Advertising
Advertising

It’s Not a Matter Of Priority, It’s a Matter of Attention

It’s Not a Matter Of Priority, It’s a Matter of Attention
    Priority

    I work in a large company where we “prioritize” everything. In fact, we are so good at priortizing that we have multiple priorities at any given time. And even after that we have long meetings to discuss what priorities are the most important. It feels like we are trying to meet the demands of everyone else and not our projects.

    Coming from the “cult-like” GTD background I have been shaped to believe that there is no such things as priorities, that something is important or it isn’t and that we can intuitively figure it out without a 1, 2, 3 – A, B, C type of prioritization code. Yet, the masses of people in the corporate world hang onto prioritization for dear life and with it do work that may not be important to them at all.

    The definition and the attitude

    I’m somewhat simple when it comes to figuring things out. That’s why I like definitions. It’s hard to talk about something without knowing what that thing means. So, priorities are:

    Advertising

    “Precedence, especially established by order of importance or urgency.”

    So, a priority is a list of stuff in order of what is most important. But important to who? And how do we know what is more important than something else.

    My wife and I discuss (argue) about what is more important to me during the week. Is it programming? Writing? How about washing the dishes? What is my highest priority? Also, during work meetings we talk about how we will “balance and manage our priorities” and how we need to “prioritize” our work.

    Advertising

    Like I said before, I have ingrained and strong opinions about prioritization and the lack of it. I truly believe that something should either have your attention or it shouldn’t. I don’t think that we really need to put stars and colors next to our tasks to show how important they are. We need to find our attention and stick to it.

    Why not applying your attention to what really matters is dangerous

    I really do like what Mr. Merlin Mann speaks about in his time and attention talks. He believes (and pontificates) that all we have is time and attention and that priorities may not really work. What it comes down to is understanding what is important in your life and then devoting attention and focus to it; not to worry about what has a bigger star next to it and what order it falls into.

    Your A, B, C – 1, 2, 3 system may help you sort the important things in your list of tasks, but I know that just taking a quick read through what is on your plate will easily show you where your time and attention needs to be drawn to. And that is the key. We need to concentrate on what is important to us: not what some external force deems as important.

    Advertising

    Applying attention to what you and outside entities have agreed on as a priority (this can be work, family, or even friends), and not to what you feel is more important is a sure fire way to not pay attention to what your calling is. In fact, this difference between what is important to you and what is important to other entities is grounds to grow some awesome resentments, produce little, and grow bring about procrastination.

    Identify and attend to

    So, instead of listing out what you think is important try to step back and identify the top 5 to 7 things that are important to you. Then throw out the rest. Seriously, if you have more than 7 “Areas of Responsibility” on your plate you are probably spreading yourself too thin. I know that I would be.

    So to be a good sport, here are my top areas of attention:

    Advertising

    • Husband
    • Friend
    • Personal and spiritual Health
    • Employee of Erie Insurance
    • Editor at Lifehack
    • Software development and writing

    Anything outside of that is just cruft or fun. I know it’s hard to swallow, especially if you were or are a “yes man” like I once was, but the fact is that you can only devote your attention to so much, and that has to be devoted to what you deem important. If you can cut out all the excess stuff that is in your life, you know, the stuff that you are failing at “prioritizing”, then you can get some real work done and even become a better person while doing it.

    Instead of prioritizing all of your work try identifying was is totally important to you apply your attention to that.

    More by this author

    CM Smith

    A technologist and writer who shares advice on personal productivity, creativity and how to use technology to get things done.

    Design Is Important: How To Fail At Blogging 7 Tools to Help Keep Track of Goals and Habits Effectively 6 Unexpected Ways Journaling Every Day Will Make Your Life Better Why Getting Things Done is the Best Productivity System For You How to Beat Procrastination: 29 Ways to Beat It Once and for All To Automate or not to Automate Your Personal Productivity System

    Trending in Productivity

    1 The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain) 2 What to Do When Bored at Work (And Why You Feel Bored Actually) 3 6 Effective Ways to Enhance Your Problem Solving Skills 4 How to Concentrate and Focus Better to Boost Productivity 5 15 Productive Things to Do When Bored (So Time Is Not Wasted)

    Read Next

    Advertising
    Advertising
    Advertising

    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

    Advertising

    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

    Advertising

    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

    Advertising

    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

    Advertising

    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

    More About Goals Setting

    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

    Read Next