When it feels like you have a million things to do in your business, how do you prioritize? How do you decide which important thing to focus on first? And how do you prevent yourself from constantly fighting fires, only to feel like you didn’t really accomplish anything at the end of the day? The key to using your time wisely is all about developing one of the most essential qualities of leadership: discernment.
What is discernment?
Discernment is not just going with your gut instinct on what’s the best, in-the-moment choice for your business. It’s about always keeping your bigger business objective in mind to make the wisest, most practical decisions that realize your objective.
Discernment isn’t something you have to learn—you already make decisions in your business every day. What most entrepreneurs need is to develop discernment by practicing how to be less reactive and emotional, and more objective within yourself—so that you take smarter actions at the right time.
On a recent call, a client told me how overwhelmed he was with the day-to-day demands of his plumbing business. “I have to do the work of the business—I have to get out there on jobs—but I also have to run the business. And I don't know what's more important at any given time because it all feels important.”
Of course it does.
And this is how so many entrepreneurs feel because when it’s your business, you want to build something that can grow and stand out, while doing your best to help your customers. So you talk yourself into believing that you’re the only one who can do the work of a business that needs you 24/7.
This way of working in it isn’t how to be the leader that your business needs. But the good news is that the more you grow as a leader, the more room you make for your business to grow. Discernment is a key element of this growth.
Approach all work with an Entrepreneurial Perspective
If you’re a Technician at heart—and most small business owners are—you likely spend your days focused on making, selling or delivering your product. This Tactical Work is in your nature. And for Technicians, even though they’re overwhelmed by this work, they're addicted to all the doing. They’re validated by resolving problems and checking things off a list—it gives that experience of productivity, of finishing something.
Entrepreneurial work is Strategic Work. It’s stopping, reflecting, thinking, analyzing. It doesn’t often have the automatic pay-off of a checklist—and it’s not going to feel as valuable because the revenue-generating work feels more productive. But your business demands that you do the work of an owner—unless you want everything that makes your business run to begin and end with you, reliant solely upon how many hours you have in the day.
Choose Strategic Work first
When juggling responsibilities, start by asking yourself: Is this Tactical Work or Strategic Work? And little by little, start filling your time with more strategic activities.
This can be hard because it may run counter to your instincts as a business owner and how you approach your business today. But just test it. When a pressing task or issue comes up, watch how you react—instead of defaulting to what you always do, try to stop yourself and make a different (and perhaps less emotional) choice.
I'm not suggesting that you change overnight. Just look for opportunities to grab the strategic, low-hanging fruit. Delegate a client issue to a manager. Step away from day-to-day sales to spend time creating a financial forecast. At a minimum, try planning your day tomorrow, taking 10 minutes to write out all the things you want to do. That small step alone may overwhelm you, but commit to one or two small changes right away.
Pause and ask questions
It’s so easy to be reactive in your business. But remember, your actions transmit meaning to your team, clients and community. So when you practice acting with intention, you impact everything around you.
My client prioritizes handling his plumbing customers' problems immediately—himself, in person. When he told me how stressed this made him, I asked, “But do you really have to be the one to go?”
Whenever I ask this, the answer is inevitably “yes” because the fear of losing business is real. But in a moment like this, challenge yourself to pause and say, “Do I really?” If the answer is yes, then do it. That pause is the owner in you being discerning, making the choice knowing that whatever happens next can bring either a good result or a consequence—or both.
Making this choice is never as simple as just saying "yes" or “no”. But give yourself a chance to question your belief—because you’re the only person who’s going to challenge it. You don't have a boss telling you, “No, don't do that.” You're the boss, and you can trick yourself into thinking that anything is important.
Prioritize the next best thing you do
Everything can’t be your top priority. So when everything feels important, you have to learn what to do first—and in what order. And if you're so busy running around in the Technician’s mindset, there's no way your business can win.
With my client, I tried to help him work through his overwhelm with one of the oldest tools in the history of self-management: a checklist. I said, “Let's make two lists: one with the work you have to do as the person in the field, and the other as the owner.”
And by just writing a list, he was doing Strategic Work. Making that list is the thing a true owner does—it’s taking a moment from the tactical stuff to look at all the work and question what’s possible. This is the very first step to prioritizing.
Once you have that list in front of you, choose what your business needs you to do next—rather than what others need from you. Just having that starting place gives you clarity about your work in an objective way, without judging whether or not each thing on your list is important—just whether it’s the next best thing to do.
Set limits on your day
I've never met a business owner who said, “Phew! There's no more work to be done today.”
Why? Because for the Technician, there's always something else to do, always something that somebody needs from you. And so, I encourage you to say, “Okay, I’m going to do these seven things today.” And when you’ve done those seven things? Go home. There's always going to be more to do. The Technician just keeps running because the to-do list never ends.
As a business owner who’s thinking like an Entrepreneur, your to-do list could be strategic enough to say, “I have a mixture of Tactical and Strategic Work to do today, and when I'm done, I'm gone.” Because there's always tomorrow.
The more you practice pausing, asking questions and removing emotion from decision-making, the more quickly it will become a habit of mind, something you do whenever a situation seems two-sided. You’ll gain more clarity about your business and your role in it as its leader—something everyone connected to your business will benefit from.
If you'd like to talk about your business or how to think differently about your own to-do lists, reach out. We're happy to help.