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A friend recently shared about a conversation they had had with someone else about their priority list and it got me wondering.

Firstly, because it took me a couple of moments to work out

“What IS the third item on my priority list for today?”

Secondly, “Why should this matter and why the heck are our priorities so important?”

Priorities, priorities, priorities. We place a high value on them because they help guide us to focus our attention on those items that we deem most worthy of completion or thought or work at any given time. 

I’ve always followed the mantra of “Fight for Three” as espoused by Pete Cook author of The New Rules Of Management because I’ve found that when I have clarity around my three most important items to attend to on any given day it’s easier to overcome that tendency to procrastinate or allow myself to be distracted by other less important stuff. 

I know on those days I do fight for three, I feel terrific from that extra zoosh of dopamine as I tick off the first of those items early in the morning. It’s that sense of accomplishment that makes me want to shout out “Look what I’ve done already and it’s only 9.30 in the morning!”

The only downside here is there’s often no one to share in these world-shattering events other than our old dog who is stone-deaf. My exclamations of joy frequently fall on deaf ears. Sigh. And naturally, if you’re office-based you might want to be mindful of your colleagues who are desperately trying to complete their own Priority Number One and don’t want to cause them to lose track of their thinking.

Whether you have one, three or five items on your Priority List For The Day, this is about knowing yourself, how you best think and work and having the clarity around each of these, so you know in an instant “My third priority for today is XYZ.”

Prioritising and time management don’t always work well together

The other thing that goes hand-in-hand with our priorities is having a realistic understanding of the time required to complete them.

This is because the brain is terrible at future fore-casting resulting in a tendency to underestimate how much we can complete by some time in the future and grossly underestimate the time required to complete the tasks on that Priority List For the Day.

This can lead to us thinking we can easily take on those extra tasks and projects. 

My colleague Dr Jason Fox reminds us that despite our best intentions to create space, whether in our email inbox or online diary we never operate in a vacuum, so just like the magic porridge-pot that is never empty that space is immediately refilled by something else.

Beware the Planning Fallacy

The planning fallacy as it is called is that time we deliberately choose to squeeze in that extra meeting or phone call because we believe at that moment we can. Sometimes we get away with it. Sometimes we don’t, because as mentioned before our future forecasting sucks. This is where Nassim Taleb author of The Black Swan reminds us of our tendency to overlook three things 1) we forget our future and our current reality are two separate and different events 2) the future is random and unpredictable and 3) we can’t forecast those variables that can waylay our best-laid plans whether it’s a traffic jam or our way to the airport, a mobile phone outage or your bank’s website is closed temporarily for “maintenance”.

If you’ve ever undertaken a home renovation or new house build you may have noticed how those carefully calculated times and costs can easily over-run.

According to Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, one of the reasons we fall foul of the planning fallacy is we make our decisions based on best-case scenarios. While optimism is helpful to boost confidence and action-taking, a reality check is also vital.

For example, when I’m working to a deadline for an article I’ll note that in my diary ever confident in my ability to deliver, and then add a second earlier deadline several days earlier to provide the slack I know (from painful experience) I’ll need to have adequately pondered, researched and put my thoughts to paper and still have the time for those edits or rewrites prior to pressing send.

Prioritising is a brain-drain

Yeah, taking time out to prioritise can feel like that “one more thing to do.”

“What you mean it’s good to do this every day? Jeepers.”

For example, if you’re travelling for work, creating a checklist starting with prioritising the time required to get you from the office to the airport on time, will help to keep your stress levels down and make it easier to remember to pack your passport and check you’ve activated your automated email auto-response.  

If the thought of all that prioritising is making your hair curl fear not, this boils down to is making a series of decisions, relevant to you, to save wasting precious future time and effort. Every decision you make and yes, it’s true we make between 30-35,000 every day consumes precious mental energy. How much better to add that extra time whether it’s five minutes or half an hour because the cognitive effort you put in now will hopefully pay off in bucket loads tomorrow.

Thinking is hard work, so why not make it useful to you?

Pre-plan with pre-determined priorities

Pre-determined priorities including special item No. 3 could be a pre-ordered coffee from your favourite barista to enjoy before the indeterminably long weekly team meeting on Monday morning, booking an Uber in advance so you’re not left scrambling to find a lift when running late to your next appointment, or ordering the groceries online for home delivery on Thursday night because work this week is crazy busy and you’re hosting a dinner party on Friday. 

Pre-planning, while initially time-consuming, saves time and angst later.

Choose your prioritising time

Some productivity pundits swear on allocating time to prioritise the next day’s list before leaving the office at the end of the day. Others say it’s far better to write your list when you’re fresh in the morning.

So, which better?

Whatever works best for you.

It’s your life and your schedule, no one else’s. So, do what you find the best and set your own course rather than blindly following someone else’s.

Once you’ve established YOUR game plan, consistency in your prioritisation habit is key to help embed the habit, so it becomes second nature and just part of what you do rather than an added burden.

Priorities provide left-over time

The best thing about prioritising is that once organised and done, you’re free to go; to think, to relax or to spend some time on that fun project you’ve had simmering in your mind for a while. 

Leftover time can feel naughty (and nice) Just like reheating that last portion of “Mac and cheese” that’s been sitting in the fridge for a while, waiting for someone to put it out of its misery and eat it. The sense of mental freedom that comes from completing “what must be done” leads to a more relaxed state of mind where it’s easier to be calm, clear-headed, open-minded, insightful, creative and happier too.

Using prioritising to bring the best version of you to every day is smarter, sharper thinking at work. 

Are you ready to live and work well, and thrive by design?

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, keynote speaker and best-selling author. You can now pre-order her new book ‘The Natural Advantage’ due for publication in October 2024.

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