Northeastern University

Priortization nation

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I’m about halfway through physics professor Albert-Laszlo Barabasi’s book, Bursts. I’ll be writing about “bursty behavior” for the news at northeastern soon, but for today’s blog purposes suffice to say that humans behave in a “bursty” pattern instead of uniformly across time. For example, you probably don’t write an email once every twenty minutes all day every day. Instead you likely write a bunch of emails over the course of an hour or so and then take an hours long break before writing another. That hour of email writing is what Barabasi calls a “burst.” Everything we do, apparently, follows this pattern. And it’s not just human behavior — things like earthquakes and neurons firing also happen in bursts with periods of silence in between.

What I want to write about today is what Barabasi says is at the root of all this burstiness: prioritization. We all do it without even realizing it, even if we don’t get to-do lists tattooed to our arms or even write a to do list for ourselves each morning. There’s an unspoken list up in the old brain all the time. Every time we have a choice between doing two things — or even three or four or five things — we ultimately have to pick just one. And in doing so, we make a subtle judgement about the priority of each thing on the list.

All of our prioritized decisions over time add up to burstiness: Maybe I decided to sleep over responding to another email. Which means I had to pick some emails over others in my burst of email writing before bed. Then I woke up and shot off another burst of emails, the ones that couldn’t wait until I got to work. When I got here, I was off the phone all day but as soon as 5pm hit I was on the phone calling college friends for the latest gossip…well….actually that doesn’t usually happen, but you see what I mean, right?

When we’re engaged in one activity rather than another we’ve prioritized it over everything else. As soon as the priority of another activity rises above the rest, a burst begins. I think this is great…such a simple explanation for the odd, complex behavior of human societies.

This is all very cool, indeed, but I was also enamored of a little anecdote that Barabasi squeezed into the story. Charles Michael Schwab managed the first billion-dollar conglomerate in history, says Barabasi. And part of his success had to do with his obsession for efficiency. One day his publicist, Ivy Lee, told Schwab he could increase the efficiency of Schwab’s workers if he could have just fifteen minutes of their time. He told Schwab it would cost him nothing unless it worked. Three months later, Barabasi says, Lee received a $35K check in the mail (about $700K of today’s dollars). So,  I guess it worked.

What did Lee do in those super secret fifteen minutes? He told each worker to write a list every night of the six most important things s/he had to do the next day and prioritize them. When something gets crossed off the list, go on to the next thing, he said. If something doesn’t get crossed off, put it on tomorrow’s list. Seems simple enough. And apparently it had an enormous effect on the overall productivity of Schwab’s company. The better we are at prioritizing, maybe, the more efficient our bursty patterns.

I think that, in an effort to be more efficient for the Northeastern news team, I’m going to start writing a 6 bullet priority list every night. I wonder how it will affect my bursty pattern….

Photo: bark, “40+251 Done-ish” July 7, 2010 via Flickr. Creative Commons attribution.


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