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Principles for Prioritizing, Part III: Feelings and Finding the Top

Strategies and goals

This is the third article in a short series on prioritizing. The first article in the series, “Principles for Prioritizing, Part I: Moving Targets,” includes links to other articles on the site about organizing and prioritizing and is followed by “Principles for Prioritizing, Part II: Unimportant Tasks.”

3. How important something feels isn’t always a good indication of how important it is
To gauge how important something really is, it helps to put it in the context of what you really want in life. What are your key priorities? Going by gut feeling can sometimes lead us in the wrong direction because a task may be appealing or exciting or seem important because we’re wrapped up in it, when in fact it isn’t as important as other, less dramatic tasks. Try to judge the importance of an item from a distance, when you’re not deeply wrapped up in the task itself, by thinking about what effect it is likely to have in your life.

To get out of an obsession with a particular task that isn’t really a priority, allow your attention to focus on something else for at least a few minutes: have a conversation with a friend about a subject of mutual interest, or do a small task that’s unrelated to the one you’ve been involved in. These few minutes allow your brain to reorganize so that it’s not focused on that one possibly unimportant task, and let your physiology reset so that you’re not swept up in the biochemical side of emotion. In this state of mind, you can consider that appealing task in the context of all your other priorities.

4. The most important goal of prioritization is to find your top few tasks–especially your top one task
If you have a 200-item task list, it’s not particularly important to get all of your items prioritized so that, for instance, items 183 and 184 are in the proper order. Realistically, you may never get to items 183 and 184, and even if you do, circumstances are likely to change by the time you get there. The most effective way to prioritize is to care just about the top few tasks for the moment, so that you know what to start doing immediately and have one or two things queued up after you finish that first item. Doing this allows you to do what a task list is meant to help you do: focus on the one thing that it would benefit you most to be doing right now.

Finding those top few tasks may mean skimming over all 200 (or 20, or 2,000) items in your task list, but when skimming, the only thing to be thinking about is “what here would it be really good for me to tackle very soon?” The tasks that meet this criterion can then be sorted through with the question “Which of these would be most beneficial to do right now?”

That list of “very soon” things should never be more than a half dozen items long unless they’re very small items if you want to make good use of your searching. Anything more than that, and priorities are likely to change before you get to all of the items. Prioritize for the moment.

Photo by Chris JL

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