities do you have?

I once had a chance to talk to the head of my division. Of course I took the opportunity to pitch to him my idea about what should be one organization’s priorities. To his credit, and there was a lot to be said to his credit, he listened carefully and patiently to my pitch. He agreed that my idea had merit to it, that it’s an important area, and that I should work on it. Of course I seized the opportunity and suggested that it become one of the division’s top priorities. It wasn’t something I felt was a pet project, I truly believed it would help the organization become better long term.

Much to my delight, he agreed with that as well, that it would absolutely help the organization. And then he reminded me of the 3 top priorities he set for the division. I knew what they were, but I also listened carefully and as patiently as I could. Those top 3 priorities were near and dear to his heart.

I then suggested that we don’t have to remove any of the stated top 3 priorities, we can just add a fourth priority, the one I proposed.

That’s where he came back with an adamant NO. He said that an organization can focus on a maximum of 3 priorities. No more. There isn’t enough “bandwidth” for an organization to focus on more than 3 priorities, he told me. He used an analogy about the number of arrows in the organization’s “quiver” that would be insufficient for more than 3 targets. My morale was a little deflated, but his explanation about the organization stuck with me. There was something that rang true in what he said.

Since then I’ve worked in organizations that had 10, even a couple dozen “top priorities.” And there was a lack of focus on those “top priorities.” In some cases, it was well understood that only one of those priorities was one “capital-t Top priority”, the others were “small-t top priorities” and could largely be ignored. In those cases, that Top priority was often accomplished, but not the other “top priorities.” In fact, the Top Priority was frequently carried out at the cost of trampling the other priorities. 

I’ve thought about priorities a lot over the years. Organizational priorities. Personal priorities. It makes the question of what to agree to adopt as a priority or even a task to accomplish take a different meaning. If I hear of a task that has merit to it, should I prioritize it as one of my top 3? If the answer is not categorical, unquestioning “ABSOLUTELY YES”, perhaps the answer should be a “no”? If getting to an Endless Weekend wasn’t one of our top 3 priorities, would we still be stuck in the Endless Week rather than get to The Endless Weekend?

What do you think: are we limited to 3 priorities? If we have more than 3 priorities, do they become less of priorities and more of a laundry list to be treated more of a work of art to admire rather than a mantra etched on our hearts and eyelids?

More thoughts on priorities and prioritizing on our personal blog The Endless Weekend.

42 thoughts on “How many #1 priorities do you have?

  1. You know what I love about your post, EW? It’s the post I didn’t know I needed to read! Honestly — you nailed a feeling I’ve had about organizations — both when I’ve been on the ‘inside’ and on the outer perimeter as a consultant. The laundry list of “PRIORITIES” described as etchings, carved in stone, rings true! Same with the notion that lengthy lists aren’t actionable…they’re just ***someone’s*** precious piece of art. Thanks for this. xo! 😘

    Liked by 6 people

    1. You truly honor me, Vicki, thank you! 🥰

      I love where you’re going with this, maybe a Vicki’s Principle like Peter’s Principle? That organizations, processes, and lists grow to a size that maximizes their inefficiency? 😁

      Was it da Vinci who said that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication? I really like your insight about keeping things simple, so that they’re actionable instead of buried in lengthy item list, where the list becomes the goal instead of the original one. You’re giving me a lot to think about, Vicki, thank you!

      Liked by 3 people

      1. DaVinci? Yah…maybe! Sounds familiar and I LIKE IT! 😘 And I say all hail EW…you’re bringing it friend — food for thought, yes – but also practical goodness about how folks can navigate in the moment…cause, ya know – not everything IS a priority. So good! ❤️

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m thinking it might be how big the priorities are, but if you or an organisation has too many, you’re right, then some will be displaced. The problem is we don’t always see it happening. Maybe it’s as important to review the priorities to ensure they’re still relevant and appropriate

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I believe you hit a nail on the head here, Brenda! Sometimes we/the organization continue/s to work on yesteryear’s problems that are no longer relevant. It’s so difficult to change directions once we’ve been on the same path, and it’s easier to continue to do what we’ve always done, easier to value it, easier not to change? That’s extreme insightful!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I think Brenda is onto something with a review. My organization has a biannual “prioritization review” where we review a few formal initiatives and update rating assignments (high/medium/low)… priorities change, so I think that ongoing awareness and analysis is helpful. I’m not sure about a limit on priorities. At any given moment, we can only be focused on one, so I suspect it depends on how well an individual or organization can juggle multiple projects. Some interesting things to think about. Thanks for this!

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I think that those are two great points!

      The first one you’re pointing our, I believe, is that we do need to evaluate continuously if we’re still on the right path: say we need to go forward to cross a river and our goal becomes to build a bridge. Should we check every once in a while if the river is still there? Perhaps it dried up and our priorities should change to building a road? Perhaps it’s overflowing and the bridge will be underwater? It’s the goal of moving forward, not the bridge that should be our guide?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I love the analogy of the bridge over a river. It’s so true that circumstances are ever-changing and we don’t continually assess, we may find ourselves working on aimless projects.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I once read that well over 1/2 the features in products are never used. They were created because of wrong priorities, priorities that have changed over time, priorities of the wrong constituencies, etc… Like you wisely said, we so often find ourselves working on the wrong thing: how do you think we “fix” that?


  4. Your post rings 100% true with me, EW. Certainly on an organizational level, but even more so, on the personal side of things. In fact, it’s where I’ve been lately – assessing, then goal-setting, based on my top priorities. Just recently, I sat down and did a scoreboard, using 4DX as a model, and guess how many wildly important goals I have listed? Yep, three (although to be honest, it was more about number one). I don’t think it was even a conscious thing to limit them, but now that I think about it, I’d agree with the feedback you received – humanly, we can only have so many “priorities.” When we get too many, they begin competing with one another. Fantastic post, and perfect timing for the beginning of the year, as we’re taking inventory of where we are and where we want to go! Thank you so much!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you so very much! I’m glad I’m not the only one struggling here, and I, too, feel that there’s a BIG priority and maybe 2 smaller priorities. And then the others are priorities that we may list to make ourselves feel better, as if we’re going to focus on that, but really, it’s not going to happen … And you’re right, it’s better to be “honest” with ourselves about what’s our top priority. And then be at peace with it since it means that the other “priorities” will get less attention?

      Thank YOU for clarifying the issue and bringing up such an important point!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I remember that my dad came from a school of theology that emphasized that there should only be 3 points in a sermon. Is there something magic about the number 3? More than 1 so if you are stuck you can focus on another but not too many so you are endlessly switching focus?

    I love this post, EW! Such a great story and as always with you, a thought-provoking question and nudge. I’m going to have think carefully about my priorities today because I might be operating from a laundry list right about now and nothing’s getting folded… 🙂

    So lovely to have you posts here!! Love it!!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I love that that “rule-of-three” extends to other domains!

      Thank you so much, Wynne, it’s a question that has been often on my mind, and I have not been able to resolve it yet. Did your wise father speak to that in his sermons?

      Liked by 1 person

    2. It’s such a good question. I heard him make the point but I can’t remember what the reason was. But looking it up on the internet, I found an explanation that makes sense to me – that three is the smallest number we need to create a pattern. We go beyond that and it’s harder to remember, or fall short with just two and it feels incomplete. What do you think?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I, too, looked that up and saw studies about how many things can we spot at once (3-4, which is why when we see digits we divide them into groups of 3 or 4 to grasp them immediately, or take a while to decipher them), how many things we can remember, and how many things we focus on at one time. Very interesting study that showed that we, humans, don’t multitask. We single-task and switch between tasks at a cost.

        I like your explanation about the pattern, it didn’t occur to me before! I’ll read more on that!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh, this is so true. I’ve worked in large and small organizations and prioritization has always seemed to be a problem. I’m a big believer too that if you don’t prioritize a few goals, then you have no goals. Saying that, I love that you were engaged and wanted to be part of that solution. If I were the leader, I would hope I would’ve found a way to make your suggestion a part of the three or been creative enough to add a fourth. At the end of the day, the important thing is whether we’re achieving our mission and the key goals we set for ourselves. Love your post, gets me thinking a lot about my own priorities and how I go about achieving all of them. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I think you hit the nail smack on the head! We’re so often busy being busy, as individuals and as organizations, large or small, that we don’t remember what our goals really are. And often we resort to clichés, which are just easier than doing what you suggested which is thinking about the priorities. Remember that funny that pre-agent J (Will Smith) said in MIB-I: be “the best of the best of the best”? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I think the magic number for every organization and individual will be different but it is important to set priorities as resources and time are limited. For an individual, that resource could also mean physical and emotional energy. It’s good to get one priority done before moving onto to the next at the risk of spreading yourself too thin and not getting anything done well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really like how you said that—it’s like that quote, if we don’t know where we’re going, how do you know what to pack? :)—and how you emphasized the “magic number”, it’s reminding me another organizational magic number!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Gosh, that’s a tough one. I can’t imagine there is one right answer to this. Anyone who thinks there is might be too rigid in his/her thinking. If there are exceptions to every rule, the rule of three might be one of those rules. I definitely understand the concept of “mission drift,” trying to do too many things and thereby losing focus/going off target. Maybe each new candidate for a place in The Three would have to be evaluated against one of the other Three to see if it can take it’s place. Interesting food for thought, EW!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree: it isn’t a one-size-fits-all… I know zero is too little and a dozen (baker’s dozen or a regular human dozen 🙂 ) is too much. Is 3 the right number? What’s wrong with 2?

      I like the replace-with-the-better one idea, and I still believe my suggestion was worthy of being in the top 3 😛

      Thank you, Betsy!

      Liked by 1 person

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