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Duties vs. Priorities

Jeff Shuck
September 23, 2015

For the past few months I have been focused on 2016 planning – a feeling I’m sure you can relate to. Last week, I had one of my many recent all-day meetings, and while “all-day meetings” often send the bravest among us running, I was looking forward to setting some time aside to chart out the upcoming year with a team of people I truly enjoy collaborating with. 

As we talked through the variety of responsibilities on our plates and attempted to sort them out in relation to our plans for growth, I realized that it is far too easy to get confused between duties and priorities.  

"Duties" are all of the things we need to complete as part of our jobs. This includes huge projects that could last a year or more as well as small managerial tasks like expense reports and time-tracking. Most of us are responsible for a variety of duties – and probably more than we like to think about. 

"Priorities" on the other hand, are different. Priorities help us rank the importance of our duties. Priorities help answer the question: When two duties need to happen at the same time, which one gets done and which one doesn't? 

Our list of priorities doesn't absolve us from completing our duties – we still have to get them done. All of our duties are necessary for one reason or another. Instead, the priorities list helps us determine which duties we complete first, and in the case of inevitable workload conflicts, helps us decide what gets done and what gets postponed. 

I have observed that priorities tend to change and evolve as situations and conditions change, whereas duties tend to be fixed over a longer-term. Similarly, we tend to get recognized for successfully completing priorities and get less credit for completing our duties. Very few organizational leaders got to positions of influence simply because they submitted their reports on time!   

Take a look at your current task list. Can you sort out your duties from your priorities? If so, make sure your priorities are aligned with the rest of your team. Priorities that live in a vacuum are more than likely disconnected from your organizational goals and risk being ineffective. It isn’t enough to just make the distinction between duties and priorities you have to confirm there is agreement amongst your team on what the priorities actually are.

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