Prioritizing When Everything is a Priority

The following is guest post by my good friend Jim Henshaw. Jim and i have been having coffee every week for months now — a sacred time for me as I truly enjoy exchanging ideas and thoughts with him during it. If you’re ever trying to reach me between the hours of 10 a.m. and noon on Thursdays, there’s a good chance I won’t be available because of these excursions. Jim was gracious enough to offer up a guest post here at the weblog, and you can read his other written work over at The Legion of Decency (although there’s a good chance you’ve seen his work already and didn’t even know it), and you can follow him on Twitter as well.

When Mike first described his approach to “productivity” to me, I honestly didn’t get it. Inbox Zero. Merging software programs. Multi-colored pens. I always felt I maybe just wasn’t that busy.

And then I realized I was always busy. But I just did things differently. Not necessarily better. Just different. And in comparing processes, he asked me to describe mine, especially when it came to setting priorities.

Y’see, in my line of work (and probably most people’s if they’d admit it) everything insists it’s a priority.

I write and produce TV series and movies. Like most businesses, production demands maximizing the time and money available. Everything needs to be done as quickly and cheaply as possible.

But some aspects take time – a lot of it. And some can only be accomplished by spending money – a lot of it. So much of the job of producing is making the time and money available for those elements while ensuring that nothing else suffers – and thus costing time and money you don’t have anymore.

Any production has three separate stages: preparation, production and post-production; each with specific tasks, most of which overlap. Working in each of those stages are separate professions with their own priorities and schedules, all dependent on what came before or affecting what comes after.

Scripts need to reach certain stages before schedules and budgets can be created. Schedules and budgets determine when actors work and sets have to be ready. Costumes can’t be made until actors are cast. Props and locations have to be secured for specific days. Video edits have to be complete before Foley artists, sound editors and composers can begin their tasks. Compromising those deadlines each step of the way are weather, egos, equipment problems and all the myriad issues that arise when a couple hundred people are brought together to create something.

Add animals, kids, car chases, battle scenes or anything else that requires a whole other level of cat herding and you soon develop an “Everything is a priority” mindset – because to somebody on your team it is.

So how do you prioritize when everything is a priority?

I have two rules:

  1. Everything goes in the book.
  2. You don’t go home until nothing’s left in the book.

The book, for me, is usually a battered spiral binder. But it could be your favorite list making software or an iPhone.

From the moment my day begins, everything I need to accomplish, every question I’m asked, every call to be returned goes in the book. No matter how trivial it might seem, no matter if it takes almost as long to list as to do, it goes in the book.

That’s because once it’s in the book, it can’t be overlooked or forgotten. It can’t be put off to tomorrow where some fresh, unimagined hell may await. It needs to be finished today.

Put your personal needs on the list too. If you need a break to exercise, call your spouse or the kids, time to truly savor a cappuccino, walk the dog or just smell the roses, book it.

Having everything your day requires in front of you allows you to quickly ascertain how much of your available time is spoken for and how much is on hand for the unexpected.

We’re always told to do the most unpleasant or difficult task first, when we’re at our most energetic. I look at my list and instead determine what most impacts production deadlines and/or affects the largest number of people.

That review is conducted virtually every time something is added to or crossed out of the book.

Quite simply, the more people who can get on with what they need to do, the fewer who’ll be bothering you when you need time to either focus on their priority task or move on to something else.

As items are crossed off and added to my notebook, it also becomes easier to handle the emails, phone calls or other intrusions you can’t schedule.

Yes, you sometimes need to say “No” to people. But most often I take the “How much do I need to know about this?” approach.

Being accessible allows you to read how everybody else’s day is going, what concerns or crises may be arising. But once the conversation starts to drift off topic wrap it up and move on.

Trust me, people appreciate the fact you always have five minutes for them more than that you can schedule them an hour once a week.

Yes, you might miss hearing about something important now and then. But 99% of the time you’ll learn what you need and not feel any stress about whether or not you can still accomplish something else.

And this is where Rule 2 comes into play.

As you fill your pages with crossed out and finished tasks, you actually become more energized than exhausted. Yeah, there’s still lots to do that’ll be difficult and time consuming, but you now feel you’ve still got the time. Look at all you’ve accomplished so far. Damn, you’re not only in control; you’re a God at this!

You begin to sense you really won’t be up all night and can get back to your non-work life at a decent hour.

You’re also constantly purchasing the essential “back of mind” subconscious mulling time that gives you the solutions to your remaining tasks before you need to take them on.

For me, the secret of working efficiently is simply avoiding stress, eliminating the feeling you’re holding somebody up or letting them down. When you’re on top of your day like that, you’re relaxed, able to focus and thus prioritize when everything seems like a priority.

Photo credit: Addison Barry (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)