Methods for setting priorities are, um, high-priority topics for management consultants and life coaches. But experience suggests that when people do set priorities, they do it pretty well. Compared to priority setting, two skills might then be even more useful: first, actually remembering to set priorities, and second, maintaining the priorities we set. There are two issues:
- Task jumping: Why do we so often jump into a task before assessing its importance relative to other tasks?
- Task dumping: why do we have difficulty undertaking or staying on tasks that we acknowledge are important?
The ego depletion phenomenon might provide answers to both questions. Briefly, ego depletion is the idea that energy spent on self-regulation isn't available again until we rest and recover. That is, we have available only a finite reserve of energy for regulating impulsive behavior. When that reserve is drained, self-regulation becomes difficult. We just can't be "good" indefinitely.
For example, we know that little good comes from undertaking tasks before we understand them or their importance relative to other tasks. But if our energy reserves are depleted, and the task is appealing, we have difficulty resisting task jumping. We can analogously use ego depletion to understand task dumping.
More important, using the ego depletion model, we can devise strategies for mitigating the risks of task jumping and task dumping. Here are three examples.
- Accept that ego depletion does happen
- Conventional approaches to priority setting ignore ego depletion. We tell ourselves, "X is important, so I must do X and keep doing it till it's done." We make no allowances for our limited ability to stay on tasks we find unappealing.
- Ignoring ego depletion is a setup for failure to stay on task, or failure to even undertake a task, which is commonly called procrastination.
- Beware anticipatory ego depletion
- We sometimes use our reserves of self-regulation energy when we anticipate an unappealing task. Merely forcing ourselves to begin such tasks can be exhausting. When work finally begins, we're already depleted.
- Scheduling To restore energy reserves, allow
for periods of rest, or better yet,
interleave periods of unappealing
activity with periods of
more appealing activityenergy-generating tasks in advance can reduce the drain. For example, scheduling something we find appealing so that it occurs at some defined point during the unappealing task can shift our focus from anticipating unpleasantness to anticipating something more desirable.
- Use appealing tasks to restore reserves
- Conventional approaches to unappealing activity usually entail what many call "toughing it out." We tell ourselves, "Just get it done." But even if we manage to stay on a task we find depleting, work quality can suffer.
- Allow for periods of rest, or better yet, interleave periods of unappealing activity with periods of more appealing activity, as needed, to restore energy reserves.
Finally, beware distortions in priority setting when tasks are unappealing. By convincing ourselves that unappealing tasks are less important than they actually are, we become comfortable deferring them. We're very clever that way. Top Next Issue
Are your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!
Note: The ego depletion model is relatively recent. Although it has been confirmed experimentally many times, recent research has raised questions as to its validity. Stay tuned.
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenrDUDwWaUxOAJtKFRner@ChaclWPJpPZohNvtYLEJoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
- Commitment Makes It Easier
- When you face obstacles, sometimes the path around or through them is difficult. Committing yourself
to the path lets you focus all your energy on the path you've chosen.
- Choices for Widening Choices
- Choosing is easy when you don't have much to choose from. That's one reason why groups sometimes don't
recognize all the possibilities — they're happiest when choosing is easy. When we notice this
happening, what can we do about it?
- Virtual Communications: II
- Participating in or managing a virtual team presents special communications challenges. Here's Part
II of some guidelines for communicating with members of virtual teams.
- Some Limits of Root Cause Analysis
- Root Cause Analysis uses powerful tools for finding the sources of process problems. The approach has
been so successful that it has become a way of thinking about organizational patterns. Yet, resolving
organizational problems this way sometimes works — and sometimes fails. Why?
- Action Item Avoidance
- In some teams, members feel so overloaded that they try to avoid any additional tasks. Here are some
of the most popular patterns of action item avoidance.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 11: The Rhyme-as-Reason Effect
- When we speak or write, the phrases we use have both form and meaning. Although we usually think of form and meaning as distinct, we tend to assess as more meaningful and valid those phrases that are more beautifully formed. The rhyme-as-reason effect causes us to confuse the validity of a phrase with its aesthetics. Available here and by RSS on December 11.
- And on December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenrDUDwWaUxOAJtKFRner@ChaclWPJpPZohNvtYLEJoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.