Making Prioritizing a Priority

Your-brain-at-work    While enjoying the power outage vacationing in Bayfield, WI over the July 4th holiday a few years ago, I was able to finish reading David Rock’s book Your Brain at Work.  I first heard of Rock through his famous article The Neuroscience of Leadership.

Rock got my attention in the book’s opening “scene.”  Emily is one of the book’s two main characters.  She’s in the first day of a new job after a major promotion.  Having arrived at work early, she sits down to prioritize her day, but finds it so daunting she is easily distracted when her computer alerts her that she has 100 new email.  Intimidated by the challenge of prioritizing amidst all the new and unknown of her promotion, she’s seduced into slogging through the email.

An hour and 40-email later, Emily realizes she needs to hustle off to her first meeting.  Emily and we readers quickly realize that first day isn’t going to go well because she’s not recognized her priority tasks.

Rock pauses his narrative to explain that prioritizing is among the hardest jobs our brains are asked to do because it requires remembering tasks and promises, contemplating the future, comparing and contrasting the importance of tasks and reviewing our motivations and those of others.  One point is that it’s human nature to dodge such a challenging task.  The larger point is, if you start your day by working on email or any other thinking-task, you’re likely to burn off the metabolic resources you need to prioritize.  Think of it this way:  If you needed every single “ounce” of your attention, creativity, courage and wit to ask your boss for a raise and you started your day using all of your self-control in arguing with your teen ager about the car, you may end up deciding to wait until tomorrow to ask for that raise.

In Rock’s book, having started her day with email, Emily had blown her chance to bring her best thinking to the task of prioritizing.

This explains why I’ve never been able to take that 10 minutes at the end of the day, when I’m tired and burned out, to identify the top priorities for my tomorrow.

This morning, I started my day by reviewing my tasks and projects.  I’ve decided to emphasize writing this week. Writing also takes lots of my brain power.  I’m done with this piece. It’s now 6:53 am.

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[Jul 11, 2011]

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