Merlin’s weekly podcast with Dan Benjamin. We talk about creativity, independence, and making things you love.
GTD: Priorities don't exist in a vacuum
Merlin Mann | Oct 1 2006
If you're a fan of Getting Things Done, you're familiar with the Four Criteria Model for choosing tasks. It's where the rubber meets the road in GTD, because it's the way you decide, in the moment, how any one of those wonderful tasks you've been tracking in your big system actually gets done.
As common sense as it seems to GTD'ers, this model is one of the more controversial aspects of Getting Things Done for a simple reason: it posits that priority is not the only factor in deciding what to do at a given time. It's just one of four factors, which include, all told:
When I'm helping coach people on getting it together, they're often puzzled by this seeming bit of new-agery -- partly, I suspect, because most of us have been conditioned all our lives to think that pre-ordained Priority stamps always trump everything, all the time, always, forever, in all cases, end of story. But is it true, reasonable, or even physically possible to always work this way? Can you will yourself into doing only your identified high-priority items anytime, all the time?
Nope, and I'll show you one reason why.
Stressful times for Worker Bee
Let's look at a few challenges that, over the past six months, have faced a notional Worker Bee, leading him to generate high-priority tasks.
All extremely high priorities to this person, and for good reasons, each. So he has to do them all the second they come up, right? Well, maybe.
Worker Bee buzzes into high-priority action!
But let's look at some additional factors in the worker bee's life that affect the immediate do-ability of each of these high-priority tasks -- things for which raw priority may not account.
So, did I cheat to start with just priority and only later give you the contextual details? No, not really. That's actually the point.
Priority mania considered harmful
On some level, this happens to you every day, but even the hugest priority can only be seen clearly in terms of the big picture. Priorities don't care who they compete with, and, from one vantage point, that's kinda what makes them priorities.
Hell, Priority Task Number One (flagged “HIGH PRIORITY!!!”) could give a fig whether “HIGH PRIORITY!!!” items 2 through n ever get a single gulp of oxygen. Priorities, left to their own devices, are selfish bastards. That's their job.
But, remember: priorities represent a snapshot in time and space -- they may escalate, de-escalate, disappear, or, more often than not, they'll be subject to getting bumped by both bigger priorities and by the immutable limitations of time, space, and being a corporeal (sometimes vomiting) human being. Sucks, but it's life, right?
Sidebar: Flag burning
Consider how often you use the “HIGH PRIORITY!!!” flag not as a practical planning tool, but as a way to try and motivate yourself. Is it really the priority that’s set to “HIGH” — or is it just your anxiety and guilt about being behind right now?
The first thing to know is that in GTD, there are three ways of resolving a problematic commitment -- you can either:
You can choose how you deal with high-priority items that can't be done when and how you'd like, but you'll never bend the space-time continuum. Plus, you'll probably strain your lower back trying.
Who's flagging who?
This is not by any means to say that priorities aren't important. I mean, that's why they're called priorities. But you have to take care to understand the larger picture at all times, and to not become so obsessed about priority-centric planning that you create impossible situations and unreasonable expectations for yourself. It's a sure path to serial procrastination for one thing.
When you're self-aware and honest enough tomorrow morning to say "Screw it, I'm going to sharpen pencils for 10 minutes" or "You know, this deadline is impossible without flipping my life upside down" you're turning a corner. You've begun to permit yourself a broader understanding of the real world, in which, as the sole traffic cop for your life, you are in the unique position to decide what's do-able at any given moment.
“But...I'm, like, important”
I imagine I'll hear from people in comments who have the kind of incredibly important job where Horrible Things happen if they don't prioritize the shit out of everything and do it all flawlessly each day. Or maybe they work in Candy Land, where lollipops grow on trees and any perceived priority can be made to trump reality as easily as delicious nectar can be sipped from a flower. But, for the rest of us, I stand by the point: obsess single-mindedly over priority at your peril.
Unless you can always satisfy the big red letter commitments you've created for yourself -- as well as the ones that are constantly being generated for you by others -- an obsession with priority alone is pointlessly stress-inducing, unhealthy, and unrealistic. The truth is that sometimes you have crap days, pencils need to be sharpened, or maybe you just don't have the tools or energy to do what you want the second you want. That's life, pal. Deal.
So, instead of having an aneurysm about it, just rally, and do what you can with what you've got. That's all any of us can really do, and faking it in order to feel more productive (or more important) gets you no place fast.
|EXPLORE 43Folders||THE GOOD STUFF|