The word “prioritize” is the productivity guru equivalent of a war crime.

Priorities are observed, not manufactured, not dictated. You observe your priorities by observing what you are, in fact, here and now, in reality, actually doing, thinking, saying, and looking at. It is a rolling average of your attention and actions.

When tempted to say that you “need to prioritize” this or that, try replacing it with the word “do” or “think about” or “work on”. Because that’s what you’re trying to avoid talking about. “I need to do this or that” is so much more powerful, and makes the trade-offs so much more obvious. Doing something means not doing something else. Making lists, sorting lists, etc. are occasionally very slightly helpful in the act of doing something. But if you’re spending a lot of time, attention, and effort “prioritizing”, then your priority is to fiddle around with lists, no matter what the lists say.

And maybe that’s fine. Maybe you’re a professional list fiddler, or maybe it’s a hobby you enjoy. It’s certainly not any more stupid that sudoku or farmville. But don’t tell yourself you’re designing software, or creating a novel, or cleaning the house, or going on vacation. If that’s not actually helping you get anything done, and you’re not setting out to fiddle with lists, then that’s a bad investment of time and attention, and probably won’t make you happy.

If someone claims that they’re going to help me prioritize something, and they don’t mean that they’re going to actually help do whatever it is we’re talking about, then I have literally no idea what they’re talking about. So you’re going to vote up issues? Put red markers on some things that you care about, in the hopes that it’ll make me care about them? How red is red enough? Maybe you could add some bold type. That’ll really help. Ooh, you’ve marked some as P1. Great. Not prioritized enough? Try P0. Ok, thanks. I can feel the bugs closing already.

“Prioritizing” in practice means trying to pretend that we can get more things done by moving our attention around in circles, without actually making the trade-offs in time and attention that lead to X getting done at the expense of Y, and without actually adding resources (ie, getting more actual people to help out doing the thing that we’re talking about “prioritizing”.) If the action of sorting a list isn’t actually helping get the bug closed, then in what sense can it possibly be making it more of a priority?

I’ve worked with a lot of terrible product managers and project managers in my career, and precious few that were really great. The best one I ever had the pleasure of working with would come in on Monday with a sorted list of the bugs and features that he thought were the most important. He’d say, “Let’s see how far down the list we can get. If you think it’s sorted wrong, let me know.” He communicated the tradeoffs that he expected, and let the people who do the work actually do the work. Any time I had a question about why one thing was above another, he had an answer backed up by data and business objectives. When we told him about the technical difficulty or ease of getting certain things done, he’d update his list based on the costs. While we were working, he’d be reviewing our competitors features, getting feedback from users and advertisers, and analyzing log data. He was a professional list-fiddler, and a damn fine one. I don’t think I ever heard him say the word “prioritize”.

I’ve also sat in 3-hour meetings where a bunch of people argue about T-shirt sizes and assign cards to tasks to epics with story points and oh for the love of god what are we doing with our lives?

The word “prioritize” gives me flashbacks of every terrible sort of procrastination and make-work and pretend-work.

If you agree with my view of priorities, and you don’t immediately recognize all this as a blatant parrotting of the ideas of Merlin Mann, then you ought to listen to the show that he and Dan Benjamin do, called Back to Work. This subject has bugged me in a deep way ever since I first got into software development, and I’ve heard similar horror stories from many different fields. But before getting into the stuff that Merlin Mann has done, and especially Back to Work, I didn’t have nearly as much of a mental vocabulary for it.

Thank you, Merlin and Dan, for giving voice to this fundamental problem with human nature. Now that I’ve seen it, I can’t un-see it, and it’s everywhere.