Priortization nation

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.