How to set priorities efficiently?

"I think the person who takes a job in order to live - that is to say, for the money - has turned himself into a slave" --Joseph Campbell

Let me start with a childhood cliché: "When you grow up, you will be wishing for a break from work"

...and as far as I am concerned I certainly do :)

When there's work to be done, there are tasks that need to be accomplished. Now, when we have to deal with a single project things are pretty much straightforward. We complete the tasks on the project's task list one by one and once our list is empty, the project is considered completed. Problem solved!

Unfortunately reality is more complex than that. Most of the times we are engaged to more than one projects hence, we have to deal with multiple task lists on a daily basis. Sooner or later prioritization issues will come into play.

  • Which task should I complete first?
  • Which project gets the highest priority?
  • Should I deal quickly with the simple tasks and leave the vital ones for when I will have more time?


The real priority

So which is the best way to prioritize our tasks? Wrong question, if you ask me. What we should be asking ourselves is "is there a way to prioritize our tasks?" or even better "is it realistic to put priorities to tasks?".

Before I go on explaining the title of the section "The real priority" I would like to make a quick reference to a post that Merlin Mann published to 43 folders. In this article Merlin argues that:

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

...and I totally agree with this statement. Priorities are something more than a way to force a hierarchy over our tasks.

Lately in my family we had to get through a very unfortunate event. A very dear person went To hospital in very serious condition. At The same time, I was involved in roughly ten projects. I thought I had them prioritized!

Two weeks later, not a single task from these projects had been completed regardless its priority. Not a single one...

What I learned from this dreadful experience is that the real priority is the one that once it occurs your life freezes and cannot continue unless the situation that triggered the priority is resolved. Hence, as Merlin Mann very aptly puts it, "a priority is observed...".

Are we doomed?

Not at all! The fact that projects and tasks cannot really be prioritized does not necessarily means that we cannot organize our work. We just need to be careful with what does really need to be done, until when and with whether we have the resources to accomplish it.

I intend to come back (in another article) with a blueprint of how I organize my work, projects and tasks but until then I thought about proposing a couple of books that helped me start organising my life (personal and professional). Have a look at the list provided at right.


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