How to set priorities even when your right brain says you can’t

by | Jan 11, 2010

Have you every watched a baby and a five year old play with blocks? The baby explores by putting the blocks in his mouth, throwing them, and knocking down constructions of the five year old.
The five year old, further along the path of creating, selects blocks and stacks them, orders them, moves them into different patterns. And this process all begins with choosing individual blocks, aka setting priorities.
Setting priorities is the keystone of the creative process. This article talks about three blocks to setting priorities and how to overcome them so you can create what matters to you.
The siren call of spontaneity
One of the most common reasons I hear for not setting priorities is, “I can’t work linearly. I have to be spontaneous.”
I get that. Spontaneity is precious. But it’s not true that priorities have to be linear or that priorities stifle spontaneity. In fact, spontaneity rests on a foundation of priorities, on all the little and big decisions we make during the creative process.
Our spontaneous choices are always the result of priorities, whether or not we are conscious of them. When priorities are unconscious, we may start things but not finish them. We tend to think about what might do instead of decide what we will do. On the other hand, when priorities are conscious, our spontaneous choices tend to gather momentum and focus.
A spontaneous way to set priorities
You can tap into your spontaneity to set priorities by mind-mapping. The simplest way is to take a large sheet of blank paper. In the center, write one or two words to summarize the time period or project you are prioritizing. For example, if you want to explore priorities for the coming year, you could write “2010.”
No start jotting down everything that occurs to you with regard to 2010. Don’t try to organize your thoughts in any way. Nothing is too outlandish or too practical. You might have “white water rafting” next to “learn to meditate” next to “start a blog.”
Keep unloading your spontaneous ideas and associations until you feel complete. Then start mapping relationships among the things you have written using circles and lines to connect the pieces that relate to each other.
By the time you done this, you will be aware that some things need to happen before others and that some things are more important than others. These will be your priorities, and there won’t be a straight line in sight.
The need to know the right choice
Another barrier to setting priorities is thinking you need to know more than you do. The fact is, you can’t know the future, so setting priorities is always an adventure into the unknown.
Putting off prioritization until you know the right choices to make is folly. Priorities are about WHAT we want to create. HOW we are going to create it is another conversation entirely. If we wait to know what is possible before we choose, we will always be playing smaller than we need to.
A no-fault way to set priorities when you don’t know
Even if you don’t know the future, your creative self has all kinds of ideas about what could be. Jot down your ideas on separate slips of paper. Again, don’t try to organize your thinking or be sensible. Just unload one thought at a time, each on its own piece of paper.
Put the slips of paper into a container. Draw them out one at a time. The first one becomes your first priority. The second slip becomes your second priority, etc.
What if the fourth one you draw is more important than the first one? No problem. Move it to the first place. See? You did know after all.
Fear of being bossy
A third barrier to setting priorities is fear that you will somehow anger the gods if you declare what you want and go for it. This confuses the creative process with dictating reality.
We are designed to be creators, not dictators. Deciding what to create and going for it is not the same as issuing ultimata about how things should be. In creating, you engage with reality, you don’t push it around.
How to set priorities without being bossy
Whether we’re growing a business, a garden, or a painting, the creative process is about collaborating with reality, not fighting it. That means that humility is a keystone of setting priorities.
You see, it’s note very humble to imagine that by setting priorities we are bossing the Universe around. We just aren’t that powerful. Remember that you’re not in charge, then go for it as best you can.
Setting priorities is about creating
Setting priorities is part and parcel of the creative process whether we’re planning a vacation or a teleclass. Avoiding priorities is probably more about staying in your comfort zone than it is about keeping your creative options open.
Recommended Reading
Two tremendous books about spontaneity, improvisation, choice and priorities-and how they play a role in creating-are Stephen Nachmanovitch’s Free Play, Improvisation in Life and Art and Robert Fritz’s Creating.