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How To Organize Your Life By Priority And Not Urgency

How To Organize Your Life By Priority And Not Urgency
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Lists, notes, follow-ups, calendars — these are all great tools to manage your ever-growing list of things you need to accomplish on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. But are they the right way to manage what you need to do? For you to visually understand the importance of what you need or have to do?

How many times have you spent Sunday night putting together a list of things that must get done, only to have one event throw it all away? How many times have you looked over that list at the end of the week and wondered “why do I not feel fulfilled?” or “why did I spend the whole week firefighting instead of doing what was really important to me, my team, my family, and my work?”

Perhaps the answer is not in what you need to do, but in how you organize the doing of those activities. In an era where we have notifications coming to us from a variety of sources, it is easy to confuse what is urgent with something that is important and let it move to the top of our list. It is even easier when these items have dates assigned to them which quickly push out our calendar of to-dos in favour of these requests.

If you take a step back to look at the post-its and items on your lists of what you need to do, you will probably start to see a trend. You’ll see those things you have to do, those you need to do, and those you want to do. Stop right now and go look at your last to-do list. What did you need to do? What did you want to do? You can easily see the buckets and overlaps, but once you truly understand what they mean, when those urgent items come to you, you’ll know where to put them.

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Have

Items I have to do are items that, regardless of what is on my list to of items to do, have to get to done. If I am looking at my list with a timeline of a week, it becomes very easy to identify the when I have to get these things completed. Whether it’s personal or professional, you know the items that go into this bucket. If you are training for a marathon and want to do it right, you have to train, if the servers go down at work and you’re the go-to gal, you have to get them back up and running.

We want to keep this list small. Take a look in your “have” circle — what are the items driven by? Who is driving them? Is it you? This is doubtful— items we have to do are often driven by external factors: our boss, our family, our friends, etc. They are driven by others. My daughter wants to go to soccer practice, so I have to drive her (otherwise she cannot get there). I have to finish the end-of-year report for next week (not by choice, I think the following week would be fine, but I’m not setting the priority).

Items we have to do are where our stress comes from because we feel we have no other choice.

Need

When you look at your list of things to do, you know the items that need to get done. These are the ones that you have prioritized as being important to get done so you feel like you have accomplished what you set out to do this day, week, month, etc.

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You need to get this item completed — you are driving the priority of what needs to be accomplished. This is where the majority of our internal conflict arises from. In general, we will classify nearly everything as a “need” until this circle is bursting in size. But if you look closely, you might start to notice that what you think you need to complete, what is really important for you to get done this week, is not at all. Instead, it is something that you really want to do to make you feel fulfilled.

Want

How many items on your list do you want to accomplish and finish this week? Why? What makes those items so special that you are willing to push them to the forefront of everything you want to do? What do they give to? How to they benefit your wellbeing? What makes them differ from a need?

Simply put, our wants, whether professional or personal, are the collection of our pursuits that let us go to bed at night feeling like we’ve really accomplished something. They are that simple.

Think of the Software Developer who has to complete a project on Friday. He needs to check in the code on Wednesday but he wants to refactor it on Thursday. If he only does the first part, he will have accomplished the goals of others by completing the work and satisfying his professional requirements, but what he really wants is the feeling of getting that last thing off the list which his team might not really be pushing for.

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What we want to accomplish will always be a large, ever-changing bucket of items going in and out. I want to learn to play the guitar, now the cello, now run the Ironman, etc, etc. Completing a “want” will always make us happy because it is directly attributed to what we want to accomplish — not what someone else does.

Putting it all together

The goal is a better understanding of where our priorities come from so we can better handle and manage them — not to find a faster way to check the boxes off on our list. If we know what we have to do over what we need and want to do, all of a sudden the priority ranking of our items changes to what we really feel we should do to feel accomplished at the end of some period in time.

Can items jump between circles? Can items jump between categories? Sure they can. As a “want” starts, it is something basic, undefined, a thought or idea. But as we refine it, put body to do it, the path to accomplish the want and the desire for it turns into a “need” that you must accomplish irrespective of its priority or time of the week.

Not sure how to get started or where to begin in classifying what’s on your list? Here are some easy steps to take.

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  • Draw 3 circles on a page. Label them have, need, and want.
  • Throw everything you want/must do that week into each circle (don’t overload your circles or you might feel pretty down at the end of the week — keep them legit).
  • Now, look at what exists between each circle. Are there conflicting priorities? Can you see what will be overridden where simply by visually seeing it?
  • Where are the similarities? Are your needs being derived by your wants? Can you really accomplish that many things?
  • Now, track throughout some arbitrary time period. What did you accomplish? What moved between circles? What was in direct conflict? What external urgencies pushed what was important to you out of the way? How close did you get to accomplishing what you wanted to accomplish?
  • Now, do it again and again until what you have to do, need to do, and want to do align to work with each other, leaving you fulfilled in what you’ve accomplished.

If you’re in the scenario where you have this massive want circle, don’t worry — you’re not alone. Underline the top ones you want to work on and focus on this week.

Featured photo credit: Alejandro Escamilla via images.unsplash.com

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Greg Thomas

Software Architect

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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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