The Myth of Priority

Posted by Josh | Posted in GTD | Posted on 11-16-2008

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When I do my weekly review, I’ve made it a habit to mark items as “priority 2″ in Remember The Milk that I’d like to get done in the next week.  This puts a nice blue mark next to them in my lists, so they stand out from the crowd.  In the beginning, it gave me a sense of direction going into the week.

Here’s the problem: I don’t see any reasonable correlation between the assigned “priority” of an item, and whether or not it get’s done in a timely manner.  Priorities shift so rapidly in my life that items never stay in the same category for very long.  This morning’s “priority one” could become this afternoon’s “maybe tomorrow” in the blink of an eye if a fire pops up.  As a result, what I see is things marked as “high priority” piling up, which makes me feel like I’m getting buried even more.  It’s a vicious cycle to be sure.

Perhaps that’s why according to the “true” principles of GTD, priority is really something that gets decided on a moment-by-moment basis.  When faced with a block of time, and no clear indication of how to spend it, GTD suggests examining the following criteria:

  1. Context (where are you and what do you have access to)
  2. Time Available (5 minutes, 30 minutes, 2 hours)
  3. Energy Available (high, medium, low)
  4. Priority (dictated or decided, see my previous post)

Think of the following situation: you have fifteen minutes in between meetings, and are exhausted after a long night up with the spouse talking about some things in your personal life.  You’re sitting outside the conference room of your next meeting, but have your laptop with you.  You can choose between a)starting to work on diagnosing a rather nasty technical issue, b) paying a bill or two online, both of which are due in a week, or b)responding to three e-mails (one of which was marked urgent by the sender) which have been sitting since this morning, and are simple one-and-done questions.   Which is the more productive choice?  I won’t answer the question; you decide based on the list above.

So how does this relate to my original question?  Well, in my case, re-reading about how GTD teaches us to best use these fleeting moments helped me to realize that my use of the “priority” function in my system was causing more confusion than it was clarifying and ordering my actions.  From now on, here is what I intend to do at my weekly reviews:

  1. Ensure that all my lists are current.  All my open loops are recorded, and all projects are present and accounted for.
  2. Any item which has a specific and (relatively) inflexible date by which it must be completed is assigned a due date.  For example, I have to get my taxes mailed before May 15th, or else ol’ Uncle Sam will come knocking.
  3. Any next action that is currently on my next actions list, and has been there for more than three weeks without moving, will be moved to the “someday” list (more on this in an upcoming post).

In addition, at least three times per day, I’m going to stop, and evaluate how I’m spending my time, based on the above four criteria.  Going even further, I am going to write this down, and post it to my Twitter feed for all to see.  I’ll use this shorthand for ease of posting: “c:” for context, “t:” for time available (high, medium, low), “e:” for energy (high, medium, low), and “p:” for priority (high, medium, low).

As my readers, I ask that you hold me accountable for this statement!

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