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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.)

Brock Tice's picture

Inspired by a friend of...

Inspired by a friend of my who recently joined the GTD cult, I have finally started using priorities on my next actions to make sure that I actually use them appropriately. I found myself doing things that I knew had to be done and not checking my NAs because there were a lot, and the ones that really needed to get done now rarely seemed to be at the top. It was work to find them.

Here's my new priority system. It's in iCal / Palm, so the levels are High, Medium, Low, and None. The inspiration from my friend was to prioritize based on timeline.

  • High: Has a due date and it's very important (i.e. one of the 5 milestones to finishing my Ph.D.)
  • Medium: Has a due date and it's not High priority
  • Low: No due date, important
  • None: Needs to get done, but no due date, not as important

Everything else goes on Someday/Maybe or gets trashed as something I don't really want to do. This has helped a bunch. Of course, things that have to happen on a given day go on the calendar, but if you have something due in two weeks and it will take you eight workdays of effort to do it, it won't do you much good just to have it on your calendar, even if you're in the habit of looking ahead.

I had some problems where I'd miss due dates because I wasn't doing this. It's not a problem anymore.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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