The prioritisation conundrum
Want to get an important project written? Then 'making it a priority' sounds like a good idea - but it can have the reverse effect. Plus, links to round up our month of noticing.
Have you ever said, ‘I need to prioritise my writing’? Have you ever thought that making it priority will somehow lead to it actually happening?
I have. And I’m embarrassed to say I’ve told others that prioritisation is the answer.
The problem with prioritising
Last week I had a breakthrough about prioritising. It turned my beliefs (and advice) upside down. Rather than prioritising writing I reckon it needs to become less of a priority. Bear with me.
The definition of ‘prioritise’ means to “designate or treat (something) as being very or the most important.” The dictionary definition says that prioritising helps us determine the order for dealing with a series of tasks according to their relative importance. In other words, prioritising helps us take action. But does it really?
The problem is that humans aren’t logical. In theory, when we prioritise something we know what needs to be done, in what order and that clarity should feel motivating - but all too often, the reverse happens. The more important something is to us, the greater we pile the pressure on to ourselves to do it. This leads to us feeling overwhelmed, blocked and unable to make any progress.
Prioritisation often leads to inaction - not action. Just because something is important to us, doesn’t necessarily make us more likely to do it.
Your most important task
Over the years I’ve tried using lots of different exercises for prioritisation like the Eisenhower Matrix or Stephen R. Covey’s rocks in a jar. They are classics in the field of productivity, but they never seem to quite work for me.All they do is make me feel I have too much to do, not enough time to do it, that I’m going to let myself and/or others down. End result: guilt and disappointment.
I’m not alone. Last week in my coaching I noticed a pattern in what happens when writers decide to make writing their Most Important Thing. These writers had all, in one way or another, reached a crunch point with their writing. They were writing things like:
a career-defining article that would showcase their thesis research
a book proposal that would turn around the fortunes of their business
a novel after a decade of carrying the story around in their head
insert Big Important Writing Project of your own here.
They all wanted to get their projects finished and quite understandably, they felt that ‘making it a priority’ would help, but in fact, that was the problem.
An exercise in de-prioritising
While I’m not advocating that you down-grade writing so far in your list of priorities that you never get round to it - the important place writing has in your life needs to be acknowledged - but you also need a way to take some of the weight out of the project when it becomes too much of a big deal.
This might mean:
Finding an easier way in like starting with free writing or note taking
Writing from somewhere less intimidating - break the connection between The Writing Desk and The Big Important Writing Project
Scaling back, taking small steps, finding some pleasure in the process and noticing what works right now.
Your writing is important, it deserves your time, energy and commitment - but not SO important that the very thought of it stops you in your tracks.
A few links on noticing
We think noticing is a superpower, which is why it’s one of the first chapters in our book Written. In April we shared some of our favourite advice, research and stories from that chapter, including Ellen J Langer’s approach to being mindful, Robert Boice on procrastination and Jenn Ashworth’s solution to overcoming writing blocks.
If you fancy noticing more in your life, we recommend checking out Rob Walker’s book the Art of Noticing and his brilliant weekly Substack.
Top of our TBR pile is Gretchen Rubin’s new book Life in Five Senses. Listen to her discuss how using your senses can transform your life on the Happiness Lab with Dr Laurie Santos (second episode here).
More links we love
We’re suckers for writing rules (and breaking them). These keep us laughing McSweeney’s How to become a professional writer and The Fence’s 12 Rules for getting your first book published.
Mason Currey has inspired many, many writers to experiment with their daily routines. Here’s a great piece in Bustle on the latest Could Following Joan Didion's Writing Routine Make Me Write Like Joan Didion?
Be relentless! Roxanne Gay shares writing advice with The Chronicle of Higher Education (Registration required).
How Cal Newport rewrote the productivity gospel in the FT (paywall). Newport also explores ChatGPT and writing in his newsletter and The New Yorker.
I started something exciting! And then, life happened… Relatable illustration from Morgan Harper Nichols on Substack Notes.
There’s perhaps no better example of someone experiencing the prioritisation conundrum than English naturalist Charles Darwin who delayed publishing his world-changing work On the Origin of Species for 20 years. Darwin didn’t do this because publication wasn’t particularly important to him and he’d failed to complete the Eisenhower Matrix - rather, the complete reverse. Darwin procrastinated for two decades precisely because it was so gut-wrenchingly important to him and most probably, knew the revolutionary impact it would have on scientific thought and the church. We’ve written about Darwin’s epic battle with procrastination here and in our book Written.
Productivity is personal so if increasing the pressure helps you to write - crack on.
Oliver Burkeman’s approach in accepting the limitations of our time is incredibly liberating – more on this in the next few weeks.
This was such a breakthrough for me & it coincided with my own experience writing a novel on the side.
My novel is clearly not a priority. In fact, it is in conflict with my other writing, business and life goals. With a submission deadline for my writing group fast approaching, I was feeling blocked and overwhelmed by the task, that I SHOULD prioritise it, MUST make time for it.
I realised, that it because it’s not a priority I could take the pressure off. I choose to write this novel so why make it a thing of pain? Instead, have some fun! You know what, I made more progress in the last week than I have in months, because it wasn’t this massive burden any more.
Amazing and timely advice. I love your work. Reading your book at the moment and these newsletters are like mini pep talks. Thank you!