Until the 1940s, the word “priority” was pretty much always used in the singular.
A plural form wasn’t used. And that was the point. It’s only a priority if it’s truly the pinnacle of importance. The plural form of the word erodes its own meaning. From this lens, we also learn that the phrase “top priority” is redundant.
In fact, neurological data shows that when priority becomes plural, it stops working. Focusing on more than one “priority” decreases productivity by as much as 40%, according to Microsoft research – which is the cognitive equivalent of pulling an all-nighter.
But it is hard! It’s hard to have only one focus.
We answer this question with our actions every moment of every day. Every time you are confronted with a choice, it’s an opportunity to choose your priority. When we make choices that are aligned with what matters most, we thrive. But you first need to know what you are optimizing for.
We experience this in all facets of our lives. In family life, when our value is presence in our kids’ major life events, we make it to their school plays and their milestone games. With health, my priority is stress management, so I ensure that yoga and running – the things that best help me manage stress – are appointments that I schedule and keep.
With your business, just like with everything else, you can choose what matters most only once you know what your priority is – what you are optimizing for. This is where brand strategy is your guide.
Your brand strategy is the articulation of what matters most. For Patagonia, what matters most is the health of the planet. For Fendi Beauty, it is inclusivity of all ethnicities. For Ikea, it’s making well-designed home products financially accessible. With the specific articulation of what matters most, these companies can prioritize the activity that will make their brand promise ever more true.
Leaders must decide, over and over again, what is the choice that will reinforce this business’s priority, and what is the choice that will erode it?
When you are debating how to carve up your day, how to allot resources, whether to spend money on a given Facebook ad, whether to speak at an international conference, or whether to meet a given prospective partner – knowing your time, money and attention are scarce – you have to prioritize. Look to your brand strategy for this. From all the options you are considering, which is the option that most delivers on your brand promise?
A classic tool for prioritizing is having a to-do list, a sequencing of actions from high priority to low. To-do lists are a good start, but the problem is that they are too long. Often there are so many good things to do that the list becomes endless and unwieldy. Endless and unwieldy makes it difficult for you to focus on what matters most.
Good ideas form a long list. But you don’t have time for every good idea. You only have time for the excellent ones – the ones that allow you to amplify your brand.
In addition to your to-do list, keep a running “to-don’t” list that will include good ideas as well as bad. This enables you to limit your to-do list to ideas that are not merely good, but truly excellent.
While some ideas are overtly poor ones, most are good ones. The key is deprioritizing the merely good ideas to make room for the excellent ones. “What you decide not to do is probably more important than what you decide to do,” Tom Peters wrote in In Search for Excellence.
Instead of tackling a thousand good ideas, identify and prioritize a few that disproportionately add to your ability to deliver on your brand promise. Instead of getting an inch better at one thousand things, get a mile better at ten things. Make your priority list short and potent, granting employees the permission to forego “inch” activities and instead triple their focus on “mile” activities.
Focus your energy and avoid wasted effort by prioritizing ruthlessly. This requires courage.
A tool for cultivating this courage is a brand strategy. Your brand strategy identifies the thing that your customer yearns for, and that only your business brings. For example:
When you deliberately create a brand strategy, your courage and conviction will spring naturally, because you know that you have selected a focus that will create outsized value for your company.
When your purpose is singular and concrete, it’s like putting on prescription eyeglasses: you can see better. You can see the excellent ideas clearly. Your brand strategy emboldens you to put nine hundred good ideas on the To-Don’t list.
Observe all the things you are doing, your initiatives big and small. Put your eyeglasses on. Go through each initiative and answer honestly: will this disproportionately increase my ability to deliver on my brand promise? Put the nos, maybes, and even the less enthusiastic yeses on a To-Don’t list. Only the resounding yeses go on the To-Do list. And remember the true nature of priority: there can be only one.
This takes courage, but it is worth it. You are here to focus on the thing that matters most. Be in service of that and you will grow as a person and as a business.
Lindsay is a Brand Strategist and Founder of Ironclad Brand Strategy, which builds brands using an exacting and analytic method. Her background as a P&L owner at Clorox fostered a deep appreciation for the executive charge: to create sustainable value. Ironclad advises companies from burgeoning startups to national corporations, including Zulily, IMDb, T-Mobile and Starbucks. Lindsay holds an MBA in Business from the University of California Berkeley, Haas School of Business.