what’s more important? Priorities, or prioritising?

September 15, 2009

Prioritising. Or “-izing.” Now there’s a word to conjure with. The Text Pixie waves her magic wand and – hey presto! –

Hmm. Hey presto what? No one knows. Because if you miss a prioritised task, who knows what will happen.

Prioritising is a word that can get you in a lot of trouble. It’s an idea that can get you in a lot of trouble. Years ago I almost didn’t get a job I was interviewing for – which was already my own job – because (as one of the interviewers told me later) one of the interviewers (not the one who told me) didn’t like my answer to one of the questions. The question was: “How do you prioritise work with conflicting deadlines?”

I think I said something like: “Well, I have a to-do list you know! You always know which jobs are the most urgent, because they are on deadline, and I do the job with the most pressing deadline. But I do the preparation work on the longer-term projects, and I make sure I fire off any emails or messages or do whatever has to be done to keep the other balls in the air, so that people can be answering my queries or printing the other thing while I do the non-negotiable priority items against their deadlines. Basically it all gets done on time.” I was writing and editing a weekly newspaper page at the time, among other general corporate tasks, which necessarily involved a lot of meetings (which, as they were so high-priority, invariably had to go on for two hours: a sure sign of importance), so I knew from a deadline all right. I was also a single working mother of three. So I knew from time management too. And I knew where everything was in the flat, and I never missed a work deadline.

Well, my reply didn’t impress this guy. To this day I’m not sure what it was I should have said. Probably it had to do with charts and Excel spreadsheets.  In fact, a more detailed answer, had I known at that stage of my career how to articulate it, would have involved breaking projects down into their component tasks and dependencies, so that each step becomes apparent as the precursor of the next step. There was the brutal fact of having to keep a flotilla of sets of these dependencies afloat alongside one another, so that the emails and meeting agendas could be fired off in time. I’d also have said something about planning backwards from the deadline, rather than forwards according to how much time you’d like each step to take. This is something the managers in that organisation never seemed to do; if they had, they wouldn’t have been asking for “urgent” leaflets a week before their project launches, would they?

I’ve carried that moment of terrible, slashing-with-the-sword-of-truth “feedback” with me ever since (note that it didn’t teach me anything, since no one said what it was they had expected of me),

But today I came across something that reassures me hugely, and it is from a source I really respect. I had forgotten how much I love the 43 Folders blog. Here’s what he says about prioritising, and I think you should rad the rest of his post as well:

I think priorities are simple to understand precisely because their influence is so staggeringly clear and unavoidable to behold, then act upon. Ready for this one?

A priority is observed, not manufactured or assigned. Otherwise, it’s necessarily not a priority.

Got that? You can’t “prioritize” a list of 20 tasks any more than you can “uniqueify” 20 objects by “uniqueness,” or “pregnantize” 20 women by “pregnantness.” Each of those words means something.

An item is either unique or it is not. A woman is either pregnant or she is not. An item is either the priority or it is not. One-bit. Mutually exclusive. One ring to rule them all.

Why all the fussiness, Mr. Fussy?

When most people say, “prioritize,” I think they really mean to say, “force-rank” – to assign n items one and only one position between “1” and “n.” Right? So, yes, there’s one “#1” and one “#7,” et cetera. But that’s not “priority,” and that’s why you probably have at least one task on your version of a to-do list that has been ““HIGH PRIORITY!!!” for more than a month.

Refreshing, yes?

I’ll leave you to it. Make sure you don’t miss your lunch, though.

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