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How to Prioritize in a Crisis (and otherwise)

Choosing priorities and cultivating focus both in work and personal life can feel like a monumental task. In their 2018 Workplace Distraction Report, Udemy cited 74% of millennial and GenZ respondents feeling distracted at work — and that was before a global pandemic hit. 

So, how do we all make sense of a work-from-home-every-single-day-while-I-panic-about-my-uncertain-future, scenario?

I turned to Fay Wolf, author of New Order: A Decluttering Handbook for Creative Folks (and Everyone Else) to help frame constructive ways of prioritizing and decluttering physically as well as emotionally.

Why does prioritizing and decluttering matter?

If you have physical clutter or ‘inner clutter’ in terms of negative waste holding you back, that is all connected and related to your life priorities, to your responsibilities, to your needs, to your wants, to your dreams, to your creative projects, to your relationships around you.

We’re in a crisis. How do I prioritize in a situation like this?

There are things you know and things you don’t know. So, what do you know? You know what you might have on your to-do list.

Do a huge brain dump and literally write everything down that you need to be doing, that you want to be doing, that you dream about doing. Some are going to be non-negotiable responsibilities right now. Some are going to be new things that are related to the crisis in terms of income and food and shelter, and obviously we’re all in different places with that.

Make sure you’re only using one to do list instead of a bunch of different Post-it notes that are taped to your computer or a bunch of different lists. If you have to, go grab 10 different lists that you found and bring them all together and then put them on one and then make sure you get rid of all those other lists.

What about schedules?

Create the structure — a daily schedule or a weekly schedule — and then feel really free to color outside those lines. You have something that you can go back to if you need to as this rock — but then feel free to be like, ‘I’m not doing anything today or I’m not going to work on that work project today. I’m going to read a book instead.’ Rules are great to a certain extent, but we need to be able to then make choices beyond that.

What about priorities at work, specifically?

It is quite possible and very common that you were just given too much to do. Very, very common. And so then it becomes an issue of your relationships with your coworkers, with your boss, how easy it is for you to speak up, how easy it is for you to have honest, connected conversations with these people about what’s realistic and also in this time, what the business actually needs.

Is this a crisis load? And if so, is there any other thing that can happen to aid in helping you during this crisis because this stuff needs to get done for the company. But really, just honest dialogue.

How do I know what my priorities should be?

I think it’s really important to just pay attention to what’s bubbling up naturally in terms of what priorities are for you. And I found that for me, there are three categories:


There have been either extended family members or friends I haven’t talked to in a long time that have naturally popped into my brain that I’ve thought about and then I reached out to and that’s been a great way to be like, ‘Oh, I guess those people are priorities in my life even though I’m not usually talking to them,’ right? And likewise, we can kind of go the other way too. This is like a great time to be like, ‘oh, not thinking about that person in a crisis. So that’s telling.’.


Sometimes your body just tells you what it needs. I have been told that I need to be meditating every day. I’m not beating myself up if I miss a day or anything like that, I think that’s incredibly important not to stress. Meditation is just an example, it might be something different for someone else, like journaling or taking walks. Do what you can and then keep going if you miss a day.


Beyond work projects and things that are going to bring you immediate income, are there — especially for creative people — those things that you’ve been procrastinating on for so long that you now know, you have no more excuses for? They’re raising their hand to you and saying, ‘Okay, now is the time.’ Listen to those instincts and then marry those things with laying out a potential structure or schedule for yourself.

How do I start?

I think that embracing imperfection and acknowledging that we’re human beings who don’t do things right all the time is the key.

Over 14 years, most clients that I’ve encountered have been frozen because they have a perfectionist streak and they have not started at all because they feel like it’s all or nothing. They need to complete the whole project. They need to keep it in a certain way. So instead of doing that, they’ve done nothing when they could feel so much better and just do something.

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