Prioritizing Your Task List

taxis and a trolley in Lisbon, Portugal
Travel options in Lisbon, Portugal

You may recall the episode of Seinfeld in which Kramer describes transporting a severed pinky toe to the hospital to be reunited with the toe’s owner. He has opted to take a city bus on which a man pulls out a gun. The bus driver passes out at the wheel, so Kramer drives the bus to the hospital while simultaneously fending off the gunman and letting passengers off at their stops. Find the episode on YouTube by searching for “Kramer’s pinky toe story” or watch it right here.

I think of Kramer’s predicament when I’m at work from time to time, and not only because of his masterful storytelling. His tale is also a study of priorities and strategies—or, rather, questionable priorities and strategies. He is juggling toe, bus, gunman, and passengers. For him, all of them are top priority—even letting the passengers off at all the stops. As luck would have it, the story turns out quite well. He makes it to the hospital and, Kramer concludes, “I am happy to say that the little guy is back in place at the end of the line.”

Just as we all must do, Kramer is making choices. Kramer wants to get the toe to the hospital, let passengers off the bus, and not die in the process. He chooses to do it all and miraculously succeeds. In our own lives, for short bursts of time, we may also feel that we can do it all and succeed. Often when we try to do it all, though, we eventually become swamped with unrealistic “to do” lists. We don’t have unlimited resources to satisfy our insatiable desires. Instead we must make choices.

When in such dire circumstances as Kramer often is, auto-pilot is all he can manage. Most of the time, though, we have a chance to make intentional and strategic choices.

Consider these strategies:

  1. Create annual goals so that you’ve done advance work in identifying your highest priorities so you are prepared for the unexpected. And, if you base your goals on an overarching mission statement, vision, or values—personal or work—then you are even better prepared. In the flow of your day, as new challenges and opportunities arise, return to those statements to prioritize the seemingly unlimited tasks, inspirations, and obligations. Kramer’s priorities were for the passengers travel destinations (Jerry: “You kept making all the stops?”), the person missing her toe (George: “You did all this…for a pinky toe?”), and, finally, human life.Would your priorities be the same?
  2. Before diving into the work at hand, step back and consider the most efficient way of accomplishing the task. Long hours of work are not a requirement for high value accomplishments. Nor does every task need your best work. In some cases, you really are seeking the level of “good enough.” In other cases, you should seek someone else’s work by delegating. Could Kramer have hired a taxi instead of riding the bus? Could he have radioed for help? Could he have enlisted a passenger to help control the gunman?
  3. Finally, consider who benefits from your choices, both directly and indirectly. Your own personal values, as well as those of your institution, should help you decide who should be your top priority. Are your students top priority? Your faculty colleagues? Your employees? Your boss? Your colleagues? Yourself?

You are the only one who can answer these questions for yourself, and you are the only one who can manage your task list.

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