Can You Relate to Sabrina?

Sabrina’s To-Do List:

  • Facilitate a meeting in 1 hour—not prepared
  • Grade and return assignment promised 2 weeks ago
  • Work on “revise and resubmit” article—very hard deadline looming
  • Finalize prep for all-day workshop on Friday (no afternoon time to catch-up)
  • Prep for 3 courses
  • Spend promised weekend with family—long overdue (no putting off to the weekend)

Sabrina’s Thoughts:

How can I possibly prioritize my commitments today? I have more to do than I can possibly do. I’m tired from staying up late working last night. It’s hard to focus. If everything’s already late, what’s the point?

New “Opportunity”

Sabrina’s colleague steps into her office to share the latest gossip about a leadership shake-up in the department.

Sabrina’s Action:

  • She invites her colleague to join her in a walk to a nearby coffee shop where she can enjoy the gossip.
  • She’ll wing the meeting and consider the rest later.

Do you ever feel like Sabrina? Too much to do—much of it late—what’s the point?

No Judging Yet!

Without judging Sabrina for prioritizing gossip over all her responsibilities, consider instead that she prioritized using the default approach rather than the intentional approach.


The default approach of prioritizing is guided by (1) human survival needs and (2) your existing beliefs, experiences, and habits.  When you’re feeling overwhelmed like Sabrina, the survival function of your human brain sets your priorities. The survival function has evolved to arouse fear, seek pleasure and novelty while avoiding pain. When Sabrina became guided by the default approach, her priorities became:

  • Escape frustrations and confusion
  • Relax to relieve the pressure and discomfort
  • Connect with a colleague
  • Learn some inside information to either feel part of the in-crowd or as though you have one-upped others (both stimulate neurochemicals—oxytocin or serotonin)

When prioritizing with the default approach you will also rely on existing beliefs, which might filter your choices by the tasks that:

  • Scream the loudest
  • Feel the best when done
  • Have the closer due dates
  • Effect those with the most power over you

Either way, when prioritizing with the default approach it’s not possible to try something new. If your approach isn’t working, that’s discouraging.


Yet, a different approach is absolutely possible. You can prioritize while being realistic and flexible. Rigidity isn’t part of the criteria for the intentional approach.

Life is dynamic and constantly changing. You can’t necessarily know today how to “prioritize” your time for Thursday afternoon. And you don’t need to know. You can live “in the moment” and decide in the moment.

Consider the dynamic course airline pilots take. 

Pilots file a flight plan with a clear destination set, but the specific route the pilot takes is made in the moment with consideration of many factors along the way. Throughout the flight, pilots seek relevant information, including the weather, context of air traffic at the destination—departures and arrivals, and guidance from air traffic controllers, to guide their course.

Just as flying a plane is a dynamic process, living by your priorities is also dynamic. When you embrace this dynamic, ever-changing process of living with priorities, you are charting your own course that you designed to work for you.

Hard Truth AND the Secret

BUT charting a course designed for you only works if, like the pilot, you’re well briefed in the moment. Here it comes—the secret to the intentional approach—you need mental space.

Mental space allows you to think clearly and choose what best fits the current circumstances given your journey.

Be Aware:  People, circumstance, and your ever-vigilant mind crowd out that space constantly.

So, the real key to intentional prioritizing is having a clear mind, a desired outcome, articulated values, and accurate information. Without these, you will always react rather than respond. Additionally, the gauge for reacting will be heavily biased in favor of embracing the urgent and exciting while avoiding fear and uncertainty.

To learn more about this intentional approach, download my free guide to Learn the ABC’s of Prioritizing!

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash