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Principles for Prioritizing, Part II: Unimportant Tasks

Strategies and goals

This is the second article in a short series on prioritizing. The first article in the series, “Principles for Prioritizing, Part I: Moving Targets,” appeared Monday, and includes links to other articles on the site about organizing and prioritizing.

Less important tasks may need to be dropped
When prioritizing tasks, we’re always dealing with at least two variables: how important something is and when it needs to be done. Do we do the immediate, less important thing or start working on the longer-term, more important thing instead? There’s no easy answer to this, but there are some ways to figure it out.

Of course important tasks that need to be done soon should take priority, and unimportant tasks that aren’t needed right away should be bumped to the end of your list–which for many of us may mean (sadly) that there will be no time for them. But of those other two possibilities–more important but less pressing and less important but more pressing–the decisions become more difficult. If you find that you are generally getting important things done on time without your life going haywire at all, you can probably afford to do the more urgent but less important tasks some of the time. But if you find that important, long-term things are often not getting done, not getting done well, or not getting done until the last minute, then what generally needs to happen is for some of those short-term but less important items to be dropped entirely from your task list so that you can get the more important things done.

For example, if you have a choice of working on some tax paperwork that’s due next week and reading a book for your book club meeting tomorrow, and if you find you often have trouble getting things like that tax paperwork done on time, then it’s probably time to take a hiatus from the book club.

To put it another way: effective prioritization often means giving up on less important tasks.

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Principles for Prioritizing, Part I: Moving Targets

Strategies and goals

One of the most challenging things about managing a task list is prioritizing. You may literally have hundreds of things to do, from raking the leaves to learning a new job skill to making up a will. Comparing and ordering these items can be overwhelming.

Following are some basic principles to apply when prioritizing tasks that can help make sense out of a very complex set of priorities.

1. Priorities change all the time
It would be nice to be able to assign every task a priority that never changes, but from day to day–and sometimes hour to hour–too many things change for this to be the case. Scheduling a check-up becomes gradually more urgent the longer we put it off, or suddenly more urgent if health problems come up. Projects around the house may have to slide down the list of priorities when a new obligation comes up that makes it unlikely there will be time for them. Problems solve themselves or get worse from inattention; opportunities arise; people change their preferences and actions. Therefore, the best prioritization we can really achieve is the priority of things at the given moment, and the most effective task list is one that you can (and do) regularly re-prioritize.

This series will continue over the next several posts.

Related articles that may be of interest include:

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Hidden urgency: goals and the ticking clock

States of mind


In writing, there’s a useful suspense technique called the “ticking clock.” You’re probably familiar with it: the hero has some desperately important thing that she or he has to accomplish, and suddenly it’s made much worse because it turns out there’s only a short time to get it done before all is lost. We have ticking clocks of our own, at least for little things, in our own lives: work that has to be done before a deadline to grab an opportunity or stave off disaster, a place you have to get before it closes, a medical emergency … and in all of these cases, we naturally become much more engaged and focused in doing what needs to be done.

This is going to seem like a completely different subject for a moment, but let’s turn our attention to people who expect to die and miraculously survive–people whose inoperable cancer goes into remission, or people who through incredible luck live through accidents or disasters that they expected to be fatal. It seems to be common for people like this to come away with specific revelations: that our lives are precious, that little problems don’t mean that much, and that it’s important to make the most of what time we have. Yawning yet? This is kind of standard inspirational fare. “Yes, life is miraculous, we’re alive, isn’t it amazing? Sure, we should make our lives meaningful, enjoy every day, yadda yadda yadda …”

So let’s bring together that ticking clock technique and that boring old “our time is precious” saw. The way they fit together is this: we have a limited lifespan; eventually we’ll die. We have an even more limited window of enjoyment or benefit for certain things, like learning to be better parents (once the kids have grown up and moved on, the most important parts of parenting are over) or enjoying an activity or opportunity that might not be available forever.

That means that for most things of importance, every day we delay in reaching a goal is a day less that reaching that goal can benefit us. If you’re working on good financial management, the longer it takes you to get around to really focusing on it, the shorter the portion of your life where you have your finances really under control will be. If you want to write and direct your own movie, every delay in doing that shortens your total time as a maker of movies, which determines how many projects you can do, how good you’ll get, and how much enjoyment you’ll experience.

If this kind of talk makes you feel a little anxious, that’s good, because you can harness that to drive yourself energetically toward your goals–but hold onto it for a moment before you go very far with it. We need to distinguish between unnecessary delays on the one hand and the amount of time it realistically takes to do things well on the other. If you’re not making movies because you’re busy focusing on making yourself healthier, and if health is a higher priority for you, the movies can wait: it’s hard enough to really focus on one major goal at a time, and two or more is usually enough to cause crashing and burning of all of the goals. We have a limited amount of time and attention in our lives. It’s not only OK to use it on just one major project at once, it’s downright clever.

And reaching goals–especially goals that require changing habits–takes time. You have to do a lot of writing to become a really good writer, and to turn down a lot of bags of chips to become the kind of person who automatically and enthusiastically eats a healthy diet. Our brains do change and rewire themselves, but it always takes time, whether we’re talking about good quality practice to acquire a new skill or changing our habits to modify our outlook and behavior.

The exception to the “single goal” approach is our day-to-day decisions. We can always try to keep in mind how beneficial it is to make better choices, so if each time a meaningful decision comes up we take an extra moment to see if we can’t get ourselves to take the high road, that’s a moment well spent.

So you may want to take a moment right now to think about your goal–not all of your goals, but the one most important current goal in your life–and apply that ticking clock. Are you working on that goal with focus, every day, or are you putting it off, telling yourself it’s not urgent, that there’s plenty of time? If it doesn’t feel urgent, you could spend a little time thinking about what you might be losing by your delay. How much more could be gained by doing it today instead of tomorrow? One less day of having to wait for the wonderful results you want to achieve? One day of increased income before retirement? One day of being better at relationships, and therefore one more day of greater happiness for other people in your life?

And if you are applying yourself every day, I hope you can take a moment to pat yourself on the back. There are a lot of things that can make the important goals in our lives look like they can wait, so if you’re pushing ahead despite all that, you’re in an uncommon and enviable class of people, even if the pushing ahead itself is difficult or unpleasant. Keep on keeping on!

And if you’re not applying yourself every day, please come back to this post next week when you are and read yourself that congratulatory paragraph. You will have earned it.

Photo by gnijil_lijing.

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