Corporate//

How A Top Psychologist Tackles Prioritization

An interview with Howard Weiss, head of the Work Experience Lab.

In an age when everything that lands in our inbox is labeled “top priority,” how do we choose what to do first? To Howard Weiss, an organizational psychologist who runs the Work Experience Lab at Georgia Tech, it’s a matter of finding not only what’s most important to you, but also how your personal resources match the task at hand—and making sure you’re taking on tasks in the right sequence.

We talked to him about how to do this.

THRIVE GLOBAL: How do we sharpen our sense of what to prioritize?

HW: Let’s assume that every task you have is associated with some goal. But goals and tasks are organized in terms of overall goals and sub-goals and sub-goals of those and so on, and we have distal goals and we have proximal goals. I want to finish this book in a year— that’s a distal goal, whereas a proximal goal is I really need to revise this paper in the next day or in the next hour.

TG: And how does this play out at work?

HW: At any job, people have multiple, broad objectives, and then each of those objectives are broken down further. People tend to choose to work on the closest “proximal goals”—where things are small and neat and you can finish it in a bit.

TG: Proximal goals? As in “nearby”?

HW: A proximal goal is “I really need to revise this paper in the next day.” A distal goal is a long-term, broad goal, like “I want to be the best psychologist in the world” Or “I want to finish this book in a year.”

TG: And the key is connecting the “distal” to the “proximal.”

HW: What people really need to do is to start thinking, Well is there something more important that I’m avoiding, since I haven’t structured it in a way that gives me clearer, more proximal goals?

TG: There’s an art to breaking these more enterprising projects into bite-sized chunks.

HW: For example, you ask yourself, What should I work on this afternoon? Should I work on that book, which I want to complete in a year? Or am I going to work on that review for the journal, which I have to get done within a week?

TG: And if you never break the distal goal of getting the book done into smaller proximal bits, you’ll never get it done.

HW: If I’m writing a book, I don’t leave my goal as “write this book.” If I do, I’m never going to write the book. A good friend of mine once told me a more effective strategy: “A page a day is a book a year.”

TG: And that’s how you stay productive on long projects over time, giving yourself day-by-day, proximate tasks that lead to those “distal” goals.

HW: We have to organize all of our goals at the same level, so that we don’t start putting off important projects just because they don’t have goals that are proximal enough to motivate us in the moment.

TG: How does that help us make our schedule match our values?

HW: Once we have a better understanding of the tasks and their importance and place in the overall picture of what we’re trying to achieve in our jobs, it’ll make it easier for us to choose what we need to do and when we need to do it .

TG: What else is involved?

HW: There’s also the question of what attentional capabilities are required for each of the things that you need to do. You need to know how those attentional capabilities wax and wane throughout the day, so that you can order your activities in the most efficient way to match the resources you’re going to have in the moment.

If you know that you have an emotional meeting with your boss coming up and you’re going to be taxed afterward, then you’re probably going to want to put off things that take attentional resources for some other time.

You have to be thinking about the ordering of tasks in terms of what kinds of resources you’re going to have available when you need to do it. If I know that I have an interesting task that needs to be done today and a not-so-interesting task to be done today, I would probably do the less interesting task first. At the end of the day, the interesting task is going to capture my attention anyway. I’m not going to have to put in effort to control my attention, because the task is going to capture my attention.

All of this, requires workers to do something that they’re not used to, which is reflecting on the nature of their work and their skills and their tasks on a day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis.

TG: Do you think people miss that?

HW: Absolutely, They’re never given any training or awareness about the fluid nature of life as we live it, and the way that affects our capabilities of doing the various things that confront us throughout the day or the week.

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