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Three dimensional priorities

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. At every time management training ever, someone brings up the analogy of a jar with a pile of rocks and sand, and emphasizes that you have to put the big rocks in the jar before the sand, as an allegory of prioritizing tasks.

Office clock

Here’s the problem with this analogy: it makes the presumption that size of task is the only priority. The reality is that prioritization of things happens along more than one dimension. The three dimensions of prioritization I use are urgent, important, and efficient.

Urgent is fairly obvious. How soon is something due? All other things being equal, take care of the thing that’s due first. That said, rarely are all other things equal.

Important is also fairly obvious. How important is a task? You may have two tasks that are urgent, but only one of them has any importance. For example, you might have a million dollar programming contract on your desk, and you might also have an internal request to change the color of the corporate intranet to be lime green. Both are due in a week. One of them matters.

The last dimension that is less obvious is efficient. This is what the analogy of rocks and sand supposedly addresses, that you want to tackle the big stuff first, then the little stuff, so that little stuff doesn’t fill up your day. The reality is, however, that the more stuff you have on your plate of any size, the more mental bandwidth it consumes. Eventually you end up feeling overwhelmed and nothing gets done. If you have a choice between getting 5 things off your list of moderate importance, or making 5% headway on the really big thing on your list, depending on the other two factors of urgency and importance, it may make more sense to burn down the 5 things.

Most time management systems narrowly focus on one of the factors above. Consider revamping your task management and time management to take into account all three.


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Doing less stuff better

Over the weekend, a bunch of people tagged me in a Facebook meme about my top 15 literary influences. The first thing that came to mind was, “what an interesting opportunity to promote people I actually read”. The second thing that came to mind was, “I don’t have time to do this right”. What was a simple meme to other people was an opportunity to promote and support authors that I love, provide links to their works, and potentially even earn half of a penny on the occasional Amazon click-through. (the last bit was sarcasm)

The problem was, to do it right – assembling the list, linking it up, etc. – required a lot more time than I was initially willing to devote to the meme, so I didn’t participate. More and more lately, I’m faced with a choice that is binary – do it right at a significant time investment, or do it half-assed and very quickly. The choice isn’t actually much of a choice, not for things that matter.

For the work I do at work, doing it right is the only choice, which often means not doing something else entirely. For example, I spent over 6 hours recently working on a blog post, because there was a fast way to do it that was wrong, and a correct, slow way to do it right. I had to do it right, because it reflects on the people I work with.

For the work I do for myself, doing it right is the only choice a large percentage of the time, because other people rely on that work, from my newsletter to my daily social postings to my public speaking. I can’t get up on stage and do a half-assed job. I shouldn’t do a half-assed job on anything that other people need.

The idea of doing less stuff better comes at a significant cost, a hefty price to pay, and the price is doing less stuff overall. I had to make a difficult choice this past weekend, choosing to spend time with my family who I’d been away from for a week due to business travel, or choosing to attend a relatively rare seminar with one of my teachers, Stephen K. Hayes. I couldn’t do either half-assed, showing up for a little of each. Ultimately, I chose to do it right and commit to family first, but I know that I paid a heavy opportunity cost in personal development that I’ll need to pay more for later down the line. There will be a time when I can “do it right” for my training as well.

We cannot add more hours to the day. We can only choose what we do and how well we do it. At a certain point, we have to make tough choices about what we won’t do, from memes to things we want. May your choices be the right ones.

And for those people tagging me in that meme, I will do it eventually. When I do, I’ll do it right.


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