Thoughts About Choosing And Working on Priorities

I wish I had more time to do all the things I need to do. There’s not enough time in the day to get everything done. I was too busy to get to it. Sound familiar?

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I’m sure you’ve heard and probably said all of these before. Maybe you didn’t use the exact words, but you’ve likely said similar. Let’s face it, we all complain that we could use more time.

All the talk about a lack of time is just an excuse, though. It’s not time that’s the problem. It’s the way we prioritize what we do with the time we have.

Everyone has same amount of time in the day to work with and there will be more time to get more done the next day. It’s never that you couldn’t get to something because there wasn’t enough time. It’s that you didn’t prioritize that something over the other somethings you chose to do.

In some cases there’s a good reason for putting something off, but more often it’s a case of not prioritizing well.

I started thinking about priorities and how we treat them for a couple of reasons. It happens to fit nicely with last week’s topic of consistently showing up and putting in the effort. However, it’s more because I failed to work on something a few weeks ago that I tell myself has the highest priority of all the things I have to do. Despite having the highest priority, I failed to work on it for an entire week.

The what in question is a book about flexbox that I hope to have finished very soon. After realizing I let a week pass without working on it, I was reminded that we need to treat priorities as priorities and I’m happy to report I’ve made considerable progress on the book in the week’s since being reminded.

I thought I’d spend some today talking about priorities.

An Example of Setting Priorities

About 10 years ago when I first started this blog, I wasn’t prepared for how much work was involved. I thought I could open a text editor at night while watching television and write a post for the next day during commercial breaks.

I didn’t give the blog a lot of priority so I didn’t put much work into it. It was something I did more because I thought I was supposed to than because I had set a priority for working on it.

It didn’t take long before I ran out of things to say and at the first legitimate excuse, I skipped a day, then another, and another, until 9 or 10 months had passed without my publishing anything.

After the time away, I came back to the blog with a new focus and desire, but I still struggled to get things written and published. I may not have been leaving it for commercial breaks, but I still hadn’t given it enough priority. I was saving the work for the end of the day and not always getting to it.

Sometimes work earlier took more time than expected. Some days I didn’t feel up to writing and would choose to work on something else. Not so oddly, the work I scheduled for earlier in the day got done and the blogging I scheduled at the end of the day sometimes didn’t.

I needed to give the blog more priority and decided it was deserving of that higher priority. The big change was to work on the blog first thing in the day. Once I switched to writing in the morning I found I didn’t miss publishing posts. I had made it a priority and so the work got done.

Regardless of what surprises the day or week brings, I now make working on the blog a priority and I set time aside for it daily and early. It shouldn’t be surprising that I publish regularly.

What’s Really the Priority?

How certain are you about your priorities? We often think the task that comes with the nearest timed deadline is the one with the highest priority, but that isn’t necessarily the case.

You might have a client requesting work in a hurry, but the work might take you away from something else that would ultimately be more important to the success of your business. That something else might not have a deadline, but it could be a long term goal that could be far more important to your business than the client’s project or even the client.

It’s possible the priority should be to work on the task with the long term goal even though the reward is months or years away. It might be better for your business in the long term than the client in question.

You have to think about where you want yourself and your business to be, not just tomorrow or next month, but a few years down the line. What are the most important things to get you there?

These things may not come across as having the highest priority in the immediate or near future because there’s no deadline or near term reward, but if you always think of priorities as tasks with times deadlines, you’ll never make progress on long term goals. You’ll only complete short term goals. You won’t be doing the thing you decided was more important.

You have to be strong enough to say no to things that seem more important on the surface, but really aren’t. It’s ok to lose a project or be late on a deadline at times, if you were late because you worked on something more important.

There are repercussions for missing deadlines and turning away work, but what you gain by devoting time to the long term goal might be worth more than what you lose. Sacrificing something in the short term for a better reward later might be your best choice.

Work on Priorities When It’s Efficient

Once you decide on your priorities you have to put in the time to work on them. Part of being productive is knowing yourself and under what conditions you do your best work.

I’ve always found the work I schedule earlier in the day gets done while the work I schedule toward the end of the day may or may not get done. It isn’t just a morning vs. afternoon thing. It’s more a first half of the morning and first half of the afternoon thing.

I work better in certain time slots. Work scheduled during times I’m likely to be at my best tends to get done and done well. The work I schedule at the start of the day is more likely to get done than work scheduled at the end of the day.

You might be different. You get more done in the afternoon, evening, or late at night. The specific time doesn’t matter so much as long as you work on the tasks and projects you’ve prioritized during the time you do your best work. If they’re that important, shouldn’t they get your best?

Work on the less important things when you don’t have a lot mental of physical energy. Maybe you won’t do your best, but so what? These are the tasks that weren’t that important to you, despite needing to get done.

Sometimes you do have to work on the less important things and focus on the short term priority, but in general you’re better working on the higher priority item. You might even ask yourself if the unimportant tasks are so unimportant could they be skipped entirely. You’d be surprised how much more you can skip than you think.

Treat Priorities Like Priorities

Sometimes we only give lip service to priorities. We say something is a priority to us, but none of our actions would suggest that it is.

For example as far back as 2008 I planned on developing a business around WordPress themes and maybe plugins, but other than a little time shortly after the idea struck I never worked on the potential business.

Still I kept setting it as a goal year after year in one form or another. Despite my telling myself it was a priority, the idea clearly wasn’t important to me. I didn’t work on it and chose to work on other things instead whenever I had the time. I wasn’t treating the idea as the priority I told myself it was.

A few years later and I didn’t get any further along than I was in those first few months. I eventually realized the disconnect between my thoughts and actions and decided my actions had it right. A business around WordPress themes wasn’t a priority to me and I moved on to other things.

On the other hand there’s writing. I’ve been writing more and more the last few years and I’ve decided it’s the longer term goal for my business. That means I have to make writing a priority and treat it like a priority if I’m going to make it a larger part of my business. I need to treat writing as the priority over design clients.

When 2015 started I turned away two design projects. One was something of a mismatch between myself and the project. I probably could have made it work, but it was never going to be a great fit.

With the other I held firm to a price that I might have negotiated in the past. I decided that unless the project would pay my price the short term gain in revenue wasn’t worth the long term loss in where I want my business to be. I decided I was better off working on the flexbox book I mentioned.

In the short term the client projects would have provided a significant amount of cash flow, but in the long term they only kept me from working on something I’ve prioritized more.

I chose to work on a book. I have no idea if or how much the book will sell, but realistically it will earn as much as the projects over time. It will take more time to earn anything from the book and it’ll be even more time to earn what the projects would have paid, but if you ask me in a few years if I made the right decision, I’m sure my answer will be yes.

It’s hard to do. It’s hard to make time for something that won’t pay off near term and turn away other things that will. It’s especially hard when you live a freelancer’s life, with the ebb and flow of client work and the need to have some money saved throughout the year for the lean times. You usually have to take advantage of projects when they’re there.

Perhaps I’m taking a risk by turning down work and money I’ll wish I had in a few months, but I still think I made the right choice, because I chose the work on what has the higher priority to me.

If you choose what’s better in the near term, that’s what you’re real priority is. Your actions have to be aligned with your thoughts. If you decide something is a priority, then treat it like one or move on. Your actions will tell you what your priorities are (and aren’t) more than what you think and say about them.

Review Your Priorities

Life does change over time. Something that seemed like a priority yesterday isn’t so important today. Something that doesn’t seem important now will be in the future. Some things you think important today probably won’t be important to you tomorrow.

Especially as I’m talking about putting in time now for a long term payoff, you want to make sure you’re working toward the right things. You don’t want to get to the end of five years and realize you’ve been working on the wrong thing, or something you no longer care about, or for an opportunity that never emerged. You don’t want to spend years preparing for something only to find you don’t want it when you get there.

You can’t always know in advance, but you can periodically review your priorities. I do this as part of my weekly and monthly GTD system reviews.

A review is a chance to reorganize your priorities. Think about the things you want and if you still want them. Decide if they’re still worth pursuing. A review will help keep you on your path or it will help you decide if another path will lead you to a better place.

You aren’t going to know for certain if you’ve prioritized well, but reviewing your priorities will give you a chance to make corrections.

Had I realized a few years ago, I might have more quickly and easily seen that the WordPress theme business wasn’t really for me. I could have dropped its priority in favor of something else, likely writing. It wouldn’t have given me more time since I wasn’t working on the idea anyway, but it would have let me set my real priorities sooner. I probably would have a few more books finished now.

Closing Thoughts

To build the business you want or make the life you want, you have to prioritize the things you do today for the future. You have to decide what are and aren’t priorities and then treat them like priorities.

If something is important to you then make time for it, ideally under the conditions that lead to you being at your best. If you don’t make time for something important, you probably don’t have a handle on your priorities. You might be thinking one thing while your actions are saying something else.

Don’t be afraid to say no to things that will keep you from what you consider important. It can be scary at times in the short term to turn work away, but it can pay off long term. If you think something is important, then do it.

Make time to review your priorities as well. You’ll find they change and you’ll find your actions will call into question how important some things really are to you.

You have to treat the things you say are priorities as the priority when you’re making decisions. If you always choose something else than what truly was the priority to you?

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