I recently spoke about decision paralysis, in the terms of the consumer and the marketers response to this crippling sales detractor. We had some great understandings and takeaways as a result of that post. (Or are least I hope you got something profitable from it!)

Quick Reminder: Implementing marketing automation correctly and segmenting an audience allows marketers to limit the number of choices seen and hopefully prevent the onset of decision paralysis.

While this post is not necessarily about decision paralysis the resulting behavior is remarkably similar. As referenced in the title, this post focuses on priority paralysis. Priority paralysis is actually something which can occur with everyone regardless of their role or position. Let’s look first at what I mean by priority paralysis and then explore what ways we can mitigate the problem or at least the pain associated with the phenomena.

How to identify priority paralysis

If you’ve ever found yourself sitting, staring at your task list and not sure which to tackle first – you’ve experienced priority paralysis. Maybe you’ve snapped out of it relatively quickly and gotten to work. If so congratulations, you’ve found a way to work around the problem. But how many times have you instead swiped up and started browsing social media, or reading the news headlines, or opened your email instead? If you’ve performed any of those actions you’ve fallen into the paralysis trap and you’ve been caught by the distraction dragon.

The distraction dragon (and the other critter you’ll read about later) are inspired by perhaps one of the greatest blog posts I’ve read in the last year. The Procrastination Matrix by Tim Urban takes a very light-hearted and easy-to-read approach to tackling the problem of procrastination. I recommend this post highly to you. And I believe the concepts he has outlined in his post dovetail nicely with this point in our study here. (Interested? If you have a spare 30 minutes go read it and come back. You’ll be better for it, I promise.)

Continuing on with this thinking, it is important to recognize that delayed action is still paralysis. The distraction dragon is there to distract you from the prioritization you should be doing. You think you’re moving (and thus productive) because you’re engaging with the distraction dragon, but you’re not moving any closer on your journey to proper prioritization.

Those who know me or have had the (mis)fortune to work alongside me on something know my deep-rooted desire for speed and handling things quickly. I am not advocating the only way to beat priority paralysis is with immediate action. It’s not the accomplishing of items on the task list alone that counts. Taking time to arrange your priority of items and providing more detail on each one is a huge step towards success.

Three simple steps to beat priority paralysis

I don’t believe these are the only ways to overcome this obstacle but I have found these three things help me greatly as I struggle myself.

1. Be specific and gather details

The first and possibly greatest way to be successful in prioritization involves a full and complete understanding of the list and the details of each item. I can’t stress this point enough. The reason why I think it is so important lies in the fact that I believe it’s so easy to be deceived! I wrote just yesterday in a book review about the value of a number and metrics. But here is the important point: Partial detail is never good enough. What I mean by this is simple: Don’t be fooled into thinking some of the details is enough.

Aside: As a personal example I was speaking internally at Mautic about our practice of prioritizing certain support items. Rather than being specific we talked about introducing a representative labeling system instead of surfacing an exact number. I instantly recognized this as a subtle way to get caught in priority paralysis.

The instant we introduce a layer of abstraction which lacks specifics we add obscurity and prevent our ability to properly prioritize.

The confusion critter is the best friend of the distraction dragon. They complement each other, but to your detriment! These little fiends like to scurry throughout your processes and your thinking and drop little fuzzy blocks. Fuzzy blocks are those areas where the details are missing, you have an idea of the shape of the problem or the item on the task list but you’re not sure what it really looks like. The confusion critters love these because they trip you up and make you focus on them and their best buddy the distraction dragon instead of the priorities.

2. Identify both short and long-term goals

The second way to defeat priority paralysis is to look ahead at the short-term and long-term goals you’re wanting to accomplish. Anytime you are able to raise your eyes up and look at the goals you are aiming for you will have better insight into how to properly organize the tasks immediately in front of you.

The best explanation I have for this comes from Principles by Ray Dalio. In his extremely well-written and popular book he touches on a number of important concepts, but one of them which I find immediately relevant is his ‘Five Step Process’ for success. In case you don’t have the time to read this tome, I’d suggest something even easier (again, takes 30 minutes but you’ll thank me for it). Watch his recent mini series on Youtube. It’s ridiculously good and captivating. Pay particular attention to Episode 3.

Takeaway: Each of us has to choose goals based on our own values and decide on the best path to achieve those goals. We need to identify how we approach them to achieve them when problems stand in our way.

If we get caught stumbling over the fuzzy blocks laid out by the confusion critter or start focusing on the distraction dragon instead of those goals we have taken our mind off finding the best path to achieve our goals. In other words, we neglect the goals and don’t prioritize our tasks based on that viewpoint anymore.

3. Start something on the list

I originally started this point with the more simplistic title: Start something. But then I realized how completely ambiguous that left things and how easily it lent itself to the distraction dragon. The better, and more specific title includes “on the list”. If we don’t start something on the list we are not taking a step down the pathway to success and achieving our goals. We are paralyzed.

Starting something on your prioritization list is an interesting idea because starting something means actually working towards your goals and you’re going to face a serious inner struggle at this point in your journey. You’ll be faced with a choice. A dilemma will appear before you. This is a question quagmire. I call this a quagmire because you’ll be faced with determining which task to start. The ground gets soft at this point. You’re starting to feel the onset of priority paralysis because all of a sudden you’re being forced to pick something. Don’t fear. Don’t sit still and sink into the question quagmire.

But there’s a reason this is the third step in conquering priority paralysis. You can start something on the list at this third point because you have successfully completed the first and second steps above. You are equipped to handle the slow downward pull of indecision. This question quagmire will attempt to grab hold of you by the feet and keep you from moving, pulling you slowly into priority paralysis. But if you know all the specifics, and you have your eye set on the goal you are out to accomplish you can respond to the question quagmire with an answer. This is your definitive first step.

Moving quicker with practice

Once you have successfully fended off your distraction dragon, the confusion critters, and walked confidently across the question quagmire you will start to be free from the paralysis of prioritization. You’ll grow ever more confident in your abilities to take a list of tasks, work through these same steps and properly organize them in a priority which will help you accomplish your goals. And then comes the exciting part: this gets easier each time. You’ll continue to grow and improve. You’ll be faster at avoiding the confusion critters and their fuzzy blocks by starting to identify the important details earlier. Once you know these details the distraction dragon will hold no interest to you because you’ll clearly see he is not obstructing your path to your goals. He won’t be blocking your way to prioritizing what you need to do next.

Each time you wrestle with the challenge of prioritization and successfully take the first and second step, the question quagmire will shrink. You’ll grow more and more confident with which item you should start on first. However, don’t be discouraged if you should choose wrongly, there’s nothing wrong with stumbling; as long as you get up, analyze what happened, and learn from it. Ray speaks to this as well in his book and ultra mini-series. (Have you watched it yet? Do it.)

I hope this helps you overcome the priority paralysis. I certainly learned a lot about myself as I wrote this post and found the points above helpful for me as well. We’re all learning on this journey. Let’s learn together!