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Vox Pop: What we talk about when we talk about "priority"

Since the Bronze Age of personal productivity, conventional wisdom has taught us the importance of priority in deciding how to plan and use our time. And, in the abstract, anyhow, that notion of putting your time and attention into those things that are the most valuable to you seems so "obvious" as to be a tautology, where "productivity = acting on priorities." (Of course, whether people's execution of the things they claim are important always maps to their stated intentions is another matter for another post a really big book.)

But, we can probably agree that in the post-Lakein world of productivity and time management, everything from Covey's Quadrants to the Pareto Principle to the four criteria to -- what? I dunno -- firewalking, has been used to help us train our attention on the things that need us most and provide the greatest value in our world. Priority.

But, in practice, what the hell does "priority" really mean?

I come at this from the angle of a GTD fan, in the sense that I try (try, mind you) to see priority as one of several factors that govern where my time can and should go. But, it's no secret that even the most diehard GTD fan struggles with how to execute a busy day during which this and this and this and, oh crap, **that** all need to be done as soon as possible. How do you manage it all?

Well, one way is to apply some of the many affordances that various productivity tools offer: priority stuff is big, and it's red, and it's bold, it's at the very top of the list, and it's stuck on a sticky note in the middle of the monitor; anything to make sure we don't lose our most important work in the lights.

So my question to you guys: what does "priority" really mean to you in practice (not theory)?

Does it represent the highest value item in your world -- that for which you will reject other work? Is it the thing that's currently causing the most stress and anxiety? Or is it the thing that you're the most behind on and are therefore the most horribly embarrassed about? What makes you set an item's priority to the "high" setting, and then how does that help it to get done faster? Does priority planning ever fail you?

I've got my own theories, but I want to hear what you guys think in comments.

(And, of course, my apologies to the late Raymond Carver.)

For me, there are two... by gabe (not verified)
I triage all my priorities.... by Tom (not verified)
1 is doing what I... by Brian Keith (not verified)
I'm a litigation attorney. ... by Paul (not verified)
For me, urgent is anything... by Prostr8 (not verified)
Things that I feel under... by Simon (not verified)
Many of you have excellent... by Grant Boston (not verified)

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




An Oblique Strategy:
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Merlin used to crank. He’s not cranking any more.

This is an essay about family, priorities, and Shakey’s Pizza, and it’s probably the best thing he’s written. »

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