I know many people are looking for the magic bullet or software tool which will tell them what to do, but I've never found anything more powerful and trustworthy than my own gut. My system presents me with a full array of choices, but no systematic formula will ever be as reliable as my own internal barometer.
Before you spend another minute creating yet another list with ABC, 123, or high-medium-low codes as a way to define your priorities, read my essay this month. You may discover there's a more natural path for getting you what you need to get the right things done.
All the best,
DAVID'S FOOD FOR THOUGHT
WHY ABC PRIORITY CODES DON'T WORK
"How do I set priorities?" Because I hear that so frequently, I assume most people think they could and should be doing it better.
I have a radical point of view: Learn to listen to, and trust, your heart. Or your intuition, or your gut, or the seat of your pants, or whatever part of your anatomy is the source of that mysteriously wonderful "still, small voice" that somehow knows you better than you do, and knows what's better for you, better than you do.
The "ABC" priority codes don't work. Listing your top 10 things you think have to get done, in order, doesn't work. You'll have a different priority set at 8:00 tonight than you will at 10:30 this morning. And sometimes the most strategic thing for you to do will be to water your plants. Like, when you've been in six meetings, felt beat up in five of them, and by 4:30 your brain is scrambled eggs, and you barely have the attention span of a gnat. That's the time to water your plants and fill your stapler. Why? Because you can't do anything else, and you're going to have to water your plants sometime anyway.
On a day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis, there is no algorithm or formula that will last very long, or is really worth trying to nail down in some written or coded system. The four criteria that you will use to decide what to do are (in order of precedence):
Context (what can I do where I am?)
The idea of "payoff" to yourself is the intuitive one. But let's not be frivolous—when was the last time you and your professional colleagues as a group took a sincere look into the future and made the hard decisions about what is still mission-critical and what is not? (When did you last decide what your job really is?) When was the last time you personally sat down and thought through where you are in your life, on all fronts, and where you're going, and what you really want to be different than the way it is?
The best to shoot for is a regular enough revisit to the broader horizon look for your work and your life, letting it sink in at all the levels (conscious and otherwise) it might affect. Then get organized and current enough with your current realities and commitments, so that you have a clear enough deck to listen to the internal directions and hunches, and to follow them without distractions.
There's nothing wrong at all with making a list of what you'd like to get done, so that you can focus on one at a time, and with some comfort that your choice is the best thing to be doing. Just realize that the best-laid plans of mice and men are temporary and often ephemeral tools, and you cannot and should not dictate a regimentation that doesn't map to the subtleties, complexities, variables, and constantly changing realities influencing our minute-to-minute experiences.
Do I work on this article I need to write? or call Aunt Susie? or balance my checkbook? or plan the next year's marketing strategy? or have a beer and hang out with my spouse in the yard? Who knows?
Be open to your own spirit and its directions (you might even consider asking it!)—then take the risk to move on your best guess, pay attention to the results, and course-correct as you keep moving along....
I've never found another way to do it.
First things first, second things never.
A man's whole life is a succession of moment after moment. If one fully understands the present moment, there will be nothing else to do, and nothing else to pursue.
Mike Williams gives an insightful interview on the importance of learning "agility competency" in order to flourish in today's work environment, his professional journey through corporate America, and how Getting Things Done became his indispensable tool in that process. Listen now (23 minutes)
Hello Mr. Allen,
In the consistency of subconscious procrastination and indefinitely open "open loops" I have stared at your book cover on top of one of my piles in my home office for 3+ months now. Finally, I'm on family vacation and have decided to grab your book and read it, long overdue. I am merely on page 15 and I feel like the woman in Roberta Flack's song "Killing Me Softly" for I am reading my own life story of distraction and diminished productivity in every paragraph of your book. So far, I love what I have read. I feel as though you are 100% on the mark, and I am so looking forward to reading all of it. I feel like a dry, contracted sponge, and your words describing the conscious and subconscious machinations of our brains are like water droplets falling onto this thirsty sponge. Thanks for sharing your keen insights, and I will perhaps reply once I have finished reading and have been fully quenched.
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