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Brass scalesLife is full of decision making, and one type of decision we need to make constantly is what to do next.  Which of the tasks we have decided to complete takes priority?  What is the most important thing to do next?  What order should we do things in?

Just a clarification before I go on.  I’m not talking about regular, routine daily tasks.  There are some things we need to do every day as part of our routine, and that’s a different topic.  I’m talking about To Do list items, tasks you are going to allocate a block of time to attend to.

So backing up your computer, for example, should be part of your routine, not a To Do item.  (Note to self).

In the last article about To Do lists, I talked about taking the top 10 or 20 items and numbering them in order of priority.  Well, how do we do that exactly?  It can be quite difficult to decide what the most important things are.  You might feel all the items are important, or you wouldn’t have bothered writing them down.

And how do you know which items are the top 10 or 20?  Well, before trying to specifically prioritise, do a general grouping of the items into 3 main categories, a bit like triage.  This can be done either as a first step before further prioritising, or even instead of it.  Just getting all the items into 3 groups may be enough.

When you’re doing your planning, you should always be looking at the top range items – the ones you know are in the highest priority group.

Items that keep ending up in the bottom range will tend to drop off and no longer be relevant eventually.  It’s a process of natural selection, and often these items weren’t really important in the first place.  Other times, they might have started off important, but eventually the time limit has run out on them, making them now irrelevant.  As your prioritising and planning skills improve, you’ll find less of these items dropping off the bottom of the list.  They’ll either be completed, or more decisively and confidently dropped from the list earlier on.

The three categories for your tasks will be something like this:

1.  Tasks that are essential and must be attended to promptly in order for you to achieve your goals and maintain the lifestyle you have chosen and be consistent with your values.
For example, kids to dentist, car to be serviced, tax return.
2.  Tasks that must be attended to in order for you to achieve your goals, maintain your lifestyle and be consistent with your values, but which do not have to be done immediately.
For example, enquire about that service you're considering changing, write that letter or email, arrange that family portrait.
3.  Tasks that you would like completed, but which are not essential for you to achieve your goals, maintain your lifestyle and be consistent with your values.
For example, alphabetise your CD collection, get that thing fixed that's been bugging you, choose those new curtains.

Of course, you might find you’re always working the top list, and anything else tends not to get done.  I know this is annoying, but the best way through is to stick with the prioritising and focus on those most essential tasks first – they will make the most difference. 

You could allocate a limited amount of time for attending to lower priority tasks though.  That is, time box your priority categories.  You could spend 80% of your allocated time on group 1 tasks, the top priority stuff, but allow 20% of your time for the lower stuff, allowing some of those non-essential but still satisfying items to sneak through.

When do you make your prioritising decisions?  Usually, during your regular planning sessions.  (Yes, you need to have regular planning sessions, we’ve talked about this).  When you’re planning your day or your week ahead, that’s when you’re reviewing your To Do list and deciding how much you think you can get done, and scheduling items into hopefully suitable slots of time.

But you may also need to make snap prioritising decisions on the fly.  Yes, it’s great to have the ability to assess the situation quickly when something comes up, when things change, when something unexpected happens, and make a good decision about what needs to take priority at that moment.

So, like lots of things, prioritising is a skill.  Your ability to do it well improves with practice, and is also affected by your mood.  Sometimes we feel we’re having a great day/week and just seem to instinctively know the best thing to be doing at all times, and other times, we’re feeling indecisive, lacking confidence, not sure what’s for the best.  These ups and downs happen to everybody.

If you are simply aware of prioritising as something you need to do regularly, as you are aware of planning and decision making in the same way, you’re already way ahead.  As you practice it more and more regularly, your confidence will increase and your ability will improve.

To prioritise well, you need to be confident, decisive, and flexible.  You need to know what your goals are, have an awareness of the balance of how you spend your time and be working within that framework, and you need to know what really matters to you.

When you come to make a decision, there are various factors competing for your attention.  How will others react to it (and there are various conflicting interests here already – your boss vs. your family vs. your friends etc), how will it affect your income, your health, your happiness.

This is where it’s time to weed out the considerations that don’t matter, and keep in mind the decisions you have already made about the balance of how you spend your time, and what your goals and values are.  If your goals have been well planned and well chosen, and are working for you, they are what you will use as a guideline for planning your activities.  A lot of the items on your To Do list will be tasks which are steps towards achieving your goals.

If not, ask yourself why.  This could be a good indication that you are not really happy with your goals, or that you have not really defined what it is you want and what matters to you.

So, you’ve got clear goals, you know what time you have available and allocated to this category of activity, (i.e. work, household, family, personal), and you’re looking at your To Do list, and you want to do some prioritising.  Perhaps you’ve just added a few more items and crossed some off, so it all needs re-assessing so you can plan your day or week.  And, you have a pretty good idea how much time each of the tasks you’re looking at will take.

Ok, so which items are the highest priority?

The things to do first, are the ones that will have the biggest impact on bringing you closer to your goal.  There might be several reasons for that.  It might be that other items depend on this one, or that having this item completed will make some of the others much easier.  It might be that an item has to take priority because it is essential, things can’t function or go on without it.  Those ones are easier to identify.  The others might not be so clear, and with some, there might not be much difference between the importance of one item and another.  That’s ok, as long as you know which group (as in the three categories above) each item belongs to.

The act of making these decisions consciously rather than randomly or instinctively, can make you feel more in control of things, as well as ensuring that you are actually spending your time in the most efficient and practical way.  If you allow decisions to make themselves passively, you risk being incorrectly motivated.  That is, you may be allowing negative feelings or irrational assumptions to decide for you.  We don’t want that.

However, when you are better practiced at prioritising and feeling confident, you may be able to do it so efficiently and easily that it does seem as if it’s happening instinctively, without the need for conscious thought.  This is quite ok, as with any skill you’ve become so good at you can do it without thinking (like driving, knitting, reading etc).  You might just need to check now and again that it’s going how you want it to. 

It might vary too, with the subject matter.  While you’re involved in one particular project, prioritising may come very easily to you because you’re very familiar with the subject, but as you move to a different project it becomes necessary to move to very deliberate and conscious thought being applied to the prioritising, because it’s an area where you’re learning new skills and don’t have as much knowledge and experience.

It’s also important to just get on and make the decisions.  Keep it moving, keep it moving.  Decide your priorities fairly quickly, based on the available information, and get on with scheduling the tasks so they can be attended to.  The priorities don’t have to be perfect, and fear of not being perfect should not be holding you up from getting on with the process.  Just make the best assessment you can at the time, and keep things moving.  It’s all got to be constantly re-assessed anyway, as new tasks are added to the list.  Life goes on, so don’t get in its way.

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