By Michael Gorsline
OmniFocus is a GTD inspired productivity application for Mac. When I visit the OmniFocus discussion boards, at fairly regular intervals someone will ask, “But why can’t you Omni guys incorporate a way to assign priority to action items?” and an argument promptly ensues. GTD folks try to explain why that just doesn’t make sense. Others work to advance the idea that rating the priority of action items is essential.
From the Getting Things Done perspective you don’t want to assign “priority” to action items on the front end for a couple of reasons. The first is that priority always depends on the constellation of situations at hand. From a GTD view you just can’t decide priority in a vacuum. To the question, “What is the priority?” the question that needs to be asked to answer it is “…the priority in what context?” When you know more about the the given situation in the moment, the priority becomes clear.
When you do try to assign priority to action items on the front end, you’re apt to run into the following problem. As soon as a couple of variables shift, as they are guaranteed to do, it will alter the array of possibilities. So lots of the action items you have rated at given priority levels are going to change. And when they do, then you’re busy re-prioritizing all those items. You finish and brush the dust off your hands, breathing a sigh of relief. Then another change pops up and your priority labels are inaccurate all over again. I lived through doing this re-prioritizing hamster wheel in the early 90’s and ended up dropping the practice. Looking at the on the ground practice, GTD suggests that priority makes a lot more sense to assess when you know the complete context of the given moment.
What You Need to Know
So what details do you need to know? First, what is the context? Where are you, and what tools you have at your disposal? Examples are at the computer, @computer; at the computer and hooked up to internet service, @computer: online; talking with my spouse, @Erin in my case; at the hardware store, @cavernous box store, etc. Unlike priority, context is something that makes sense to decide on the front end. If you know you want an avocado, you likely know where you’re going to want to buy it. If you have an email to send, you know where you’re likely to send it from. So deciding the context of each item on the front end and writing them down makes sense. Here’s another reason.
As I’ll discuss further in an upcoming post, our brains just aren’t good at carrying around that kind information, or more accurately, they aren’t good at retrieving it when we want it. It either will clog up our psychic RAM and take up valuable processing space, or it will be relegated to long term memory. Unfortunately the way our cranial long term storage works depends on cues that may or may not come to mind at the moment we need them. So writing down next actions and the contexts we know we’ll do them in, or digitally recording them, will make the best use of how our brains work. This in turn will ensure that when we leave the grocery store, for instance, we’ll have all the things we need, not just the ones that happened to be triggered by internal and external (grocery store visual input) cues that happen onto our mental scene.
The other two variables you’ll want to take into account before deciding on priority are the time available, and energy available. One of the strengths of Getting Things Done is the way that it seizes all sorts of strange little windows of time, and distills those into moments of productivity. They’re usually moments that we wouldn’t get much out of in any case. Sitting waiting for Super Lube to finish up their signature service on my wagon doesn’t usually leave me with any rewarding sense of satisfaction. On the other hand if I have the gut sense that just sitting and being present in the moment as I wait for them to pronounce me ready for checkout is a priority, then I could go for that option. If I do go with getting something done, that is work that won’t need to be done later, leaving you that much closer to the GTD goal of “having nothing on your mind”.
Sift Out Context
So let’s put it all together. Rather than making our decisions about what to do based on predetermined priorities that are likely to change like specks in a kaleidoscope anyway, GTD suggests that we use four criteria to decide:
2. Time available
3. Energy Available
Using all four requires looking at context in the moment—where we are and what tools we have—and assessing time and energy available on the fly. Only then are we able to use our brain’s strength, intuition, or gut if you prefer, to assess what the priority might be given the circumstances consisting of the prior three criteria in our list. I use context, time available, and energy available as a sieve to sift out what can be done in this weird little window of a few minutes. Only after I’ve looked at these three can I determine what is the priority for right now, the present moment.
Say I’m sitting in the shoe store waiting for the shoe salesman at 6:17. I’ve got my phone and my notepad with me with some notes from this afternoon’s meeting. I’m not going to listen voicemails because the salesman might come striding up and interrupt me in the middle of a message, and I’d just have to listen to it again later—time wasted. I open my email program on my phone and take a gander, and there’s that email I still need to respond to. I’m too fried to think about the details clearly now. The meeting this afternoon didn’t have anything urgent in it. Plus it will be more efficient to pull next actions out of my notes when I have a legal pad in front of me. Not very convenient to do here. I also could look over my calendar to review upcoming meetings and deadlines. I could do some minor deck clearing by deleting any emails that don’t contain any info I need to access or file. Based on intuition and the relatively similar priority. I decide to go with reviewing my calendar.
Going with Your Gut
Now these little windows are often easier to decide what to do with than larger swaths of time. But the small window of time serves as a nice example, keeping the process front and center. For some this post was review, which is often good in any case. For others this will clarify the nature of how GTD triangulates priority by using your brain’s crowning skill, on the ground intuition. So letting your gut lead you doesn’t have to mean that it’s been too long since you’ve been to the gym. Instead it can mean using your brain in a manner that enhances its strengths and shores up those areas it just does better with support, keeping you moving on the path toward effortless productivity.