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How to handle multiple priorities

Strategies and goals

A friend posed this question:

“What do you do when you have two conflicting things to get done? For example, for me it’s writing vs. studying.  Both take the same amount of focus, time and activity level.  One is more pleasurable, and one is more necessary.

“So when I have a block of time in which I could EITHER write or study……….I end up surfing the web for hours.  In that web-surfing loop where you don’t really look at anything, just go to the same sites over and over to see if they’ve been updated since three minutes ago.  To be honest, it makes me feel like that story in I, Robot: Runaround.  I experience this practically every time I schedule writing-and-studying time for myself.”

It’s a good question, and one I definitely identify with in my own experience. When I have more than one important thing to do, all of the important tasks are weighing on me at once. If I undertake one of them without making special effort to handle this problem, the fact that I’m not doing the others will distract and upset me. For me, this gets worse when there are more things to do, because then it’s hard to even identify all of the things that need doing, and the other priorities will plague me without my even being fully aware of what they are.

One of the reasons we often turn to something completely self-indulgent in these cases is that we hope it will take our mind off all of our other concerns. For example, what if I have the option of writing or studying or watching a good movie? If I do the writing, the fact that I have studying to do might continue to bother me. If I do the studying, the ignored writing might be the pain in my neck. But if I watch the movie and like it, I might be so swept up in the story that I don’t think about either writing or studying–so that the only solution that gives me any relief is the only one that in the long term doesn’t help me at all.


Fortunately, there is a solution to this. Actually, there might be a bunch of solutions to this, but there’s one solution that I know (and that I’ve recently been using more and more). It has three parts: listing, prioritizing, and resigning.

Listing: If you have a lot of things to do, it helps to list them out. If a lot of things are bothering or distracting you, list them all–but if there are only a couple or a few major issues to tackle, don’t bother with all of the lower-priority ones, and instead just list that couple or those few.

In this way the part of your brain that has been devoted to keeping track of them all can rest, because you now have them all on paper and aren’t in danger of forgetting. Listing also allows you to start

Prioritizing: Looking at your list, you decide what one or two or ten things are really the most important for you to tackle right away. Some might call for a quick action but not be of desperate importance (for instance, calling your friend back and confirming that you’ll be at a party tomorrow), but most of your top items should be chosen for importance, whether or not they would need to be done immediately. Try to avoid prioritizing things that are in your face but that don’t matter much in the scheme of things. For instance, you might have noticed for the hundredth time today that you have a little trouble finding any CD in your CD collection, and it may occur to you to organize your CDs. This idea could be very much on your mind, yet not really at all important in the scheme of things. This shouldn’t “float to the top” unless you really have nothing more important to do (in which case your life must be far, far more peaceful than mine!)

Keep in mind that it’s not remotely necessary to prioritize all your tasks: just figure out which are the top ones, and then of those, make sure at least the top few are in priority order. If two things are exactly as important, choose whichever one you’re more enthusiastic about. If a task is very large, try to break it up into sub-tasks and then prioritize those. For instance, if you have three years worth of personal papers to file, break the list item “File all those papers” down and start with a task “Spend 15 minutes starting in on filing.” You can take the rest and make it a task, “Continue with filing,” which can spawn other tasks in future.

I know I’m getting into organizational techniques instead of obvious motivation techniques here, but among the elements of motivation are knowledge of what you need to motivate yourself to do and goal-setting. The listing step covers the knowledge, and this step covers goal-setting. When you’re done with prioritization, you should have a sub-list of Important Things and single thing at the top of that list. This now allows you to begin

Resigning yourself to the idea that you can only under normal circumstances do one thing at a time. (Note: a later post of mine goes into more detail about resigning ourselves to making good choices.) If you decide to study, for instance, your brain may pipe up “But … I have to do some writing!” This is a broken idea, a lie that you’re telling yourself. In fact, you don’t have to do some writing right then. Writing will come later, and as good as it might be to get some done now, you can’t write at the same time as you’re studying, and for the moment you’ve chosen to study. If you’ve broken up your large studying task into chunks, then perhaps what you have decided to do is study one particular chapter, or study for one hour. And you know that when that hour or chapter is over, if you are still on discretionary time, you’ll be able to switch over to writing then. Get at peace with the idea that nothing is going to get done right away except your top priority. When you catch yourself manufacturing broken ideas, repair them one by one until you feel calm and ready to begin. It’s not an easy thing, but once done, the need to do anything other than what you’ve chosen to do goes away, and you can get to work without distraction.


TV picture by Qfamily; writing picture by Ed Yourdon .

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