The Priority Planning Process is life changing if honestly used. And I do not make that claim lightly. If you actually use the process — and use it regularly, — you are taking action every day towards your goals. You are also living the life you truly value.
The Priority Planning Process (or P3 as it’s sometimes abbreviated) adapts to your needs and planning style. This is the key. You do not have to change your style or method of planning — beyond making lists. I’m a big fan of flexibility and adaptability. Change is inevitable. (The second law of thermodynamics applies to everything.)
There are three essential steps in the process, and a fourth if you want the optimal psychological boost. But more about the fourth step later.
The Essential Steps to the Priority Planning Process
1. Make a To Do list
— Be certain these are tasks that can be completed in the given amount of time. So “Write dissertation” could go on a list of things to do this year but not for today. Today’s task may be “Write 1000 words of my dissertation first draft.”
2. Prioritize the tasks on the list
The three most important things you need or want to accomplish that day are your A tasks. You will do these today. Your next three most important tasks are your B tasks for the day. Then come three C items, and the rest are Ds. (If you don’t like A, B, C, D, keep reading, the coding is adaptable.) Make certain one of your A tasks is something that moves you towards a larger goal, even if it’s a small task like creating a punch list of other tasks to do.
3. Do the tasks in priority order.
You will now do your A-items first. Start your day with your A1 task. Your cognitive capacity is strongest in the morning and this task is the most important for the day. If you do this task, you will have accomplished something important. If one of your A items is time-dependent, say a meeting at 3 p.m., you do your A2 task, then your A3 task, and so forth — until you can do your A1 task. (This, by the way, is the most complicated part of this process.)
4. Review what you have accomplished. Bump uncompleted tasks to the next To-Do list.
Move tasks not done that you still need to do to your list for the next day. Some of these tasks will become more important with time. For example, “do laundry” may start as a D task but when you are down to one pair of underpants, it becomes an A task. (Or you have an A task of “buy more underpants.”)
Be sure to look for patterns, such as tasks repeatedly left undone — especially if the tasks are connected to a major goal or priority in your life. (We’ll go deeper on this topic in another post.) Why don’t you do this task? Is it truly important? Is there something you need to do before you can complete the task?
That’s the basics.
You may be a little disappointed. How can something so simple be life changing? You may even be saying, “Hey, Carolyn I already make To Do lists and I’m still getting nowhere!”
Because like many simple tenants, the Priority Planning Process requires discipline and self-awareness. Have you ever tried to avoid all of the 7 Deadly Sins? Or follow the hard teachings of Jesus or Buddha’s Eightfold Path or Thoreau’s philosophy? Or even just live a healthy lifestyle with daily exercise and avoiding fats, processed foods, and sugar? I lack the discipline, let alone self-awareness, to achieve any of those without lapses. (Curse you Krispy Kreme!)
Fortunately, the Priority Planning Process requires only a little discipline and self-awareness, and, like fitness, it becomes easier and more effective as you successfully work at it.
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What Goes On Our To-Do List?
Or lists, actually. Before we can know what we truly want to accomplish today, we need to know what we want to accomplish this week, this month, this quarter, this year, this decade — this lifetime.
You should have at least three lists at all times:
- what you want to accomplish in your lifetime,
- what you want to accomplish this year, and
- what you want to accomplish today.
Why? Because each day one of your A priorities should be a task that moves you towards accomplishing a life goal. It doesn’t need to be a big step towards that goal. But take some action toward at least one of your goals that moves you towards a life goal every day.
For example, say one of your life goals is to attend the Great Basin Astronomy Festival (or the Albuquerque International Balloon Festival or Fashion Week London or whatever calls to you). Before you can make this happen you need to break down all the things that have to happen before that goal. Certainly one of the things you will need is enough money and free time to attend. So one of your A tasks will be to calculate how much time and money you will need to achieve this goal. That may be all the time you to spend on that life goal today — but tomorrow you can make an A task figuring out how long it will take you to get both the time and the money.
Don’t have a list of what you want to achieve in your lifetime? Or not certain you’ve got the right things on your list? We’ll be covering this subject in another post so stay tuned (or sign-up for the newsletter to be notified).
Do I Have to Actually Write the List?
You can use pen and paper or make a digital list with something like Evernote or just a text file, but you must write your list. First, because writing it down frees up brain function for successful problem-solving. Second, you get a small psychological and emotional boost just having accomplished the task of making the list. (You’re also going to get a boost crossing off the things you achieve but that’s the fourth step so we’ll talk about it in a moment.)
What Kind of Planner Do I Use?
You can use any kind of planner or system you like. Or even no planner. I’m a big fan of Post-It notes. I usually write my daily To-Do list on a Post-It and stick it to the back of my phone. I like Moleskine Weekly planners but if I see something beautiful at my local bookstore I will switch. You can easily use a digital planner, as long as you can add notes. In a pinch, I’ve used my Google Calendar.
If you’re a Bullet or Dot Journal fan, you can easily add the Priority Planning Process to your system. You can either write your To-Do lists (daily, weekly, monthly, annually) in your journal, use Post-Its, or add a list with washi tape.
(I’ll be doing a class video with more details so you may want to sign-up for the newsletter. And yes, that’s a repetitive theme. I promise there will be no spam and your email will not be shared without your permission. But given the state of social media now, email is still the safest form of digital communication.)
I’m Visual. Can I Prioritize With Something Other Than Letters?
Yes. You can create your own symbols or color-coding if you prefer. For example, Stars or red for As, hearts or blue for Bs and so forth.
But you must use 1,2,3 to prioritize tasks within your symbols. No more than 3 items for any category.
Why? Because our brains have been trained to think in sequential order, that is, 1, 2, 3, and so forth. We think of being first versus coming in second. We want a #1 rating. Even without visual numbers, we prioritize or rank items in order of importance. Also, we need to limit the number of items on our list to improve motivation. We can only get so much done in a day. A list that never gets completed is discouraging.
Boost the Effectiveness of Your Priority Planning Process — And Improve Your Mood — With This One Extra Step
As you complete items on your list, cross them off. Do NOT erase them, Cross Them Off.
Because neurological science has shown that we get a little burst of dopamine and a sense of accomplishment when we cross things off as done. That boost strengthens as we see more tasks cross-off our list as completed. It gives us a tangible and visual recognition of our successes and achievements. It’s like giving ourselves a pat on the back. It’s especially nice when you review your list later. It increases our motivation, resilience and commitment.
And yes, if I have to do something that isn’t on my list, I add it to the list — and then cross it off. I need all the psychological boosts I can get! Especially in winter.
But watch out. The dopamine hit and mood boost are why we tend to do the easy tasks first, even if they aren’t really moving us toward our goals. So we need the Priority Planning Process — and some initial self-discipline — to help us work on what matters and not on how much we do each day.
Do I Really Need to Review My List(s)?
Yes. You get an emotional and psychological boost and stay focused. You reinforce your self-awareness of your genuine accomplishments and successes and of any creeping distractions or negative habits.
If you are adding lots of unplanned tasks to your list each day, ask yourself why?
Do you need to break down the items into smaller tasks before putting them on your lists?
Or are you getting sucked into other people’s demands for your time and what is important to them?
Or are you resisting a goal because niggling little voice telling you something is wrong?
Procrastination isn’t always bad. Sometimes it is our unconscious telling us we haven’t thought something through. We need to wait. If that appears to be the case, perhaps you should work on the next project on your prioritized list.
Just make certain you are doing something that matters to you every single day.