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The prescribed burning of priorities

Invoked metaphors about fire are generally not good in a work setting, as in “I got nothing done because all I was doing was putting out fires all day.” But we can repurpose this imagery to our advantage. Take the idea of a “prescribed burn” or “controlled burn” for example. It is common practice in forest management to purposefully set fire to swaths of land for desired outcomes, such as diversifying habitats, helping endangered species recover, or reducing fossil fuels to prevent a destructive fire.

Where putting out fires could be taken as reactive positioning to things we need to get done, a prescribed burn approach could be framed as having proactive clarity on the role of urgency and priority in our work. It’s crucial to examine implicit assumptions surrounding the pressures we feel. Ways to kickstart this frame:

  • When is it good to let it burn? Healthy prioritization doesn’t mean getting everything done. Maybe other things should absolutely take priority over what unfinished efforts are currently nagging you. Assigning a weighted percentage of importance to several tasks can be helpful here.

  • How long can this fire burn? Thinking ahead about how long a task can remain unfinished, or whether it is okay to incrementally advance the task, would relieve the pressure of feeling like everything needs to be done at once. Getting exact dates or time windows is preferable, so that prior to that time you can feel less pressed.

  • Is there actually a fire? Questions should be asked about what it means for something to be urgent and what the repercussions are if a deadline is missed. Would it be okay for the task not to get completed at all?

  • What are the stakes? At times we feel our reputation is at stake, or people are really counting on us, when in reality the intensity is probably far lower than we think. Something often overlooked is imagining what other people are tracking. It could be that nobody cares the way you think they do.

  • Deriving priority internally – can you appreciate the priority and importance of something without being told? Having a clearer sense of what role your efforts play in driving your project forward can be helpful here.

A good transitional prompt would be, “how can I turn all of these fires into a controlled burn?” This could help generate a mindset that moves beyond struggling for bandwidth to taking agency over what needs doing.

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