The importance of Prioritizing and Sequencing

Our successes and failures are a consequence of the choices we make, individually and collectively. Consistently good choices made over extended periods of time lead to success, barring any unfortunate and unanticipated circumstances. I explored that idea in a recent column at Niti Central. Here it is, for the record.

Our choices determine our destiny
{Published at Niti Central on Nov 9th.}

The prescription for individual success is simple to state, although like everything else of that ilk, it is not at all easy to follow. By individual success I don’t mean becoming incredibly rich and powerful or becoming the master of the universe but the rather mundane business of becoming what one is potentially capable of. That is, being the best one can be given one’s natural endowments and the external environment that the individual inhabits. Both the endowment (the mental and physical characteristics the individual is born with) and the environment (the place and time of the individual’s birth) are outside the individual’s choosing. They are a given; exogenous or externally determined; luck of the draw in the random draw of life.

Thus individual success is constrained by circumstances outside the individual’s control. However, given those constraints, the prescription to reach the potential is this: prioritize your goals and sequence your actions accordingly. Obviously that is not the most enlightening piece of advice you are likely to get but it is surprisingly accurate. Do the important bits first and do the less important bits only after you have taken care of the more important bits.

Prioritizing is important because we have limited resources, all of which have alternative uses. The most limiting of resources is time. If we had unlimited time, we would not have to choose between things that need to get done: we would eventually do them all. But even then we would have to sequence things since we cannot simultaneously do them all. When you do task A, you get the benefits of getting it done but you also forego the benefits of other tasks you could have done had you not done A. You forego the opportunity of the benefits of an alternative task B when you do A. That is what they call “opportunity cost” in economics lingo.

The important point here is that everything we do has an opportunity cost. Presumably here we are considering only those tasks that have positive net benefits; that is the benefits of doing them exceed their costs. It would be pointless to do things when the benefits don’t justify their costs. Now, one can always point to the net benefits of a task and argue that it is worth doing. But that argument fails because the question is not whether there are net benefits to doing something but whether that net benefit exceeds the net benefit of doing something else instead.

As individuals we are faced with choices every day and how we decide determines our life. Essayist Annie Dillard observed, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Our successes and failures are to a very large degree a consequence of the choices we make from moment to moment. Chance does play a part but is probably unbiased in that it equally aids success and failure.

At this very moment, I chose to write this instead of cleaning house or going out for a walk or reading or surfing the web or hanging out with a friend or a hundred other things I could be doing instead. I have consciously chosen to write about the Indian mission to Mars and I hope that I have chosen wisely.

{The concluding part of this piece is here.}

2 thoughts on “The importance of Prioritizing and Sequencing

  1. “I have consciously chosen to write about the Indian mission to Mars and I hope that I have chosen wisely”.

    Sadly no. On balance your time would have been better spent doing something else.

    We cannot on the one hand bemoan the state of research in India and then slap down every effort the country makes in that direction. The Mars mission is not about whether Mars is “irrelevant”. Mars is not particularly relevant to the US or China. It is about building capabilities and learning by doing.

    Also the mission cost $74mm. Think about it! That’s extraordinary. NASA’s space shuttle program cost $1.5bn per flight (http://www.space.com/11358-nasa-space-shuttle-program-cost-30-years.html).

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s