Laws of Combat: Prioritize and Execute


It’s simply the way the world works: You’re going to have problems on the job. And, with Murphy’s Law (loosely stated as, “If anything can go wrong, it will”) so often in play, you’ll likely have these problems simultaneously.

Enter “prioritize and execute.”

“The reason that this law of combat is in place is because if you try and solve all of your problems simultaneously, you won't solve any of them,” said Willink. “You have to figure out which is the biggest problem that you have” — and solve it first.

He pointed out that this same one-by-one logic applies in the workplace: “There's no company in the world that can execute 47 initiatives at the same time. You need to figure out which is the most important initiative, put your resources on that one, focus on it, get it moving in the right direction, and get it solved.”

Taking life — and work — one challenge at a time.

Choosing to identify and pursue your top priority doesn’t mean that the other priorities disappear. But it does help ensure that the stated priority will be addressed, so that you and your team can move on to the next issues one by one — until you’ve deployed all your available resources.

And what is the leader’s role here, according to Willink? “To make sure that everybody on the team understands that this is our biggest priority.”

“Because if I'm over here working on something that isn't due for another four months, and I realize that the people that have something that's due next week are falling behind, I should be able to say, ‘You know what, we need to help them out.’ Let me grab three people from my crew, let me send them over there and get them moving, get them further towards their goal.”

“Otherwise, we're gonna get off our critical path and we're gonna miss this,” Willink added. If any critical path activities fall behind, the timeline of the whole project is jeopardized. “So everybody's got to understand what the priorities are. And then we’ve got to execute on those priorities.”

Managing effectively when everything’s a priority.

What about when you find yourself in a situation where absolutely everything is a priority? This becomes an opportunity for stepping away from the situation, or practicing appropriate detachment so that your emotions don’t get in the way of your productive decision-making.

You still have to prioritize and execute.

If your boss tells you that you have to get everything done, you won’t succeed by trying to get everything done at the same time. You’ll risk not taking care of your boss because you’re not going to be able to get everything done. Even where everything is a priority, you’ll still need to focus on one priority at a time, to help ensure you deploy the available resources as best you can and keep things headed in the right direction.

Another important skill to cultivate is keeping your cool when others — whether it’s a boss or a client — come at you in an emotional way. Learning how to detach yourself appropriately from the heat of the situation will help you make better decisions.

If you’re the foreman and things are going wrong, once you jump in and start solving a particular problem on the front line, it’s easy to lose your perspective on the larger picture. The risk is that priorities will change and you won’t be present enough to notice and take action.

“I'm not going to make good decisions when I get emotional” in response to client demands, Willink said. “I'm not going to make good decisions when I'm down there in the front line, trying to make something happen. So what I have to do is I have to take a step back, I have to detach, I have to assess the whole situation, I have to see everything. I can only do that if I detach from my emotions, detach from the mayhem, detach from the chaos. That's where I can assess what the priorities actually are.”

An emotional client may or may not actually be focused on what’s most important. If you deploy your resources to the wrong minor issue, you could be missing steps on the critical path.


Although it should be obvious, it’s not: Prioritizing tasks is necessary for optimal execution.

It’s simply not possible — simultaneously — to execute on multiple priorities and achieve your business objectives. In the attempt, you risk perhaps getting everything “done” but none of it well, or not in the proper sequence. The dirt world relies upon critical path project management in many cases, which has its own built-in hierarchy. Follow the path step by step.

You’re also unlikely to perform at your peak when you’re swayed by the emotions of a boss or client — or your own. Taking a step back to detach is another form of prioritizing: Breathe, then act. When you can separate yourself from the heat of the moment, you can see the bigger picture and make better choices.

As Willink noted, “What we need to do is detach, take a step back, do a true logical assessment of what the scenario is, and then prioritize and execute.”