Weighing Next Actions Using Prioritized Goals

Merlin Mann has uttered many sagacious phrases (and even sentences) about priorities. For example:

You eventually learn that true priorities are like arms; if you think you have more than a couple, you’re either lying or crazy.


Astute as that is, how does it help you choose what to do when you sit down at your desk? Sure, there are the obvious things. But if one of your priorities is “start a company”, and another is “maintain my relationships with my wife and daughter”, there’s still a lot of ambiguity when deciding just what is the best thing to do next.

I’ve discovered that keeping an ordered list of goals (note, my actions are not ordered or “prioritized”) helps immensely. It has two main benefits:

  1. When considering adding a new next action, project, commitment, or whatever, it’s easy to look at or think about the list and say, “This does [not] match up with any of my goals. I will [not] incorporate it into my to-do list.
  2. When sitting down to plan your day (you do that, right?), it makes it easy to decide what goes on the list. Start at the top of the list of prioritized goals, and work down. Pick actions suitable to your energy level, setting, etc, that move you toward your most important goals first.

Of course, you can’t really assign priorities to your goals. They exist. You just have to think about them and then formalize them by writing them down. More wisdom from Merlin:

I think priorities are simple to understand precisely because their influence is so staggeringly clear and unavoidable to behold, then act upon. Ready for this one?

A priority is observed, not manufactured or assigned. Otherwise, it’s necessarily not a priority. [Emphasis his]

In my book, a priority is not simply a good idea; it’s a condition of reality that, when observed, causes you to reject every other thing in the universe – real, imagined, or prospective – in order to ensure that things related to the priority stay alive.

Example. When my daughter falls down and screams, I don’t ask her to wait while I grab a list to determine which of seven notional levels of “priority” I should assign to her need for instantaneous care and affection. Everything stops, and she gets taken care of. Conversely – and this is really the important part – everything else in the universe can wait.

Merlin on 43Folders (The entire post is definitely worth your time and a major part of the inspiration for what I’m writing here.)

Here’s the exercise to do for coming up with your ordered list of goals: think about what’s important to you in life. Really important. Everything-stops-for-it-important. Write it all down. Compare the items in your mind — if you had to choose between two of them, which one would come first? Repeat until they’re in order.

See, it’s insightful for Merlin to talk about how priority just happens, but it’s so easy to forget about what’s important to you when you’re sitting in front of a computer (or a blank canvas or staff sheet, or whatever). If you want a method to ensure that you stick to what’s really important to you when distractions abound, give it a try.

I’ll give you a real-life example of how this was useful for my wife Amanda and I. Between our jobs, our daughter, and her day care, we have very little time or money to spare these days. We were making a list of goals using the method I described above, and I said, “maybe we should pause Netflix for a while.” She said something about how we enjoy watching stuff from Netflix and we have so many interesting things queued up to watch. I thought for a second or two, and looked at the list of goals that we had so far made. I asked, “Where on that ranked list of things that are important to us does ‘sitting together not interacting and watching tv shows and movies’ fit?”. She replied: “pause it”.

What are you still doing that wouldn’t make it onto your list? What aren’t you doing that would?