Setting priorities assumes that some things will be more important than others, but important relative to what? In this context, the answer is, to your work – that is, the job you have accepted from yourself and/or from others. This is where the next two frameworks need to be brought to bear in your thinking. They’re about denning your work. Keep in mind that though much of this methodology will be within the arena of your professional focus. In this article we are using the term “work” in the universal sense, to mean anything you have a commitment to making happen, personally as well as professionally.
These days, daily work activity itself presents a relatively new type of challenge to most professionals, something that it’s helpful to understand as we endeavor to build the most productive systems. During the course of the workday, at any point in time, you’ll be engaged in one of three types of activities: doing predefined work, doing work as it shows up, and finally, defining your work
You may be doing things on your action lists, doing things as they come up, or processing incoming inputs to determine what work that needs to be done, either then or later, from your lists. This is common sense. But many people let themselves get wrapped around the second activity – dealing with things that show up and how much too easily, and let the other two slide, to their detriment.
Let’s say it’s 10:26 a.m. Monday, and you’re in your office. You’ve just ended a half-hour unexpected phone call with a prospective client. You have three pages of scribbled notes from the conversation. There’s a meeting scheduled with your staff at eleven, about half an hour from now. You were out late last night with your spouse’s parents and are still a little frayed around the edges (you told your father-in-law you’d get back to him about. . . what?). Your assistant just laid six telephone messages in front of you. You have a major strategic planning session coming up in two days, for which you have yet to formulate your ideas. The oil light in your car came on as you drove to work this morning. And your boss hinted as you passed her earlier in the hall that she’d like your thoughts on the memo she e-mailed you yesterday, before this afternoon’s three o’clock meeting.
Are your systems set up to maximally support dealing with this reality, at 10:26 on Monday morning? If you’re still keeping things in your head, and if you’re still trying to capture only the “critical” stuff on your lists, I suggest that the answer is no.
I’ve noticed that people are actually more comfortable dealing with surprises and crises than they are taking control of processing, organizing, reviewing, and assessing that part of their work that is not as self-evident. It’s easy to get sucked into “busy” and “urgent” mode, especially when you have a lot of unprocessed and relatively out-of-control work on your desk, in your e-mail, and on your mind.
In fact, much of our life and work just shows up in the moment, and it usually becomes the priority when it does. It’s indeed true for most professionals that the nature of their job requires them to be instantly available to handle new work as it appears in many forms.