For a while, I am struggling with getting my priorities right. So I was quite surprised to find an article about the topic on Randy Ingermansons April Newsletter. I found it helpful so I thought I’d share it with you:
This article is reprinted by permission of the author.
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 17,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.
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Have you ever felt paralyzed into inaction because all the tasks and projects in your life felt overwhelming?
It’s not a good feeling.
And it’s not fun to be told, “Just set your priorities!”
In that moment, it’s easy to yell back, “But everything’s a priority!”
I’ve said that myself. I’ve heard other people say it. It always seems wrong when other people say it, so I suspect it’s also wrong when I say it.
I suspect that when we say it, we don’t really mean that everything is actually a priority. What we mean is that “everything is important.”
So how do you set priorities when everything is important?
I think the key thing is to understand that setting priorities doesn’t mean you’re making a judgment on what’s important.
It just means you’re choosing what order in which to do the important things.
When we say that a task or project has a high priority, the actual meaning is that it’s scheduled to be done sooner, rather than later.
A task or project with a low priority needs to wait. It will still get done, but not right away.
So if you want things to get done quickly, it makes sense to have only a very few “high priority” items that you work on until they get done.
At this point, the word “multitasking” usually comes up.
Of course you can sometimes do several things at once. It’s perfectly possible to take a walk with a friend and talk out the plot for your novel. I’ve done that plenty of times and it’s efficient. You get exercise. You get some friend time. And you work on your novel. Three things at once!
But only one of those requires deep mental focus.
What doesn’t work so well is working on the plot for your novel at the exact same time you’re solving a hard math problem. Both of those tasks require deep mental focus. If you try to multitask those, you’re going to crash and burn. You’ll get less done than if you had only worked on one at a time.
So how do you set priorities? I’ll sketch out below what works for me. Different people are different, so this may or may not work for you. If it does, that’s a win. If it doesn’t, it costs you nothing.
What I find effective on things that require mental focus is to allocate blocks of time for each. Maybe I’ll work on my novel for a couple of hours until I get stuck. Then I’ll switch to the math problem and work on that for awhile. My subconscious mind will keep working on the storyline of my novel while I’m doing math.
So I’m not multitasking; I’m shuffling projects.
Shuffling projects actually works very well, but it has its limits, because of two issues:
- I can allocate only a limited number of hours per day for hard mental tasks. If I try to work more hours than my limit, I tend to wear down.
- I need to spend at least an hour at a time on each hard mental task. Two hours is better. It takes time—up to twenty minutes—to really get into the flow of the job. If I work in fifteen minute blocks, I never really go deep and I wind up wasting time.
What that means in practice for me is that I have a limited number of blocks of time in a day when I can do deep work. My normal limit is four blocks. I’m more efficient when I do three blocks. When there’s a crunch on, I’ve been known to work only two blocks in a day, or even one. But I don’t like crunches and I try to avoid them.
I usually work on a project until I feel like I’ve lost energy for it. Then I go take a walk for a while, clear my head, and come back and either work some more on the same project or else switch to another that I feel more energy for.
I do best when I work on each active project every day. That means that I can really have only about four projects that are true priorities, things that I’m actively working on “now.” Everything else has to be “not yet.” Even if it’s “important.”
Setting priorities for me just means picking four projects for “now” and putting everything else in the “not yet” category.
That simplifies things a lot.
I don’t have to order all the things I want to do from 1 to 100. I don’t have to feel like I’m somehow calling something “unimportant” if it’s not in the immediate priority list. Yes, it’s important. No, I can’t work on it today, or any day in the immediate future until I have an open slot.
At my day job, I’ve enforced for years and years a strict rule on priorities. I made it clear early on that I would work on only one project at a time. The reason is because I work part time, and therefore I need to stay very focused. I thought my superiors would be unhappy with that, but they actually aren’t. They think it’s cool. They like knowing that whatever is my current priority will get done as soon as possible. So they live with my quirky style of work. This is of course a luxury for me; I know perfectly well that not everyone has that option. So I’m grateful for it.
Everybody is different, so let’s talk about you. Answer these questions in order:
- How many productive hours per day can you use your brain for hard mental tasks?
- How big of a block of time do you need to work on a project to get productive work done?
- How many blocks of time can you work in a day?
- How many projects can be classified as “now” rather than “not yet?”