Sasha D'Arcy9 November 2022

When was the last time you had only one priority?

How to help your teams free up mental slack  and focus on what’s important at work


“…when ‘priority’ came into the English language in the 1400s, it was singular. What did it mean? The very first thing – before all other things. By definition, you cannot have more than one priority. And for 500 years, the word meant a singular idea, and then it evolved and now we talk about ‘priorities’ all the time.” Greg McKeown – Author, and Leadership and Business strategist.

In the research, prioritisation is described as the action or process of deciding the relative importance or urgency of a thing or things. How often do you find yourself getting to the end of the day having fought fires and dealt with what is urgent in the short term, but not necessarily what is important to achieve your goals in the long term? Are you even clear about what urgent really means for you and your team?

According to the 2021 Work Trend Index by Microsoft, when managers step in to help their teams prioritise and maintain work-life balance, employees feel significantly more connected to one another and productive in their roles. However, prioritisation has become a real challenge for people managers in the hybrid environment as they often have less oversight on what their teams are working on. It’s no longer effective to manage by hours put in, and leaders have to shift towards focusing on output. Further, there are less organic opportunities for employees to “just check” their priorities and ask for manager feedback. So what can we do about it?

A common experience when we feel overwhelmed by “what is urgent” and an abundance of priorities is a phenomenon known as Tunneling. When we are dealing with lots of challenges, our brains tend to adopt tunnel vision on the biggest or most urgent challenge and diminish the brain capacity needed to identify and solve other problems. Essentially we lack the mental capacity to see the bigger picture and actually prioritise effectively. Princeton University psychology professor Eldar Shafir and Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan have found that our IQ actually drops by 10 points when we have a big problem overriding our thinking, compared to when this problem is not present.

The solution to tunneling is to create “mental slack” by freeing up time or resources. When we identify tasks or activities that can be stopped, automated, or deleted we can free up mental resources to ensure that we can focus really effectively on our most important priorities.

As a leader, get each person in your team to reflect on things that make them SAD, or in other words, things they can STOP doing, AUTOMATE, or DELEGATE to free up mental slack. Team members can complete this individually and then come together to discuss. An example of what this looked like for our team at Inventium is as follows:

STOP – We stopped sharing interesting articles via email for everyone to read (clogs inbox). Now, I just add it to Pocket – if people are interested, they know where to find it.

AUTOMATE – Our GM always would respond to us with answers we had about sales and our targets. Then, she put it in a report that updates as she works on it and gave us all access.

DELEGATE – When we have a big piece of research to undertake we hire a placement student to help us with the initial literature review. They have access to a plethora of academic journals and we can give them practical experience and placement hours, win-win!

Have a go at working with your team to eliminate what makes your team SAD and enjoy the increased productivity and connectedness that comes with improved prioritsation.