Methods for setting priorities are, um, high-priority topics for management consultants and life coaches. But experience suggests that when people do set priorities, they do it pretty well. Compared to priority setting, two skills might then be even more useful: first, actually remembering to set priorities, and second, maintaining the priorities we set. There are two issues:
- Task jumping: Why do we so often jump into a task before assessing its importance relative to other tasks?
- Task dumping: why do we have difficulty undertaking or staying on tasks that we acknowledge are important?
The ego depletion phenomenon might provide answers to both questions. Briefly, ego depletion is the idea that energy spent on self-regulation isn't available again until we rest and recover. That is, we have available only a finite reserve of energy for regulating impulsive behavior. When that reserve is drained, self-regulation becomes difficult. We just can't be "good" indefinitely.
For example, we know that little good comes from undertaking tasks before we understand them or their importance relative to other tasks. But if our energy reserves are depleted, and the task is appealing, we have difficulty resisting task jumping. We can analogously use ego depletion to understand task dumping.
More important, using the ego depletion model, we can devise strategies for mitigating the risks of task jumping and task dumping. Here are three examples.
- Accept that ego depletion does happen
- Conventional approaches to priority setting ignore ego depletion. We tell ourselves, "X is important, so I must do X and keep doing it till it's done." We make no allowances for our limited ability to stay on tasks we find unappealing.
- Ignoring ego depletion is a setup for failure to stay on task, or failure to even undertake a task, which is commonly called procrastination.
- Beware anticipatory ego depletion
- We sometimes use our reserves of self-regulation energy when we anticipate an unappealing task. Merely forcing ourselves to begin such tasks can be exhausting. When work finally begins, we're already depleted.
- Scheduling To restore energy reserves, allow
for periods of rest, or better yet,
interleave periods of unappealing
activity with periods of
more appealing activityenergy-generating tasks in advance can reduce the drain. For example, scheduling something we find appealing so that it occurs at some defined point during the unappealing task can shift our focus from anticipating unpleasantness to anticipating something more desirable.
- Use appealing tasks to restore reserves
- Conventional approaches to unappealing activity usually entail what many call "toughing it out." We tell ourselves, "Just get it done." But even if we manage to stay on a task we find depleting, work quality can suffer.
- Allow for periods of rest, or better yet, interleave periods of unappealing activity with periods of more appealing activity, as needed, to restore energy reserves.
Finally, beware distortions in priority setting when tasks are unappealing. By convincing ourselves that unappealing tasks are less important than they actually are, we become comfortable deferring them. We're very clever that way. Top Next Issue
Note: The ego depletion model is relatively recent. Although it has been confirmed experimentally many times, recent research has raised questions as to its validity. Stay tuned.
Are your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenKEbRbglJjUeHxeMCner@ChacdlwIweZNCAPLqliaoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
- Most of us follow paths through our careers, or through life. We get nervous when we're off the path.
We feel better when we're doing what everyone else is doing. But is that sensible?
- Virtual Presentations
- Modern team efforts almost certainly involve teleconferences, and many teleconferences include presentations,
often augmented with video or graphics. Delivering these virtual presentations effectively requires
an approach tailored to the medium.
- Mitigating Outsourcing Risks: II
- Outsourcing internal processes exposes the organization to a special class of risks that are peculiar
to the outsourcing relationship. Here is Part II of a discussion of what some of those risks are and
what can we do about them.
- Tangled Thread Troubles
- Even when we use a facilitator to manage a discussion, managing a queue for contributors can sometimes
lead to problems. Here's a little catalog of those difficulties.
- Workplace Anti-Patterns
- We find patterns of counter-effective behavior — anti-patterns — in every part of life,
including the workplace. Why? What are their features?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming January 24: Understanding Delegation
- It's widely believed that managers delegate some of their own authority and responsibility to their subordinates, who then use that authority and responsibility to get their work done. That view is unfortunate. It breeds micromanagers. Available here and by RSS on January 24.
- And on January 31: Nine Brainstorming Demotivators: I
- The quality of the output of brainstorming sessions is notoriously variable. One source of variation is the enthusiasm of contributors. Here's Part I of a set of nine phenomena that can limit contributions to brainstorm sessions. Available here and by RSS on January 31.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrendFTLBanrtNZJptvZner@ChaczaZEeQGfektpMQPqoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, USD 28.99)
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program: