Prioritize your Activities by Gain and Pain

cover of Decide

Most ProfHacker readers have more things they would like to do, and more things they need to do, than they have time for in a given day. Prioritizing to-do items (or projects and next actions, if you follow David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology) is one of the areas that causes academics and other professionals the most stress.

Many popular ways of sorting and prioritizing your action items for the day, week, or month, involve assigning some kind of importance label to them (A, B, C) and then trying to make sure you distribute your time across those different categories.

What’s Urgent? What’s Important?

Stephen Covey’s Urgent/Important matrix is a helpful tool for distinguishing among activities that are important and urgent (or urgent but not important) and those that are important but not urgent. This latter category is what Covey calls the Quadrant of Quality — the activities that bring the most benefit to your larger goals, but may get set aside when many urgent tasks demand your attention.

Although the four categories described by the Urgent/Important matrix are useful for analyzing your to-do list and in making choices about your time, the wording Covey uses can sometimes be an obstacle. Many people have said to me “but all of these activities are important, I can’t choose among them.”

In the absence of some other category or system, many people default to choosing activities based on urgency. After all, many important tasks may eventually become urgent as a deadline nears or others require our input.

Gain or Preventing Pain

Steve McClatchy’s recent book Decide: Work Smarter, Reduce Your Stress, and Lead by Example offers a simpler system for evaluating your projects and to-do items. He divides all tasks into two categories:

  • Gain activities are those that move you forward towards your most important personal and professional goals. These are the projects that you’ll remember at the end of a year or even at the end of your career. These are projects you want to do because of intrinsic motivation — you’re pulled towards them.
  • Preventing Pain activities are things you do in order to avoid unpleasant consequences. These tasks are a necessary part of work and life, but they are not the things you remember six months later or by which you define yourself.

Any area of work or life can involve both Gain and Preventing Pain tasks. For instance, taking out the trash is a Preventing Pain activity — something you have  to do but not something you probably care deeply about. But trying new recipes or developing your cooking skills might be a Gain activity. Designing a new curricular unit or course might be a Gain activity for some people, or a Preventing Pain activity for others, depending on your individual goals and interests. Gain activities are things you don’t have to do, but that you want to do; therefore they will be different for different people.

Because human beings tend to avoid suffering whenever possible, we can easily be consumed by Preventing Pain. The need to prevent discomfort presents itself as a kind of urgency even without an imminent deadline. Most of us have had the experience of sometimes being busy all day but not feeling like we really accomplished anything; that’s generally because we’re spending most of our time Preventing Pain.

McClatchy acknowledges that most of us have to spend a significant portion of our time with Preventing Pain tasks, but offers strategies like scheduling Gain activities as appointments in your calendar to ensure that you have at least small windows of Gain in most days, and breaking Gain projects down into small, manageable steps.  Overall, his specific recommendations about calendars and to-do lists emphasize the need to commit to a specific day and/or time for every task, rather than the flexibility of the GTD approach. Such structures work well for some people and not for others.

Personally Speaking

In the weeks since reading McClatchy’s book I’ve noticed myself using this simple distinction between Gain and Preventing Pain as an easy way to check on the balance of activities in my day.  Focusing on Gain rather than Importance brings intrinsic values (rather than extrinsic measures of success) to the foreground. This brings greater satisfaction over the long term because you are moving forward on the projects that are deeply connected to who you want to be in work or life.


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