What to do first? An evolved perspective

Posted by Dermot Crowley on 31st October 2016

I came into work this morning to a ‘discretionary’ morning. No meetings until 3pm. It is a Friday during school holidays so it will probably be relatively quiet and interruption free. A blank canvas to get stuff done.

So, I have lots of things to do, but three things stand out in my mind. I need to draft a project outline for a client that needs a quick turnaround and is due today – my ‘must do’ priority. I am eligible for an upgrade to the new iPhone – my ‘like to do’ priority. And I have a major proposal for a training roll out with a new client. This is not urgent, but very high value – my ‘should do’ priority.


Now, my caveman brain is torn. Back in the day, in a time when fight or flight saved your life, our primitive brains learned to prioritise according to our most pressing needs. When we were hungry we hunted, and when we were tired we slept, and when we were being attacked we fought or fled. The hangover from this is that today we tend to prioritise in a similar way. We do the things we like doing, or we react to urgency more often than not. So my first instinct this morning was to order the new iPhone first. Sad, but this even looked like it would trump the urgent project overview.

But wait, stop! Somewhere down from the depths of my brain my evolved mind cried to be heard. ‘Do the right thing Dermot’, it said. It was telling me to do what I should do first, not what I felt like doing first. So I reprioritised and played a game with myself. Here was the running order in the end.

Firstly, I did the thing I should do first, I wrote and sent the project outline. I did the most important thing first. I then rewarded myself by doing the thing I really wanted to do – I ordered the iPhone. A nice little reward that reinforced this behaviour for next time. I then did the urgent priority, which might have been time-sensitive, but was not that urgent that it could not wait a couple of hours. Whew! After all that activity I needed a nap!

Back in our cave-dwelling past, humans did not have that many things to remember, think about or to do compared to today. Their prioritisation system was appropriate and ensured the survival of the fittest. But today we have too much information, and many competing priorities. We need a more evolved way of thinking to survive in this environment. I believe that people who consistently prioritise the important over the urgent not only survive, but actually thrive.

I ask you to consider, with the greatest respect, whether you are a bit of a Neanderthal sometimes?


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