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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.)

Sean Tierney's picture

Priority is the lever where...

Priority is the lever where the fulcrum exists closest to you so that small actions on your end have the most impact on advancing your cause. I wrote up some thoughts last week drawing the analogy of priority to the "power band" in kite surfing -> http://www.scrollinondubs.com/2007/02/08/kite-surfing-startups-and-the-power-band/ The power band is a small window directly downwind and generating maximum power is about keeping your kite in that window as long as possible. Anything you do on the periphery has negligible effect on forward progress. This is a very similar skill to keeping focused on tasks which have the greatest ability to advance your cause throughout the day. sean




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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