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Mud Rooms, Red Letters, and Real Priorities

Thanks to my funny, literary pal, Jason B. Jones, today, I'm visiting lovely, warm Connecticut to do some talks and whatnot at CCSU. I mention it because I'd started typing this little post mid-way through the long eastbound flight that delivered me here from three fun (but very long) days doing a comedy thing with You Look Nice Today and Jordan, Jesse, Go! over on that other, top-left, edge of our nation.

So, I was tired. Really tired. The kind of tired where your wallet hurts your butt, and coffee tastes weird, and you try super-hard to sleep, but -- well -- you're just too tired to sleep. And, I was fine with all that. Who can complain about being sleepy from hanging out with Adam and Scott? Exactly.

Except. The lady in the seat directly behind me was having grave problems with her "mud room." Big mud room problems. I know this because she talked about it for several hours in excruciating detail.

I'll spare you the nuts and bolts of the numerous and surprising ways that the room in which wealthy persons remove their shoes might contribute to causing a carefully-coiffed, 60-year-old woman to come unglued over "priorities." Suffice to say, fixing this problem was a "high priority" for her. So, she said, repeatedly, as I shifted my wallet, let my coffee go cold, and balled the little blue pillow under my neck.

"Priority! Mud room!" I audibly mumbled, just loud enough to be heard exactly one row back.

Priority. Man, that's a tough word. Because, depending on who you talk to, most people say "prioritizing" is either a giant problem, an underused skill, or a "Get out of Jail Free" card.

Me? I think priorities are simple to understand precisely because their influence is so staggeringly clear and unavoidable to behold, then act upon. Ready for this one?

A priority is observed, not manufactured or assigned. Otherwise, it's necessarily not a priority.

Got that? You can't "prioritize" a list of 20 tasks any more than you can "uniqueify" 20 objects by "uniqueness," or "pregnantitze" 20 women by "pregnantness." Each of those words means something.

An item is either unique or it is not. A woman is either pregnant or she is not. An item is either the priority or it is not. One-bit. Mutually exclusive. One ring to rule them all.

Why all the fussiness, Mr. Fussy?

When most people say, "prioritize," I think they really mean to say, "force-rank" -- to assign n items one and only one position between "1" and "n." Right? So, yes, there's one "#1" and one "#7," et cetera. But that's not "priority," and that's why you probably have at least one task on your version of a to-do list that has been "HIGH PRIORITY!!!" for more than a month.

Kind of unique. Sort of pregnant. "High" priority.

This is why I say priorities can only be observed. In my book, a priority is not simply a good idea; it's a condition of reality that, when observed, causes you to reject every other thing in the universe -- real, imagined, or prospective -- in order to ensure that things related to the priority stay alive.

Even though their influence informs every decision we make on the most tactical level, thinking about priorities happens at a strategic, "why am I here?" level. Right? Maybe? Disagree? Pretty sure you can make priorities like biscuits or shuffle them around like Monopoly pieces?

Got news for you, Jack: if it moves, it's not a priority. It's just a thing you haven't done yet.

Making something a BIG RED TOP TOP BIG HIGHEST #1 PRIORITY changes nothing but text styling. If it were really important, it'd already be done. Period. Think about it.

Example. When my daughter falls down and screams, I don't ask her to wait while I grab a list to determine which of seven notional levels of "priority" I should assign to her need for instantaneous care and affection. Everything stops, and she gets taken care of. Conversely -- and this is really the important part -- everything else in the universe can wait.

Related example. You ever had a loved one -- especially a very young relative -- pass away unexpectedly? Brutal. What did you do when you found out? Did you "re-prioritize" your day and move a few things around? Or did you drop everything and join his or her loved ones in taking care of what needed to be taken care of? You just saw what needed to be done and likely had no compunction about telling everybody at work they'd either have to wait or move on without you.

And, let's be clear: this is not all about "urgency." Yes, an injured child and a grieving family need help now in a way that an M&A discussion or a CPR class may not. But, again. It's not a question of order or shuffling. It's a question of brutally honest decision-making and constantly saying, "No, I have another thing to take care of."

Day One Buddhism.

Because, once you see what's really there -- once you know about an idea or a thing or a person or whatever that you'd reject 10,000 other things to protect and nurture -- you've found your priority. And, consequently, you've discovered a bunch of other things that aren't allowed to be priorities any more. Even in spirit.

Because, if you aren't rejecting or dumping things every single day, you don't know your priority. You're making things up. If you think you have 35 priorities, then yes: you also think you have 35 arms. Is it any wonder you're feeling awkward and unsure?

True Priorities

Maybe a mud room is a priority. I think more likely it was this lady's emotional obsession. If I were the sort of person who coached people on these things, I'd ask her what piece of information she needed to get moving on the "mud room" project, then get it, do it, and move on. That said, dozens of thousands of feet in the air seems like a crummy place to realize a mud room is your "priority," but I'm not here to judge. Much.

What I will tell you is that these ideas about scarcity and mutual exclusivity fly in the face of most "productivity" and "effectiveness" nonsense, and frankly, they make most people bristle. Big time. When I tell someone who's making 10 times the salary I'll ever make that it's literally impossible to have seven priorities, they look at me like I'm the biggest, dumbest hippie in the world. Sheesh, right?

For the Cult of Priority folks, two things:

First, ask yourself why any "high priority" item has remained unresolved in your life for more than 60 seconds. Why isn't it done completely? Have you ever "re-assigned" "priority" to some task? Really? Because that sounds more like procrastination than management, let alone "effective" action and decisive execution. Sounds more to me like getting paid $10,000,000 a year to re-arrange your spice rack -- then wondering why your company, marriage, and back porch are all crumbling under your "prioritization." Sounds like maybe you're just feeling crummy about not understanding your job and your life. Once you know a tree is falling on you, you don't take a meeting to drill down on strategies viz. arboreal exit strategies. You just run.

Also, number two -- and this is a biggie -- I'm staggered whenever a Director-level or higher executive claims they have 3, 5, 7, or 27 "priorities." Because, at that level, your entire career is defined by the unbelievably great ideas that you reject. Painfully giant, wonderful, terrific opportunities that you simply don't have the capacity to address without screwing up the real priority.

No, no, no, no, sorry, later, nope, forget it, later, no, no, no.

Because only babies and crazy people get to pretend that reality actually changes when you close your eyes and hum. And, reality is the thing that priorities hang on. If you think you can change it by taxonomies and meetings, you still have only two arms, only now you're also screwed.

So, if a mud room, or a crying toddler, or a CPR class, or even a short note from an old friend turns up on your radar screen today, don't ask yourself whether it's a "priority." Ask yourself what you must not do in order to make sure it gets taken care of.

Once you see and accept real priorities, the rest just turns on the mechanics of fearless completion.

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:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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