The problem with priorities.


Ron Ashkenas posted a thoughtful piece on the problem with priorities a few months ago. He tells a story of the head of a large hospital who asked his direct reports to make an index card for each of the projects they were working on.  One hundred fifty cards (!) later, it became apparent why so few of the projects were moving towards completion -- with so many projects drawing on the same resources of time and attention, nothing could get finished. Moreover, these senior managers were reluctant to formally drop any of the projects because they felt that all of them were important. But as the old saying goes, if everything is a priority, then nothing is. Something is either the priority or it's not.

This reminded me of something that Merlin Mann once wrote:

Making something a BIG RED TOP TOP BIG HIGHEST #1 PRIORITY changes nothing but text styling. If it were really important, it’d already be done. Period. Think about it.

Example. When my daughter falls down and screams, I don’t ask her to wait while I grab a list to determine which of seven notional levels of “priority” I should assign to her need for instantaneous care and affection. Everything stops, and she gets taken care of. Conversely – and this is really the important part – everything else in the universe can wait.

I've written before about the necessity of understanding your "production capacity." If you had infinite time and infinite resources (energy, money, focus), you wouldn't really need to worry about your production capacity. You'd just keep working and get everything done. You'd rescue your daughter and analyze last month's sales figures. No problem.

Unfortunately, you don't have infinite time and resources. (Or if you did, you wouldn't be working right now. You'd be on a yacht docked at your own private Caribbean island.) So you have to make choices. You have to choose your priority for the hour or day or week or year.

My wife has gradually been learning this lesson. Recently, she's been a bit better at saying no, and has been spending a bit more time on her "great work." Patient care comes first as always -- there's no letup in the number of procedures she's doing each day -- but she's shelved almost all of her academic work and a significant amount of her administrative work. Equally important, she's less stressed about the stuff that she's not doing.

Remember: either your project is the priority or it's not. Period.

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