Prioritising: knowing what doesn’t need to be done

  • Derek Roger

How often are we told we need to prioritise if we’re to be efficient? Learning to prioritise is important, but we need to understand what’s required. Prioritising is usually thought of as deciding what the most important things are, moving them to the top of the ‘to do’ list, but that’s actually the second step. Prioritising is about first deciding what isn’t important. Do you have an in-tray? At the bottom will be the things you didn’t prioritise. If they’ve been there for more than a few months the likelihood is that you’ll never do them and they should be in the bin, but the problem is they continue to siphon off your attention: you keep having distracting thoughts along the lines ‘I really must get to doing this or that’. The paradox is when you decide ‘today’s the day’, pull the work out – and wonder what the fuss was all about!

The fuss was the emotion you added to something that has no emotion built into it at all. Just about all of our actions have this added emotion, along a continuum from ‘I love doing this’ to ‘I hate doing that’. The bottom of the in-tray is filled with ‘I hates’, but the work we do doesn’t come loaded with the emotion – we add it in. For example, you’re sitting at your desk and the first piece of work arrives, followed by the next and the next and the next. There is neither emotion nor stress in a growing pile of work, only an increase in pressure. Pressure is useful, and gets us going; stress is not. To turn that pressure into stress, all you need do is to start ruminating about it: what you imagine will happen if you don’t get it done, etc., which might even culminate in a scenario of you being sacked and you and your family destitute and on the streets. In other words, as Mark Twain described them, the worst things in my life that never happen.

Prioritising needs to be done in a detached way. When it isn’t, the consequence is procrastination or perfectionism. Procrastinators push things aside until the pressure is so great they end up having to do things too quickly, and usually have angry people down the line who’ve been waiting for the job to be done. Perfectionists can’t see the threshold of added value: the point where no matter how much more you do, you’re not adding anything to the outcome. Both are governed by emotion, the emotional preference of procrastinators for doing something else instead of what’s in front of them and the perfectionists’ fear of not doing the impossible perfect job.

What follows from letting go of the emotion is ‘multi-tasking’, which is actually a myth. No-one can multi-task - you can’t give your attention to more than one novel thing at a time. People who appear to be multi-tasking are certainly extremely skilled, but what they’re doing is moving their attention from one thing to another, sequentially, without getting caught by any one of them.

This is all part of prioritising. Decide what isn’t important as much as what is, do what needs to be done without getting confused by emotional preferences, and ensure that you get to the threshold of added value but not beyond it before moving on. The simple principle with all work is deciding objectively what needs to be done and doing it, without allowing your attention to get hijacked by emotion along the way.

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