Taking Inventory and Prioritizing: How I Get Stuff Done When Life Gets Crazy

My momentum on this blog abruptly dropped off since I fulfilled my 5-day commitment to post daily.  I’ve been contemplating why this happened and how I could best remedy it.  My answers are fairly simple: this happened because last week, other commitments took higher priority; I can remedy it by evaluating my priorities such that I post more regularly and maintain that forward energy.

This is a perfect example of how life can “get in the way” of the best-laid plans – and how I adjust when that happens.  Thus, I’m making it into what we education dorks call a “teachable moment.”

Takeaway #1: Life can’t get in the way of itself – but I can get in my own way.   

Much like a winding river, life can change course, swell and ebb, or go from tranquility to rapids in nothing flat.  Really, the only predictable thing about life is its unpredictability.  Thus, I have come to expect the unexpected, as the saying goes, rather than resist it when it happens.  When I try to change things that I  can’t control, I am wasting time and energy that I could be devoting to what I actually can change.  This is by no means a trait exclusive to those of us with executive dysfunctions.  However, it is exacerbated for us because of…

Takeaway #2: Prioritization is counterintuitive to my ADD brain – but I can create structures that make it make more sense. 

Prioritization is a baffling concept when your brain can’t naturally analyze and synthesize information (a.k.a., break big things down into smaller components and incorporate small things into the big picture).  Of all the typical ADD issues I’ve dealt with, learning to prioritize has been one of the most difficult.  However, in recent months I’ve stumbled upon a few tools that help me tame that beast.  I now have a few simple questions I ask myself in moments of overwhelmed paralysis that tame the discombobulated beast:

  1. Do any of the 50 things in my head need to be done right now – i.e., I won’t be able to do them another time, or they are time-specific? If so, I do them. If not, I move on to question 2.
  2. Which of these things can wait til another day? An hour from now? Five minutes from now? I write these down and put them away for now.
  3. What’s the least common denominator – the one task or event, big or small, that will get everything else moving once it’s done?  (This can be likened to the first domino that, when tapped, pushes all the others forward.) Whether it’s calling to reschedule my dentist’s appointment to accommodate a schedule change, or posting an ad to sell my truck so I can get money to make my Big Move, the least common denominator is the key to getting un-stuck and is often synonymous with the Next Step.

My prioritization abilities were significantly helped by Stephen Covey’s priority matrix (see 2×2 grid by intro) because my biggest hangup in prioritizing is discerning between urgent and important.  More on this in a later post.

Takeaway #3: Priorities are not static. 

This lesson was one of the hardest to get through my head.  Once I got it, though, I had a much easier time prioritizing.  My priorities necessarily fluctuate as old projects end and new ones begin, as commitments ebb and flow, as I come into contact with people and information, and as circumstances change.  Thus, in order to be effective in my life, I must constantly examine and evaluate my commitments, tasks, obligations and needs and rearrange them as needed.  This practice is called taking inventory.  I do it on many scales, from in-the-moment, to daily review, to weekly review, to monthly review.  I’ll go into greater detail on the review process in an upcoming post.

To illustrate the process of re-prioritizing, I will use the example of my past two weeks.

At the beginning of this period, my major priorities were as follows: (1) prepping for my move across the pond, (2) developing this blog and my online presence, (3) work and other standing obligations, and (4) everything else.

Starting around the time of my last post, money (or a lack thereof) became a pressing issue when I got my first paycheck since my 25% reduction in hours at my office job (I work for a nonprofit that I love, but is financially struggling). With that came an onslaught of other (related) issues, many in the form of fears: how am I going to pay for groceries? Will I have enough for my phone bill next week?  What about next month’s rent?  Within seconds, I had gone from looking at a piece of paper with a low number on it to worrying that I wouldn’t be able to afford to move to Paris and all of my hopes and dreams would come crashing down in chaotic despair. In other words, I was spiralling.  

So how did I stop the spiral?

I took a deep breath. I gave myself permission to take a 5 to 10-minute break at work. I took another deep breath and exhaled slowly.  I asked myself (aloud, because I talk to myself frequently) the three questions from Takeaway #2, and determined that the Least Common Denominator and Next Step was to write out my budget for the rest of the month – projected income, known expenses – and see how much I was going to be short and at what point.  This gave me a clear view of the big picture in which I needed to collect and organize my small things. 

In the process of figuring out my new budget (which, I should emphasize, was not for every month or even for the next few months – only for the rest of the current month leading up to the big expenditure of rent. Narrowing my window to the immediate future was a way of breaking down the mammoth of stressors and what-ifs – and helped me to focus on the Next Right Thing rather than 5 things after that), my next steps emerged. I needed to find an alternate stream of income, and quick.  After some contemplation, meditation, and a little prayer to the Universe for guidance, I did the following:
  • That night, posted several items on Craigslist that I’ve been meaning to sell
  • The next day, went into my old restaurant job to propose a mutually beneficial arrangement where I worked some shorthanded breakfast shifts while they found a more permanent employee
  • Sent out resumes to temp/catering companies on Craigslist
  • Re-posted the ad for my truck on Craigslist and the local paper’s site
My priorities, in this case, emerged as (1) take action to find some immediate streams of income, (2) continue work with my regular job and other standing appointments, and (3) prep for my visa appointment.

A couple of days later, through a series of serendipitous events that began while I was out with my dog and chatting with a neighbor, I landed a two-week gig installing internet boxes for the neighbor’s boyfriend’s IT company – which will net me enough to finance October’s rent, miscellaneous expenses (i.e., groceries) and the epic hiking trip my good friend and I have been planning for the first week of October (which will constitute a digital sabbatical for me).

In order to make room for this new obligation of 40 hours a week for 2 weeks, in addition to my 15 hours at my existing job, I had to rearrange my priorities again: (1) IT work, (2) regular job and other standing commitments, (3) sleeping, eating, dog-walking and other daily maintenance, (4) everything else.

Notice that #3 in that list does not appear in previous lists even though it consists of things I do every day.  The reason for this: when I know I’m going to be unusually busy, I have to consciously make time for those maintenance activities, because they end up being the first sacrificed even though their upkeep is essential to my success in those things that are making me so busy.

So, how do you take inventory? What are your major priorities and how do you order and re-order them? What is your biggest challenge in prioritization?

Let me know in the comments!
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One Comment on “Taking Inventory and Prioritizing: How I Get Stuff Done When Life Gets Crazy”

  1. Edward Lohre says:

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