Priority is an Adjective, not a Noun

What are you going to do first?

You have important things to do, right?

We’re all working on important things—so many important things that we need tools, lists, and apps (oh, my!) to keep track of them for us. We revere and reward those who are so busy that they have staff who keep track of their important things for them.

I first heard Merlin Mann speak at an OmniFocus meetup in San Francisco. He was explaining the app’s lack of a Priority field by saying it wasn’t necessary. “If it were really a priority, you’d have already done it.”

I get what he’s saying, but he’s conflating two separate ideas.

Photo courtesy of © iStockPhoto/Krockodilius

When it comes to time management, priority is the relative order of a task. It’s going to be completed before you complete other tasks—it will be done prior. Roughly speaking, it reflects how urgent a task is.

Your values reflect what’s important to you—what matters most. What brings meaning and satisfaction into your life? Your values are usually expressed in your mission statement. They are reflected in every choice you make, both long- and short-term.

Values aren’t set in stone, but they can take years to change. Priorities, on the other hand, can change in an instant. When my wife called just after lunch on the day our son would be born, you bet my priorities for the day changed! Everything I was working on went on hold and I walked out of the building without giving it a second thought.

No matter how well we plan our day, it’s probably not going to turn out that way. We write out our list of what we want to get done, and often before we even start working the list, we get interrupted. We check our email. The phone rings. Our boss walks in. Just like that, our well-laid plans go out the window.

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. There is a very great distinction because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of “emergency” is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1890–1969

Planning (including prioritizing) will help you handle interruptions. Even if you walk in the door and throw your plans out the window, you’ll have a better understanding of what’s ahead of you and how to respond. In other words, how to adjust your priorities in harmony with your values.

A mission statement is an expression of our values, or who we’re trying to become. The weekly and daily plans we make are how we’re going to get there. Plans change, but as long as you can keep your priorities in line with your values, you’re still going to make progress. Keep it up!

Question: How do you make sure your priorities still align with your values as your plans change? Share your thoughts in the comments below! Share your thoughts in the comments, or on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.


Colter lives in the heart of Silicon Valley with his wife and children. He enjoys golf, sings baritone, and watches mostly British TV shows.

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  • Merlin did have another good point about priorities, though: it’s easy to get caught in the trap of endlessly fiddling with our lists, and assigning priorities, and tagging, and categorizing, and coming up with all kinds of creative ways to procrastinate in the name of productivity, rather than just being productive. If it takes you longer to prioritize a task than to do it, you’re doing time management wrong. This is where David Allen’s two-minute rule comes in.