SETTING PRIORITIES: Putting The Egg Before The Chicken

Remember when you were a child and confused about the order in which to do something? Remember feeling even more confused when some wise adult said, "Well, what comes first, the chicken or the egg?" Actually, while the question generates answers that are somewhat paradoxical (seem both true and self-contradictory), it relates to an important human process: Coding time. In every society people have some way of expressing time-- the awareness of past, present or future.

In English, time is often projected on a "line", and many of us learned history from books with pictures of events occurring in a line across the page. We "code" time, internally, in various ways so that we can later recognize it as part of our past, present or future. Interestingly enough, the way in which we represent time has a major impact on who we are and how we respond. Time orientations are often the foundation for the production of skills and activities; and for the development and recall of serious problems. For example, you may know somebody who is creative, productive, optimistic and cheerful. Perhaps that individual sees the future as "bright", and is "presently focused" to achieve desired outcomes. In contrast, there are those depressed people who are always preoccupied with unpleasant past memories, he may see a "dim" future and seldom take the time to enjoy the present.

While eliciting people's internal time maps and changing them is both possible, therapeutic, and a major topic by itself, it is useful for now to recognize the relationship between how you represent time and how you manage it. Setting priorities, the key to managing time and its attendant activities, often reflects how someone represents time. In a recent presidential election, while the candidates presented and debated issues in unique and entertaining ways, the peoples' choice was ultimately determined by how they prioritized those issues: Looking toward a "brighter future" for the economy, or embracing more traditional values of the past, for example.

Sometimes people get stuck in the present and see little future. We call these people, "pessimists." When peace talks commenced during the Vietnam War, the proceedings were initially delayed by the fact that delegates could not agree on the shape of the conference table! (A portend of things to come). What you are actually doing when you establish a priority is assigning a degree of importance to some task or function. But an essential question is: Importance for what purpose? This question is often bewildering to those individuals with poorly-developed future "timelines" who have difficulty setting goals. Have you ever known someone who intended to get to something but on the way became side-tracked by a lengthy activity in the present? This is not a person who should pick-up your ringing phone as you both are about to leave for the airport.

In order to make a plan or goal from which priorities can be established, consider your resources:

Looking at your present, what activities seem to create the most pleasure? Would you enjoy doing more of those in the future?
Where in the past have you done well? What skills do you have that are outstanding? Have you ever been faced with having to accomplish something and noticed you achieved success? Can you imagine these happening again some time, soon?

  • Was there ever a time you needed to grow and develop in some area and noticed you were able to acquire the necessary skills?
  • In either past or present, is the cooperation of other people an essential ingredient in the development of a goal? A working mother who cannot see herself going to law school at night may benefit from reviewing some past memories of her family pulling together to assist with household chores.
  • To the extent that the future can become clearer you can begin to set priorities. Consider a goal. Make a list of everything you think you need to do tomorrow, irrespective of its importance. Then weigh each task on a scale of one to five (least to most) for its relative importance. Which are most essential to accomplishing my goal? After "weighting" the list of tasks for relative importance, consider the time commitment needed to invest for each one. Can any of the tasks occur simultaneously by your delegating some to another person? Caution! You will not likely finish every item on the list. This is where people run into trouble. "Forget it, there's not enough time." Procrastinating about the shape of the conference table--or what comes first the chicken or the egg-- is useful only if your goal is to wax philosophical. Pick the "egg" and start cooking!