Core to being productive in a sustainable and healthy way is realising that it requires prioritisation. As David Allen points out in ‘Getting things done’, you can do anything – but not everything.
Prioritising our workload is a key skill if we want to ensure we get more of the meaningful ‘stuff’ done each day. We need to understand the difference between a task that is urgent but unimportant, and one that is important but not urgent (yet!).
This isn’t as easy as it sounds. We’re not built like machines – we have a wonderful mind that gives us all kinds of thoughts and judgements about both ourselves and what we do. One of the ways our minds can get in the way of our daily accomplishments is by pointing out doubts about our choices and providing compelling (and scary) images of the future consequences of our action.
Our minds can point to the things we’re not doing and say “What about that?” Or “What will they think if…”. Accepting that we can’t “do it all” is key to getting a more realistic and sustainable perspective on both our professional and personal lives.
Prioritising can be uncomfortable
Because when we prioritise one meaningful task, it means something else isn’t getting done. This results in the kind of psychological discomfort that can be at best distracting or, at worst, an impediment to taking helpful action. We might find ourselves furiously multi-tasking, feeling lots of unhelpful guilt or shame, feeling overwhelmed (and not doing anything) or simply acting in a very automatic way and ignoring priorities altogether – just focusing on the next email that appears on our inbox.
When we consciously prioritise and act on these priorities, we’re being intentional about what gets our limited attention. And so when we realise that this discomfort is a natural consequence of being intentional, and not something we should work on reducing, it frees us up to make progress in our chosen direction. The discomfort isn’t going anywhere – but it can be more like a noisy back-seat passenger, rather than the force that’s choosing our directional of travel.
Navigating with values
When we choose to do one important thing over several urgent and noisy tasks, we can also use our values to guide the decision-making. Right now, in the middle of a pandemic, this could be the choice to prioritise time with your family over answering yet more emails in the evening. The discomfort of not knowing what’s in your inbox will still be there, but you’ll be living your values associated with family life.
The key when prioritising is to acknowledge what your mind is giving you, but not be dragged away from your decisions by it. To realise that psychological discomfort is temporary and a sign of meaningful and intentional living. And to bank the wins: “look what I decided to do” rather than “look at everything I’ve not done”.
So, what are you choosing to get done today?
And what will you not do, in order to get that finished?