Exercising Priorities

Sometimes, when feeling overwhelmed, the best thing to do is to put everything but the absolutely essential aside for a while. It can help give space and perspective. It can give a reprieve from the stress. The problem is, if allowed to go on for too long, opting out can lead to all kinds of nasty side effects. Like disconnection from people we care about, missed deadlines, or a crippling sense of ennui.

When those specters begin to raise their ugly heads, it’s time to face the overwhelm head-on. And one of the best ways to do that is to schedule an in-home, unplugged, full or half-day personal retreat. Now, I’m not talking about one of those personal pampering spa days, here. I’m talking about a serious work session, complete with lists, white boards, office supplies, and the whole nine yards.

Here’s what I did with mine:

  1. Pull your supplies together–For me, those included yellow legal pads, my favorite pen, 4″x6″ lined yellow Post-It notes, unlined 3″x3″ yellow Post-It notes, a tablet of 18″x24″ newsprint, a 2’x3′ cork board, some tacks, an easel, a box of crayons, my recent journals and project notebooks, and a couple of empty binders and sets of dividers.
  2. Set up your space–I cleared off my desk except for the items listed above, set the cork board on the easel, tacked the newsprint to the cork board, and lined up my crayons.
  3. Category / Subcategory Mind Map
    Category / Subcategory Mind Map

    Make your first list–I started with big categories, first writing them down on paper, then transferring them mind-map-style to the easel. That way I could brainstorm in a more free-form way, while also being able to see the relationships between the different categories. Mine were: Writing, Art, Prepping, LaurenAyer.com, ApocalypseGarden.com, and Self.

  4. Add subcategories for each big category–For example, my Self category included Spirit, Love, Fun, Learning, Health, Time, Home, and Money. Writing included Poetry, Short Stories, Novels, and Non-Fiction/Esssays. Once completed, my category list had 6 items, and my subcategory list had 37.
  5. Comprehensive Project Lists
    Comprehensive Project Lists

    Create an open-project list for each subcategory–This is where I pulled out the lined Post-Its and just started jotting down everything that I am currently working on, thinking of working on, or started working on but didn’t finish. Include all your ideas big and small–this is where the journals and notebooks come in handy.  It is also where the reasons behind the overwhelm begin to become abundantly clear. But don’t let that entice you to truncate your lists. Putting everything in there is crucial to later steps. In the category of writing, I had one novel in progress, three waiting to be written, three more waiting for edits, two non-fiction book ideas plus a memoir I’ve been making notes on for a couple of years, one short story, a comic book that is partially written, a variety of poems in various states from idea to finished, and a commitment to write a poem a day during the month of April, so 13 discrete items plus a hoard of poems. Under the Art | Quilts area I have 11 unfinished, 22 planned but un-started, ideas for 14 distinct quilt series, and a list of 8 skills I want to learn related to quilting, for a grand total of 56 discrete items.

  6. Take a short break to calm your respiratory and heart rate–Drink some water, have a snack, go for a short walk. The good news is, dumping all of these items out of your brain and onto a page frees up a lot of space for the next phase of the process.
  7. Pick a category, review all its project lists, and highlight the most important item(s) –Start with the easiest one first. For me, it was the project lists under Writing. They were easy for two reasons. First, there weren’t that many items on each list, and second, I already had my priorities in mind. I had decided before I started the 30 day poetry challenge that I would be focusing exclusively on writing poems this month, not reviewing or editing. I also am planning a research trip for the current novel early next month, which means I will need to review my notes and content before I go, to make the most of the trip, so Consequence gets highlighted. And because I prefer to focus on one big project at a time, and because I’m not super inspired by any of the others, everything else goes on hold. So that’s two items under writing–a daily challenge, and some novel research. Not too bad. A couple of other hints: 1. Choose a specific period of time to help focus your prioritization–I chose the month of April.  2. Unless you are doing a 6 month plan, try not to highlight more than a couple of items per category unless they are really small/easy or already habitual. That also means that some lists and even some categories may not have any items prioritized–and that’s okay.
  8. Do the same for the rest of the categories.
  9. Compile a master priority list sorted by category–If you find yourself balking at the length of your list, or you have too many big projects, take another pass to review which ones belong on the list. If they all have to stay, consider breaking down your time period into smaller increments, for example, I prioritized by month, but created action lists by week. So even though reviewing my novel’s content has to be done in April, it doesn’t have to be done until the end of the month.
  10. Priority Lists
    Priority Lists

    Create a list of first/next steps for each priority item–For example, there are two small quilts on my quilting list. I know there is no way I can get them both done this week, especially with so much else going on. But I can still make progress on them. For the first quilt, my first/next step is to cut out the fabric. For the second, it’s to schedule time for the long-arm quilting machine. There may not be time available this week, but at least I’ll have it set up, so I can move on to the next step–basting. The simpler and easier the first step, the more likely you will be to get it done. If you want to get really organized, consider creating a list of all the steps for you key projects so you won’t get delayed by having to figure out what to do next.

  11. Assign dates to each item on the list–Add them to your calendar and don’t forget to book time on your schedule to get them done.
  12. Hang the list where you will see it every day–ideally multiple times a day. Mine’s next to my computer where I can’t miss it.
  13. (OPTIONAL) Consider setting up a binder to hold the lists you’ve created and any other information relevant to this planning process or that might help the next time around. I’m including my current project lists, as well as a running tally to add to or check things off of as projects are completed or priorities change. It will probably also include book and other resource lists, lists of classes, and whatever else speaks to me.

And now, one caveat. You know how I told you to make sure you write absolutely everything down on your project lists? You don’t always have to. Some categories or subcategories themselves may still be in the idea phase without any projects yet assigned. For example, Prepping–I know that there are 10 more subcategories after Assess and Plan, but I’m not even going to think about them until I get to Plan. And even then, I will probably only think about one at a time as I finish the one before.

Despite the 12 point checklist, I found this exercise extremely helpful and focusing. And now that I have my weekly list, I can forget about all the other projects until my next planning session. And, of course, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Are you thinking about giving this a try? I’d love to hear how it goes.