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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.)

Heather Floyd's picture

This year I started by...

This year I started by making a very small list of goals - three things that I began last year, but never really got around to that will dramatically improve my business in the long term: "Top 3 Goals for this year". I also wrote down the "Top 3 Administrative Tasks for this year", which are somewhat more amorphous (keep income above $xx), or less interesting (get a collection of contract templates together) than the 3 Goals. So, each Monday when I review the previous week, I make notes about progress made on those 6 items, and challenges (For instance, a client problem which distracted me from spending a few hours on one of my main goals) and write down possible solutions ("Use all day Wednesday to work on Goal X"). I have also tried time blocking this year, so each weekday is broken into segments for various types of activities ("Administration", "Planning", "Billable Client Work", "Writing", etc), which really keeps me focused on the task at hand. So, if I am in my "planning" time, and an email comes in from a client, I don't look at it or respond to it until "Client" time. Of course, on the topic of priorities, this helps me generally keep a balance, so that any one things doesn't get completely neglected, or take over every waking moment. Of course it's not perfect, sometimes very urgent things will come in, and I will have to rearrange my "blocks" for a day, but at least I have to do it consciously, and violating my blocks for more than a few days gets very uncomfortable! In terms of priorities inside each of those blocks, it depends on the block... For Admin, it is often the more urgent (deadline on a bill payment) or what is getting most irritating (dealing with mailing a big box that is in my way), or what serves my other current priorities (ordering a piece of software, etc). For client work, it's on a bit of a first-come/squeaky wheel/deadline basis which determines when individual tasks or projects get prioritized. For more defined goals/projects its generally on a step-by-step next action basis. So, to agree with you, Merlin, priorities are less set in stone and more shifting sands... and as to what actually gets done, there is also a fair amount of available time/energy, mood, opportunity, etc that gets mixed in! I've often tried to do the quadrant prioritizing or the A-B-C, or whatever, but that seems to fall apart and cause guilt. This new system is working a bit better for me right now.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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