How to prioritise

Priority used to be a singular thing – the most important goal. It is only in recent years that you can have several priorities. It seems as time goes on the quantity we have to keep up with increases. At the moment I have a “to do list” that seems to grow faster than I can knock items off it. Fix the boiler, get a present for the kids to take to a birthday party, get the MOT and service booked for the car, catch up with my emails, send an anonymised report to the colleague who is shadowing me on Tuesday, book that meeting with the accountant, follow up the meeting I had last week, book in dates for group-work facilitator training, catch up reading for NICE guidance, vote on new dates for working group meeting, produce invoices for recent work, chase up unpaid travel expenses for interview in spring, write another blog entry, set up webinar for patreon supporters, read book I just bought, update the CPLAAC website system, etc etc.

I’ve been reading a lot and working on trying to improve my work-life balance and to work out which of the many options in front of me I should prioritise. I’ve always had such wide interests in psychology that it is easy for me to get sucked in to new projects: Only yesterday I read a post on linked in about how someone had set up a social enterprise to combat social isolation in older men by setting up groups in which they could attend sports matches and wanted someone else to take it over, and I started thinking “what a good idea, it would be a shame to let that drift, I wonder if I could fit it in?” before I gave myself a metaphorical slap and realised that it was outside of my core areas of professional interest and I have too much on my plate already. But I really need to prioritise, and this blog article explains why (if you can get past the pretentious business jargon). Basically, if you keep trying to keep up with everything, you don’t get the thinking space to work out what is most important, and end up keeping up with everything that is thrown at you, rather than progressing with the most important stuff. The advice boils down to: take time out to take stock, set less goals but do them before letting other demands interrupt, let a trusted other help you prioritise, and declutter your physical and mental space (do one thing at a time, and don’t let email, phone or social media interrupt more important stuff).

The first thing to consider is Maslow’s hierarchy. The top priority has to be to ensure that my family and I have our biological needs met. At the most primitive level this involves enough sleep, regular healthy meals, warmth and shelter – and it is amazing to think how often I work late, or skip a meal, or ignore my physical comfort. The next layer is a sense of psychological safety – a stark reminder of how many of the court assessments I do involve some form of risk assessment in how I set up the appointment. There is then a need for love and belonging – which entails time for family and a social life outside of work. Only the very highest levels relate to the rewards of work – the sense of achievement, success and self-actualisation. So why has the fine tuning expanded to seem so important that it compromises more basic needs?

At its most basic I need to cut down my work and have more time for life outside of my professional role. I have mentioned already that the first mnemonic that was helpful to me in thinking about my priorities was to consider the “4 Ps”: As well as being a professional, I am a parent, a partner and a person. If I don’t tend to these other roles sufficiently I will be missing out on important stuff for my own wellbeing and on prioritising my own needs and those around me. And I think this is wise counsel for anyone, whatever their job or life stage. But I now also have four i-words, by which to compare opportunities. These are specific to my personal values and goals. For me, the measuring stick of whether I want to do something is a combination of whether it presents: An interesting intellectual challenge; the opportunity to be innovative; a way to have an impact on a wider audience; and whether or not it generates income. I also know that I want to apply psychological skills to children and young people who have been dealt a tough hand in life (whether through their biology or genetics, or through their experiences of maltreatment). I’m particularly interested in attachment relationships, and the impact of maltreatment on neuropsychological development.

So when it comes to weighing up potential projects I can look at how they measure up. The project for older people and sports is a clear no, whilst my work to improve quality standards and instil a culture of outcome measurement in residential care for children who are Looked After in public care is a clear yes. I also know that I can’t take on any more unpaid committee work. Hopefully now I have at least recognised the problem and operationalised the criteria,  I can be more discriminating in what I take on in future. And to prove it I am now going to prioritise getting some sleep!