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Prioritization: How to focus on what matters most

This blog article is part of Foundant’s quarterly content series designed to offer tangible tips and practical resources on how to Work Smarter, Not Harder.

“You cannot do everything well. You can do some things well. So, you really have to be selective about what is a good fit for your organization or your personal life—I've learned to say no.”
Andrea Stevenson, Foundant Solutions Engineer

Hearing this intro to the most recent Work Smarter, Not Harder podcast episode focused on prioritization felt like receiving a gift at just the right moment. I was being given permission, or maybe even encouragement, to NOT try to do it all.

As I listened to this at my desk with my headphones, I think I actually shouted, “Amen!” out loud (apologies to my workmates for the outburst). We’ve all heard similar statements. But hearing Andrea say it powerfully, yet with such compassion, resonated with me like never before. Looking ahead to my goals for the new year, I wanted to hear what Andrea and guest podcast host Rachel Myers had to say next.

Andrea and Rachel share a common history in the philanthropic sector. Both have sat at nearly every seat at the table, from staff member to executive director to board member. Between them, they have extensive experience dealing with the challenge of trying to meet growing community needs with finite resources—limited time, money, and staff. Often faced with the question, “How can I do more with less?” they learned critical prioritization strategies.

While I have never been one to make New Year’s resolutions, I am committed to trying all the tips they shared to help focus my time, energy, and passion on what matters most.

Tip 1: Make “No” Your Default Answer

Prioritization isn’t about arranging your task list—it’s about deciding what belongs on the list and, just as important, what doesn’t. This requires saying “no,” which can be extremely difficult—especially if you’re passionate about helping others, improving lives, and making a difference. However, Rachel wisely points out that we can be far more effective if we focus our efforts on just a few areas as opposed to many. Steve Jobs, the late Apple co-founder, explains, “I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done.”

“Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.”
Steve Jobs

So, before you say “yes,” Andrea suggests you pause and ask yourself, “Is this a good fit?” “How does it feel?” “Will I be joyful in doing this?”

Tip 2: Develop a Strategy Screen

A strategy screen is a tool to help you evaluate opportunities and make these tough decisions. Create a list of criteria an opportunity or invitation will need to meet to move from a “no” to a “yes.” What will be the most meaningful to you, your organization, your community, and your life? See Andrea’s sample strategy screen and adapt it with criteria specific to your organization.

Learn more about these two tips in Rachel’s short four-minute explainer video:



More Trade Secrets From Rachel and Andrea

In their podcast conversation, Rachel and Andrea shared additional strategies for prioritization:

  • Don’t Start Your Day with Email

Instead, start your day by looking at your calendar and to-do list and setting your own priorities.

“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”
Greg McKeown, Essentialism

Then, when the time is right, open your email. I have already started implementing this tip, and it’s been a game-changer. As a morning person, I am most productive at the start of the day and try to protect that time for my highest-priority tasks. If possible, I wait to address non-urgent email requests until I have made significant headway on these projects.

If your organization uses a chat system, you know this can be equally distracting. Chat notifications seem to scream, “Check me. It’ll be quick. I promise.” But it’s often not, and then you’re headed down another path, veering far from the task at hand. I can be just as guilty of causing these detours for others, and I am trying to be more intentional about how and when I use chat.

  • Take a Break

Give yourself time to step away and clear your mind. Figure out what activities work best for you. Whether taking a walk or even a shower, this time often leads to the greatest moments of inspiration. In the end, you’ll be more productive.

  • Don’t Answer Every Phone Call

If it isn’t an emergency and you’re focused on your work, let the call go to voicemail and listen later when you intentionally step away to respond to messages.

  • Set Goals for your Meetings

When planning a meeting, identify goals you can accomplish within the allotted time to avoid the dreaded never-ending meeting. Rachel emphasizes the importance of being clear on the meeting’s purpose, product, people, and process. Learn more about Creating Great Meetings in one of Rachel’s upcoming Work Smarter, Not Harder podcast episodes, which will be available on February 13.

Rachel refers to her peers in the philanthropy sector as natural “yes-sayers” because they are so passionate about their work. Sometimes it helps to be reminded that, despite your noble intentions and most valiant efforts, we can’t do everything because our time and resources are finite. Identify your organization’s criteria for saying “yes” and then create the space to focus on what matters most.

Join the Conversation

How do you prioritize your work? Do you have other tips and tricks to share? Join our Work Smarter, Not Harder conversation in Compass, Foundant’s online community for philanthropy, to share your strategies and ask questions.

Rachel’s Suggested Reading List

About the Author

Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area in California, Katie never moved until she left for college. Since then, she has lived in two countries (U.S. and Chile), four states (CA, CO, OR, MT), 10 cities, and has had too many addresses to count. (Need moving tips? She’s got them!) Grateful for the opportunity to explore such different landscapes, meet diverse people, and experience unique cultures, Katie considers every stop on this journey an integral part of her story. Perhaps that’s why Katie is passionate about telling stories about other people and experiences that inspire her. Throughout her 30-year career in marketing and communications, Katie feels fortunate to have been able to dedicate her skills to writing compelling copy about organizations that serve others or enable the work of those who do. Before joining Foundant’s team in 2021 as the Marketing Copywriter, she focused her efforts on writing about the programs and services offered by a public university art museum, a customer-owned utility, and local government in Eugene, Oregon—all of which make a difference in the lives of those they serve. That’s what brought Katie to Foundant. She is energized every day by the work its clients are doing to make the world a better place. A mountain girl at heart, Katie is happy to have finally planted her roots in the city of Foundant’s headquarters, Bozeman, Montana. When she’s not working, you’ll likely find Katie outside, looking for different ways to explore the local trails, rivers, and lakes. It’s hard to say whether she has more photos of Bozeman’s breathtaking sunrises and sunsets or her beloved dogs, Moby and Max. One thing is sure—she has fewer photos of her husband and two teenage daughters whom she loves deeply but are far less willing subjects.

Profile Photo of Katie Sproles