How To Prioritise

prioritising

Laurie Prange is Professor of Business and Management at Capilano University in Vancouver. She and I have been talking online for some years, and last year I was lucky enough to meet up with her. She treated me to a wonderful brunch at Aphrodite’s Organic Café, and then we took a stroll to look at the beautiful Kitsilano houses by the ocean. Also, we talked non-stop.

Our online talk is more intermittent. Here’s an example from last week:

 

Laurie’s question got me wondering whether people are having difficulty in prioritising during these lockdown times, particularly those who are not used to home working. I had a look round the blogs I’ve taken to checking before I write a post, in case the topic has already been covered: the Thesis Whisperer, the Research Whisperer, Pat Thomson and Raul Pacheco-Vega. I found quite a lot of advice about planning, but very little on prioritising. And they’re not the same thing.

Planning is, of course, essential. You need a plan before you can prioritise. So this post assumes you have a plan. Some people need detailed long-term plans and Raul Pacheco-Vega offers lots of good advice on how to construct and manage this kind of plan. Others can manage with a pen and the back of an envelope. And others still – like me – take an in between approach. I have a top-level to-do list of all my current projects: research work for clients, teaching and speaking engagements, writing and publishing projects. I use that to create a lower-level list of what I need to do each month, then use that list to figure out what I need to do this week, and refer to that list each day to write my daily to-do list. This may sound like a cumbersome approach but in practice it takes just a few minutes each day. I write my weekly to-do list on a Friday evening for the following week, which helps me to put work down for the weekend in the knowledge that come Monday morning, I won’t have to think about what I need to do, I’ll only have to prioritise.

Prioritising is micro-level planning: it’s about what you do first, what you do next, and why. The former US President Dwight D Eisenhower coined a helpful principle. He said that it is necessary to understand the difference between urgent and important tasks. Those that are both urgent and important take top priority. Then – and this may seem counter-intuitive – the second priority goes to the important non-urgent tasks. This is because important tasks are those which help you move towards your goals, while urgent tasks may not be urgent to you but only to someone else. Of course to that other person the task may be both urgent and important – but if a task is not important to you, it should take a lower priority in your life. This is linked with the vital task of saying ‘no’. Then tasks which are neither important nor urgent take the lowest priority.

More things to consider when prioritising are your own energy level and working style. There are three good options for what to do first in any given day. One is the most urgent and important task on the day’s list; if something is screaming ‘now now now!’ then get it done first. Another option, particularly on a day when you don’t feel so good or you’re struggling with motivation, is to do a small easy task to give yourself a sense of achievement. The third – and the one I use most often – is to ‘swallow the frog’. This expression comes from a saying by the American humourist Mark Twain, who said that if the first thing you do each day is eat a live frog, then for the rest of the day you can have the satisfaction of knowing that the day’s worst experience is already behind you. This jest has become a useful metaphor in prioritising, summing up advice given to me as a child by my mother: do the thing you least want to do first of all or, at the very latest, second. It’s tempting to do the easier or more enjoyable tasks first, and work up to the more demanding jobs. But that can quickly turn to counter-productive procrastination, as the more demanding jobs are even harder later in the day when you’re tired.

Another thing that can help with prioritising is to eat a healthy balanced and regular diet. I can hear you asking me, Helen, what on earth has THAT got to do with it? Stick with me, reader; this is evidence-based. The psychologist Roy Baumeister used empirical research to demonstrate a link between willpower and blood sugar. Doing unappealing tasks takes willpower, which requires good blood sugar levels. This does not mean you should eat all the chocolate or snack throughout the day; that poses a particular danger in these lockdown times when the fridge is close at hand. It means you should, whenever possible, eat three healthy meals a day. If you have a low patch – for me it’s around 4 pm – add in a healthy snack; my go-to options include a cup of cocoa with no added sugar, or some carrot sticks and hummus.

It is also necessary to be flexible. Prioritising is not a one-off task; it needs regular revision in the light of external changes. The need to make changes can make people feel as though they are poor prioritisers, as if their prioritising techniques are at fault because they haven’t been able to stick to their original micro-plan. Don’t fall into that trap; recognise that changing circumstances require us to reprioritise, and be ready and willing to do so. Use good time management techniques, though, such as batching tasks and minimising distractions, to help you recognise the events that mean reprioritisation is needed. Don’t let your micro-plan be knocked off course by every incoming email.

And finally: always, always, prioritise self-care.

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