personal development
30 Nov 2018

How to succeed in the most demanding task of all – prioritising

How to succeed in the most demanding task of all – prioritising

Our clients often ask us if we can help their managers in becoming better at prioritising and managing their time. How can we do that? My first question is always do they really know what the goal of the company is? I then follow with do they know how their own work is linked to that goal?

In the busy work-life today, characterised by constant interruptions – this is not enough. People are so distracted and the work-flow is often interrupted by urgent needs that it is becoming increasingly difficult to stay focused on the right things and get the right work done in the right order towards those goals. Keeping the goal in mind is seemingly impossible at times.

Why can't we prioritise?

Our pre-frontal cortex that is guiding all our mental activity is a very limited brain function. We can only hold a couple of thoughts and ideas simultaneously in our active, conscious mind. In essence that means that multi-tasking is impossible for our brain. We can only focus on one thing at a time, and when we re-focus things fall off the small stage that the pre-frontal cortex can be compared to. If we are constantly interrupted, actors (active thoughts) are reshuffled on the stage and the play becomes messy and incomprehensible. Some actors even fall of the stage.

The only way to be able to multi-task is when one of the tasks are done on “auto-pilot”. It is for example possible to drive and talk on the phone simultaneously, because driving we can do on auto-pilot. This is why it is easy for us to drive a well-known route – even if that wasn’t where we were going. This happened to me when I had just moved and was driving home talking to a friend (with a headset, mind you) and suddenly I realised I was going to my old address. 

When we have done a mentally requiring task it exhausts our brain and it is difficult to do another equally demanding task right after. Many people come to work and start their day by opening their email to get through the things that they didn’t have time to do the day before or that has come in during night. What usually happens then is that you get a lot of tasks and requests that come with the emails. You immediately start working on these, as they give you a sense of satisfaction – you are working, trying to be effective and being able to tick off the things that would have ended-up on your to-do list anyway.

But what happens to the things you had planned to do, that really needs focusing and mental effort? They are pushed forward, probably all day, as you are trying to put out burning fires elsewhere. The only time left to do the things that are important, but maybe not screamingly urgent, are after office hours when things calm down. The next day the procedure starts all over again.

Why is this so? There are many things at play here.

First is our dopamine system. Dopamine is our reward hormone that makes us feel good. It rewards us when we get positive feedback, e.g. likes on Facebook or LinkedIn post or when we sense that we have achieved something. It gives us a rush of instant feel-good. That is why we let us get distracted by anything that can give us an instant sense of feel-good (e.g. replying to an email request immediately), even though we know we would get a larger level of feel-good later for something that requires more effort and is more difficult to achieve (e.g. finishing a strategy report).

The second thing is our inclination towards routine behaviour, with the intention to save up brain space. Unfortunately, this means that once we have developed unproductive routine behaviours, they are a bit difficult to break.

Working with our brain

Our brain only needs three repetitions of a task, when it starts recognising a pattern and starts moving the activity to the basal ganglia, away from the conscious mind of the pre-frontal cortex in the brain. This happens so that we can save the small stage for more important activity and decision making. That is for example why we usually do our morning routines in the same order or always sit at the same place in the dinner table – to save our brain for more important decision-making.

To develop more productive and effective behaviours, we need to consciously develop new routines. The longer we have walked a certain path, the more difficult it is to walk up a new pathway in the brain – but it is not impossible, not at all! Our brain is plastic and extremely adaptive, we only need to repeat the new behaviour enough times to make it the new routine behaviour.

Consider moving to a new home, for example. In the beginning you may need to consciously think about in which drawers or closets you stored different things, but it doesn’t take long before you are back in your normal routines again. Moving is also a good opportunity to create new routines, as you need to revise them anyway. The same goes also for when switching jobs.

How can we become better at prioritising?

Prioritising is one of the most demanding and difficult tasks for our brain to perform. We need to bring many different actors on to the small stage at the same time, and we need to evaluate them against the future to be able to order them in order of importance, depending on their various outcomes when completed. So, when prioritising, we need to juggle a variety of to-do’s in the pre-frontal cortex at the same time, which is in itself demanding, but visualising and evaluating their outcome when completed in the future is even more demanding.

So how do we then become better at prioritising? By prioritising prioritising.

Prioritising should preferably be done first thing in the morning – when our mind is fresh and before all the burning issues distract us from focusing and use up our mental power needed to prioritise. 

You can read more on prioritising in the book 'Your brain at work'  by David Rock


Does your organisation need support in time management and prioritising better? We arrange workshops to help companies and their leaders perform better towards their company goals, contact us to find out more.

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Pernilla Gripenberg
Director, Design and Delivery - Ph.D.
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