Advice Priorities Read Other People’s Stuff

Three Things About Priorities

(And, Read Other People’s Stuff: 6)

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It seems that I’ve spent a large part of my life coaching people through prioritization exercises. While there are all sorts of formal methods to help people objectively prioritize things (like my favorite, the Kano analysis), more often than not, prioritization can be — and is — done intuitively. Frankly, intuitive prioritization is wonderful; I tend to save formal methods for times when my (or our) intuition starts to struggle.

I’d like to share three things about intuitive prioritization that are, however, not all that intuitive.

1. Your highest priorities probably aren’t as high as you suspect.

Say you have a list — or backlog — of 100 items.

And say you prioritize each one, 1 (highest) to 4 (lowest).

How many of them are 1s?

Of those, how many are you actively working on?

Subtract that number from the total number of 1s.

If the number is zero, you’re a superstar, and you should pour a glass of your favorite beverage, kick back, and…move on to item #2.

If not, read on.

Of the 1s that you are not actively working on, how long have they been hanging around with that priority?

How many of them really deserve to be 1s?

I remember a few decades ago when I was introduced to the Franklin Planner’s lucid prioritization system. My teacher colored outside the lines and explained to me that “A” priorities are best thought of as do or die. That is, if an “A” priority were to be neglected, someone’s life or job would be at stake. In that sense, in most situations, very few priorities are truly worthy of Franklin “A.” That’s good!

Let’s get back to your list of 100 items. Of those, how many had to be done by yesterday? This may be difficult to swallow, but the answer is always zero. The soonest you can get any of those done is today.

“Have to” is a funny, overused phrase, and we’re all better off remembering that.

The vast majority of our high priorities are likely a Franklin “B.” That is, things that we would like to get done today, but if we can’t, nobody will die or be fired.

2. Your highest priority may be to feel good. Either own that, or do hard things.

Here’s another test of your prioritization prowess:

  • You have a prioritized list of five items
  • The first four have been determined to involve a lot of complex work to address
  • The fifth is easy to address
  • During planning, you decide you want to do the fifth item on the list first, because it will make you feel good to get something done

You’ve just committed a common violation of the laws of prioritization: you’ve lied to yourself about your priorities. Here’s the thing: it’s perfectly OK to want to do item five and feel a “quick win.” It means, however, that feeling a “quick win” is your true priority. Is that OK? It sure is! But you have to own it; you have a grand opportunity to reconsider whether or not items one through four are indeed your highest priorities. Do that openly, in the moment, while the thinking is fresh.

Many times, our highest priorities are the hardest things to address. With finite resources, it takes discipline to stay focused on getting those done if they are indeed high priorities, no matter how hard they may be.

3. Your highest priorities aren’t even in your to-do list.

Why do we all forego so much of the above, so frequently?

The answer is: priorities are about choices, and choices are not naturally easy to make.

Here’s a maxim: There’s no such thing as a perfect decision or choice. If a decision or choice were that easy, there would be no decision or choice to make! You would, as we sometimes say, proceed without having to think too much.

Many things have an intrinsic priority: our families, our friends, our personal lives, our moments of joy, and our moments of sorrow come to mind. Beyond those, there are smaller things, like self-care and emotional fulfillment. We may be able to sustain short bursts de-prioritizing these, but trouble is nigh if this goes on for too long.

In the healthiest moments of our lives, these intrinsic priorities don’t even feel like choices.

You may argue that some of your business processes are similar; fulfilling customer orders, for example. Given a choice of an innovation or following through on a customer need, the latter should probably win.

What puts us out of prioritization whack more than anything else is feeling conflict in the process of tending to things with intrinsic priority over things without.

When you find yourself at this moment…

“I’ve got 10 innovations to work on. I can’t work on them, though, because I have customers to serve.”

…you have two things you can do: 1) Serve your customers and let your innovations wait; or 2) Serve your customers and de-prioritize a few other things to start working on your innovations. Both options involve some pain, but the latter requires deeper thinking. For that, my friends, in the spirit of Read Other People’s Stuff, I can’t recommend this highly enough: Deep Change, by Robert Quinn.

Postscript, October 14, 2023: If you liked this, there’s one more thing…

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Advice Priorities

Another Thing About Priorities

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Here’s something that I didn’t think belonged in Three Things About Priorities, but that is important nonetheless:

In a pure prioritization process, you should not consider the resources you have at hand to address your priorities.

Why is that?

If something is important enough to be your #1 priority, then it is…your top priority. Whether or not you have the resources to accomplish it is another matter entirely.

If that priority is truly important, then your next step is to consider how to get the resources to address it.

If that becomes uncomfortable, and your #2 priority seems more appealing as a result, then your #2 is, in fact, your top priority.

You might say that this concept is adjacent to “Your highest priority may be to feel good. Either own that, or do hard things” in my previous post, and I would agree with you. In fact, avoiding the work that you need to wrangle resources for your #1 priority may be a form of feeling good.

Whatever choice you make, own it.

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Current Events: 2023

A Plea for Balance

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When you read studies like this, which was published last week, how do you feel?

I feel apprehensive.

At universities around the United States, the troubling decline in investment in the classic well-rounded liberal arts education continues unabated. This decline has its roots, no doubt, in a decline in interest for the humanities. A high-profile article in The New Yorker earlier this year documented and lamented the decline of the English major. An editorial counterpoint in The New York Times tried to explain what might be behind that.

American universities continue their massive investment shifts away from the humanities and toward STEM. Politics aside, the 2023 Pew study “finds that, despite recent declines in ratings, scientists and medical scientists continue to be held in high regard compared with other prominent groups in society. Smaller shares of Americans express confidence in business leaders, religious leaders, journalists and elected officials to act in the public’s best interests. As with scientists, most of these groups have seen their ratings decline in recent years.”

Our value system holds scientists in high regard; high schools award varsity letters for robotics teams; universities are hailing STEM über alles; and it’s clear that parents today are as hopeful for their engineering students’ future as they might have been for their medical students’ future a generation ago.

Yet Americans find themselves worried about their country’s competitive edge and feel we aren’t pushing STEM hard enough.

What’s missing? Fareed Zakaria got it right back in 2014. The sciences can’t thrive without a foundation in the humanities, which are simultaneously served by science and are of service to it. My life’s work, founded in rhetorical theory and invested in STEM, was inspired by Aristotle’s opening line of The Rhetoric: “ἡ ῥητορική ἐστιν ἀντίστροφος τῇ διαλεκτικῇ” (“Rhetoric is a counterpart of Dialectic.”) To distill the essence: There is more to philosophical debate than logic. To extend the metaphor: there is much more to life than what is scientifically, mathematically, or logically provable.

I cannot think of a period in history where we have nurtured such an imbalance in our educational values.

What do you think it will take for our American education system to come to terms with this?

If your non-traditional professional path resembles mine in any way whatsoever, I want to hear from you.

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