Adopting the Priorities Mindset

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One of my top life lessons learned is: if you want to create your dream life, you must stay ruthlessly committed to identifying and pursuing your top priority at each choice-point during the day. I call this "The Priorities Mindset." It took me years to truly learn this lesson, and like all important life lessons, I find that I get to learn more about it all the time.

In this article, I'd like to share my history of learning how to adopt the priorities mindset, in the hope that you learn it faster than I did.

I first learned about the priorities mindset when I read How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life by Alan Lakein, sometime around 1994. The signature lesson of that book is, always ask yourself: "What is the best use of my time right now?"

I use all of Lakein's techniques, and over the years I have asked myself his question many times. From the beginning, I agreed it was a good idea to have a priorities mindset. But I didn't actually have one.

In hindsight, I think the problem was that I thought I had to clarify my entire value hierarchy in order to judge my daily priorities quickly and accurately. To do that, I had to become radically better at time estimation and task management.

That took me a long time.

I did a ton of inaccurate, slow judging of priorities. I made every mistake possible and got stuck in every way possible. I think it's fair to say that to become an accurate, fast prioritizer, I had to develop all the thinking tactics I teach. I needed them to do the thinking which eventually led me to have the skill and the good judgment I needed to make fast, accurate judgments of my priorities.

Here's my first tip for you: this was the long way 'round. In hindsight, I think it is much more important to adopt the priorities mindset and make fast judgments of priorities, even if they're not very accurate.

When you're starting, your judgments don't really need to be super accurate. The truth is, if it's not obvious to you which of two tasks is more important to do first, you are better off making a definite choice and acting on it instead of being bogged down in indecision. By acting, you'll learn facts which you can factor into the next decision about priorities. The crucial thing is that you need to be able to see yourself improving on those judgments.

My second tip was one I learned after talking with Thinking Lab members about making mental transitions between tasks. Your main goal should be to make conscious transitions between tasks. This means that first you need to finish up what you're doing in a way that gets the previous task off your mind, and then you need to get started on the new task by activating both your motivation and the context of knowledge for that task.

In short, they found it helpful to realize that if they hadn't made a conscious transition, they probably hadn't made a conscious choice about what their top priority was. They needed to take a minute to think about their priorities — and then make a deliberate transition to begin work on their top priority now.

This is brilliant — because this is something you can easily monitor for. Set a standing order to ask yourself, "Did I fall into doing this rather than make a conscious transition?" This is an easy yes/no question. If you get a "yes," that means you should pause to check your priorities.

This is a much easier way to monitor for a priorities mindset than the way I did. Reconstructing the past, I believe I would ask myself something like "Am I working on my top priority?" But the answer to that question was usually ambiguous or vague. That very hard question led me into the detour of developing better judgment before adopting a mindset where I was always working on my top priority. It all seemed logical at the time — I couldn't work on my top priority if I didn't know what it was — but in hindsight, it was the long way 'round.

Now that I can answer that question consistently with a confident yes or no, I have no problem following through and staying focused on priorities. But you don't have to wait for that kind of confidence.

When you're making a change, you need something very easy to monitor for. And, if you catch the issue, you need something pretty easy to do in response.

Just ask yourself, "did I make a conscious choice?" and if not, make one now.

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