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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.)

Todd V's picture

I think the difficulty is...

I think the difficulty is that "priority" can mean either (i) Urgent - "Do now, or else very bad consequences!" or (ii) Important - "Do now, or else you'll never acheive the dreams and life-goals this task helps you move closer to."

The motivation for the Urgent items seems to be 'external' -- expectations, deadlines, etc. others (including yourself) have put on yourself. The motivation for the Important items seems to be 'internal' -- desire, hopes, dreams, things you want in life. I find that the daily-grind often makes me define priority more based on Urgent rather than Important, external demands rather than internal hopes/desires. Covey's 4 Quadrants really helped to capture this in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, but in practice it is very difficult to implement. You have to be able to work on both Urgent and Important tasks simultaneously. This is why I think David Allen's notion of 'instinct' is important, even if it is next-to-impossible to explain (p. 199 in Getting Things Done - "The Moment-to-Moment Balancing Act"). The key, it seems, is regularly reviewing the the entire inventory of horizontal (runway-tasks) and vertical (30-50,000ft dreams & goals) weekly -- no-matter-what! -- so that when you are in-the-moment you can trust your 'instincts' more.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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