You sit down at your desk with a tall cup of coffee in your hand. You set your timer for 50 minutes of focused work and adjust the volume of iTunes in the background. You face your computer monitor and open the latest rendition of the book you are working on in MS Word. You start to type and the words start flowing. Soon you are in the zone. The words and ideas are coming fast and furiously. All of a sudden a small message pops up with a red flag in it.
It’s the dreaded Outlook popup message and this one has the red flag of “Priority” on it. What do you do? Do you keep typing on your book or do you give in to the temptation to open the e-mail and act on the priority?
Do you say to yourself… this priority can wait to the end of the 50 minute period or does your curiosity get the better of you? Does the red flag connect with your right index finger and you suddenly find yourself giving in to the click of priority or does your focus reign supreme and you just ignore it and keep typing?
This is a question that I face daily.
The quandary of the urgent over the important.
If you’re a fan of Getting Things Done, you’re familiar with the Four Criteria Model for choosing tasks. It’s where the rubber meets the road in GTD, because it’s the way you decide, in the moment, how any one of those wonderful tasks you’ve been tracking in your big system actually gets done.
As common sense as it seems to GTD’ers, this model is one of the more controversial aspects of Getting Things Done for a simple reason: it posits that priority is not the only factor in deciding what to do at a given time. It’s just one of four factors, which include, all told:
- Context – Where are you? What tools are available? What are the limits and possibilities unique to this moment?
- Time available – Do you have, for example, 30 seconds, 30 minutes, or 30 hours available to you right now? What tasks could you accomplish given the time you have?
- Energy available – Are you full of energy, is your ass dragging, or are you somewhere in between? Which of the tasks on your list could you finish, given that energy level?
- Priority – If you had access to all the tools, opportunities, time, and energy you needed, what’s the most important or time-sensitive thing you could do right now?
Merlin’s post really has some great examples of things other than priorities that we should take into account when making these decisions. When I was on vacation last week I didn’t have phone service or e-mail available. While really stressful at first, I soon found that not having these constant interuptions led to much greater productivity.
In the example above, the real question might be… why the heck is e-mail turned on in the first place?? If something is really important and you need to get a hold of me, make a phone call. Focus only works when distractions are kept to a minumum. The daily battle with the urgent may mean closing your office door, turning off e-mail, and sending messages to voice mail.
Try setting aside daily focus sessions. If you have 50 minutes… great, if you have 30 minutes use it. Even 10 minutes of focused work may change your day.
As Merlin says…
Unless you can always satisfy the big red letter commitments you’ve created for yourself — as well as the ones that are constantly being generated for you by others — an obsession with priority alone is pointlessly stress-inducing, unhealthy, and unrealistic. The truth is that sometimes you have crap days, pencils need to be sharpened, or maybe you just don’t have the tools or energy to do what you want the second you want. That’s life, pal. Deal.
So, instead of having an aneurysm about it, just rally, and do what you can with what you’ve got. That’s all any of us can really do, and faking it in order to feel more productive (or more important) gets you no place fast.
Be sure to pick up a copy of David Allen’s, Getting Things Done for the full story.