Because of this, I believe that prioritizing is the most essential skill a creative can possess. The constant influx of information from social media, emails, clients, advertising, etc., makes it difficult to decipher what’s important, what to abandon and what to work on now. Can you even add up the sheer number of small decisions you make each day?
The media theorist and writer Douglas Rushkoff describes his concept of “present shock” as “one big now… where everything is happening so fast it may as well be simultaneous.” He says the incoming barrage of information has degraded our ability to create long-term plans, and instead sets us up to react, react, react.
Urgency is a great motivator, but a flimsy one. The problem with urgency is that no one can remember what’s really important, so we spend too much time and energy on activities that don’t matter.
It’s true the creatives among us who make ideas happen have a remarkable ability to ignore distractions. But being creative and productive requires long stretches of focus, a commodity that is shrinking in the face of present shock.
For several months, I’ve been experimenting with this idea of relentless prioritizing, conducting mini-strategic plans and reordering to-do lists. I still grapple with the barrage of information, but having a methodology helps. By the way, “strategic planning” is the process of defining a direction and then making decisions to allocate resources to that direction. Who says we can only do them once a year at an off-site?
My daily prioritization check-in
I have to remind myself that I’m acting against the great cultural tide of urgency. Prioritizing means not getting sucked into that tide. So I prioritize twice a day, as a ritual. The process for figuring out what is important is really just a simple series of questions:
- Do I really have to do this now?
- If so, is it “The Most Important Thing?”
- If not, where does it fit relative to the other tasks?
- Is someone waiting on me for this?
- If so, when do they need it?
- Does working/not working on this now have long-term consequences that I’m missing?
Part of reducing present shock is refusing to react. The best practice I’ve come up with is to not react to demands as they come in. Instead, I recognize them, and add them to a running list. Only when I have a proper break do I put them on the to-do list. The moment we enter “reaction” mode, we’ve surrendered our day to the whims of others.
It helps me to a) notice, and therefore not react so I don’t feel like anything is slipping away, and b) place things properly along the spectrum of priorities. I map my to-do’s or action items directly to strategic initiatives in order to better allocate my resources. For example, “buy conference tickets” might be mapped to my business, while “do the dishes” goes on my home to-do list (nerd alert: they’re also color-coded).
The first check-in occurs in the middle of the day, before or after lunch. Am I working on what I said I was going to work on? Am I making progress? Am I working on the most important thing? I re-order appropriately. I’ve saved myself lots of frustration by course-correcting in the middle of the work day.
Check-in #2 is right before bed, when I plan for the next day. That way when I start at my desk in the morning, I don’t fall back into my inbox and back into response mode. And, if I do find I’m constantly reacting to the flood, I show myself some compassion. Drifting isn’t always a bad thing.
Being consistent about prioritization has produced interesting results. My major projects are moving along nicely. I feel less harried. The things I choose not to do, I choose purposefully. I’m able to focus longer and get back on track when necessary.
So is prioritization the solution to present shock? Maybe. Is prioritization a key weapon in reducing stress and staying sane? Absolutely.
How about you?
How do you prioritize incoming tasks?