Sunday, September 11, 2011

Important Vs. Urgent

Priorities are not always obvious. When you work in a service field, especially one where some things are more urgent than others, you start to see how complicated setting priorities can be.

At the day job, we serve seven computer classroom/studios, two photo studios, three art studios, one drafting classroom, and a little service lab. I think the max capacity of all this is something over 150 students and a dozen faculty -- and up to twice that at times where classes switch over.

As a part of serving these classrooms, we check people and equipment in and out: pens for graphic tablets, lighting equipment, tripods, light meters, disks, card readers, scanning projects.

AND we're the central instructional center where people go to get help.

AND we are the triage center for equipment problems (computer and non-computer).

AND we are Obiwan Kenobi... the only hope for lost souls who took a wrong turn on their way to the rest of campus. The maze of a building leads everyone into a cul de sac where our service center is a tiny beacon in the endless circling hallways. They are often in tears when they reach us.

We have other work we do, when things are quiet (and yes, they do get quiet sometimes), but when a hundred people hit the window all at once, with pens and equipment and IDs and paperwork, and some in tears, it is important to be able to prioritize on the fly.

The person in tears is important, but we may not be able to help him or her until after we clear out the crowd. The person checking into the studio will need to be accompanied to the studio -- so can only be served when someone can be spared from the window. The person jumping up and down shouting "The computer is on fire!" probably needs to be seen to NOW, but if the computer is dead, that may be able to wait for even a few hours if there isn't a class which needs that computer for a while.

And the patient person who just wants to sign out and get his ID back but doesn't mind waiting, just might be served before all of them, because it's really fast to get him served and out of the way.

I wrote a few weeks ago about how urgency is the enemy of the writer -- but that was about the emotional feeling of urgency. Even when things are urgent, a feeling of urgency can be your enemy because it makes you less logical.

But on a rational level, there really are things which are urgent, even if they are not always the most important thing. And important things which seem urgent are not always as urgent as they seem. For instance:

  • Your grocer is offering free ice cream, but it will be gone if you don't get it right now -- that's not important, but it is urgent.
  • The crazy guy stalking you shows up at your door with a knife -- that's urgent and important.
  • The crazy guy who is in prison for stalking you will have a parole hearing next week -- that's important, but it isn't actually urgent, even if you just found out. It feels urgent, but you can't even effectively respond to it yet. It's just something you have to deal with in a timely manner.

So when you're prioritizing, try not to let your emotions rule too much. First, look at the logistics. What has to be done? What do you need in order to do it? When is the actual deadline?

That last one is the kicker. I had a co-worker who use to write "ASAP!!" on every work request. She figured that reflected how important the job was (and how important she was). It was a stupid thing to do. ASAP stands for "As soon as possible." Well, if you don't have an actual deadline, then everything with an actual deadline comes BEFORE "possible." In other words: ASAP means "take care of me last."

Which is a lesson for everyone: never ever ever ever ever write ASAP on something when you'll actually need it soon. Write the date and time you are going to need it. You can put in a buffer if you like, but please stop to think about when you are going to actually make use of whatever it is. If there is no urgency, no deadline, then ASAP is fine, but don't expect it soon. Just sayin'.

And that brings me to writing.

You are the client and the worker. As the client, don't be the fool who writes "asap" on everything. We writers are often hazy about our process, anyway. Instead of pushing further into hazy, undefined urgency, stop and think about the tasks ahead of you.

If you're blocked on a tough scene, for instance, start breaking the darn thing into steps. Instead of thinking "I'm going to finish that scene today," think about what the first step is, not the last. Do you need to do research? Are you hazy on a detail? Have you bothered to figure out what you're trying to convey?

One thing that has helped me with this minute-by-minute dare is that on some days I just read and take notes. I'm not editing or resolving issues... I'm just identifying them. Strangely enough, I find that by first pausing to identify problems, I make it much easier to resolve them the next day.

But thinking it through is always a good idea, even with the truly urgent things. (But if the knife wielding maniac is at your door, it might be good to think fast.)

See you in the funny papers.

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