Among all the dumb platitudes thrown at teens, the idea of prioritization can be one of the most pernicious. Of course, some things are more important than others. This is as plain as the nose on your face. But what assumptions lie below the surface of this principle?
Some things are important to other people, but less so to the person expected to take care of them. Other tasks are very important at certain times, but not really at others. Still others are necessary, but only once certain conditions are in place: wishing someone a happy birthday a week in advance is almost worse than forgetting.
Clearly, importance isn't some kind of universal value. Younger people already understand the concept of “first things first”; their real challenge is usually determining what exactly should go on the list. Expounding on the virtues of prioritization really isn't helpful in this case (avoiding procrastination, of course, is another topic entirely).
When you stop to think about it, it's clear that the importance of a task depends on its what as well as its when, as well as what else needs to be done simultaneously. When feeling overloaded, it's usually necessary (or at least advisable) to either drop or delay less critical work and apply your effort where it will do the most good. The following diagram is often useful in this regard:
An urgent task is one that simply has to be done, and done quickly, such as when a project with pass/fail significance is due tomorrow. It will probably take priority over anything but another urgent task.
An important item isn't going to cause Armageddon if it isn't completed soon, but still needs to be done eventually. If you want to learn something new, this might take the form of reading a thick book: you should really get it done, but whether this happens next week or next month makes little practical difference. You can work on it whenever you're not busy with anything urgent.
An opportunity that's only available for a short time but doesn't really matter one way or another is optional. One example is a sale on something you don't really need: you can take it or leave it. Everything else is trivial, meaning that you'll be doing it for fun if at all, and it plays no real role when assigning priorities.
Defining Acceptable Outcomes
Deciding what is really important to you as a person – not what your teachers would like you to do, not what you see on television – is an essential part of growing into adulthood. Too often, teens are expected to assume this level of responsibility and independence while various people in their lives are each insisting that they somehow know what should be prioritized, without ever taking the time to think about how this decision should depend on the individual.
Planning for the future is not easy when you have limited life experience to draw on, and finding a little objective help will rarely be a waste of time. Trying to do everything you have to do, as well as everything you want to do, perfectly every time will soon leave you a nervous wreck and make you feel like a failure even when you're actually performing above par. Learning to accept “good enough” when this is all that's really required is a valuable life skill that will allow you to put in maximum effort on the tasks that really matter.
If you try to do all the things you're supposed to, as well as you possibly can, you'll end up running around like a headless chicken and actually achieve less. Your body and mind need maintenance and restoration, so however busy you are, sleep, exercise and play should always find a slot on your schedule. Trying to operate at 100% all the time for an extended period is not only futile but harmful. At times, working your hardest really means closing the textbook, shutting down the computer and spending the whole day on the beach.
Marie is an avid internet researcher. She is fueled by her determination to answer the many questions she hasn't been able to find the answer to anywhere else. When she finds these answers she likes to spread the knowledge to others seeking help. She is always looking for outlets to share her information, therefore she occasionally has her content published on different websites and blogs. Even though she doesn't run one for herself she loves contributing to others.