I love the Freakonomics podcast, but a recent episode about standing in line made me kind of irrationally angry.
A few days later, when looking at my to-do list (or rather, my fascinatingly complex set of to-do lists organized in Evernote according to David Allen’s GTD principles), I realized what nerve they had struck, and why.
In the Freakonomics episode What Are You Waiting For, Stephen Dubner and his guest, Steve Landsburg, discussed how queuing behaviors (i.e. standing in line) are fundamentally wastes of time if viewed on a purely economic level. Landsburg irritated me by saying when there’s a line for a resource like, say, a water fountain, the next person arriving should go first, then the next person in line, and so on. I mean it really irritated me, and I’m a long-time listener who is on to their tendency to hook the audience with absurd thought experiments.
It at least began to make some degree of sense when Landsburg pointed out that this idea, while obviously impractical in real life, illustrated that if the resource was really so chronically busy that there was no way for someone in the back of the line to ever get there, more resources are needed.
But I finally understood why the illustration made me so irritated when I next looked at my fascinatingly complex set of to-do lists. Because I realized that most of my tasks do in fact cut to the head of the line.
Most things that people ask me to do sound important enough that I flag them as high priority. I also get a lot of requests for short, simple tasks. As a disciple of David Allen, I knock short, simple tasks out as they come in whenever possible. And then, somehow, most of my 2nd and 3rd priority list of tasks seems to always form out of things that seemed urgent when first received but either couldn’t get done because I didn’t have the resources, or kept getting pushed aside in a series of scheduling A/B tests that the task kept losing.
So the question becomes – if the task winds up on my 3rd tier of priorities, is it that important? Or am I even the person to do it?
Obviously, it’s not that simple (just like the water fountain thought experiment), and you can’t start just deleting your 2nd and 3rd priority lists. You may be shuffling things to those levels because you’re lazy or avoiding something particularly unpleasant that is going to have serious consequences if never faced.
But if you are working reasonably hard and am reasonably adept at accessing risks, you should at least take a hard look at those tasks that have gone to the back of your line and can’t ever seem to move up. They may need to find another water fountain, or just stay thirsty.