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Why prioritization is harder than you think and a little help

February 26, 2015

The reason it is hard (and why Covey’s world is ridiculously simplistic) is that the rewards and risks for doing or delaying a thing are impossible to compare by objective rational means. We are always choosing where to put our attention based on fears, desires, affinities, delights, agreements habits and discipline. each of us has one stream of consciousness, but various activities reliably fall into different realms of value. There is no rational equation to determine if playing Legos with your kids is more or less important or urgent than creating a new TPS report cover, these are incomparable realms of value.  People who insist they are essentially comparable are pretending and want you to come along.

The trick of prioritization is an essentially personal trick. If you are going to compare the value of filling your car with gas and the desire to express gratitude to your mother by showing up on time to brunch on Mother’s day, you need to build a personal bridge between the two realms of value. We do this every day. We sort out the perceived risks and fears along with anticipated results and make choices based on a personal sense of relative value.  But it isn’t that these choices are inherently rational and the same between people or even between your self today and tomorrow.

People will tell you how you should do things to meet their expectations. If you listen too much, you might start to feel helpless–you might lose the realization that you chose where your attention goes. If you listen too little, people might think you are odd or antisocial. But all of the middle ground is yours.

Given this, is there any help for prioritizing attention?

  1. Use the GTD idea of realms of action to split tasks by physical context. This seems to make sense in that you don’t write email during your commute and you don’t rake the lawn at work. This is practical and good to think of tasks in terms of where they can best be accomplished based on context, tools, etc.
  2. Get clear on whether a task is driven straight from your own id, ego, love, loyalty, commitment and intellectual or relationship affinities, or if you are doing it to fulfill expectations, in exchange for something. Exchanges are okay, but sort them out. Is the exchange direct or indirect? (co-dependent much?) Is the exchange equitable according to your personal system of comparing realms of value.
  3. Get honest about what you can control and what you can’t. Stop worrying about what you can’t control.
  4. Design for the likeliest outcomes, even when you feel you have to work for something less likely. You won’t beat the odds every time.
  5. Review your predictions, actions and outcomes and change your perspective, attention and habits where things don’t line up.
  6. Understand your value system and feelings about how things go.
  7. Lists and probably multiple lists (so use an automated system). More on this next post.
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