I start every day with a list of things I need to do. Generally, this lists comprises a collection of email messages, Outlook Tasks, meetings and calendar items, TFS work items (oops, better check those), things that are just in my head that I haven't noted down anywhere, and things my wife asks me to do (typically starting the sentence with, "We really need to..." where by "we" she means "you").

Typically I get through each day having accomplished something. Sometimes I accomplish all of what I set out to do. More frequently, I accomplish some of it, and wind up wasting time on other things (like reading lolcats). Infrequently I accomplish nothing on the list, but something else gets done. And rarely I accomplish nothing at all (days like this usually involve television).Yesterday was a case study in how that third bucket: getting things done, none of which were on my list.

You see, when yesterday started I had plans: I was going to read The Economist and contemplate cleaning the house and maybe heading to the dump. A full day, as anyone can see. But somehow my wife and I wound up spending three hours running errands (Target, Home Depot, and Whole Foods -- any one of which I can lose myself in for an hour; I think I spent 20 minutes just contemplating whether I wanted loose-leaf tea (lower cost) or tea in bags (greater convenience)) and another three hours reorganizing everything in the kitchen cabinets (no, I really don't need that bread machine that I've used a dozen times in as many years). At the end of the day, the kitchen was reorganized, my parents' birthday gifts were acquired, and we'd gotten snacks for that evening's get-together.

This leads me to my observation: if priority and severity are equal, setting the order of execution for a set of tasks is an exercise in social dynamics. I had no intention of reorganizing the kitchen when Saturday started. Yes, it needed to be done, but reading the Economist and cleaning the house were about as important. But my wife had her independent task list. When compared, there was overlap, but the social dynamics were such that it was more expedient to execute the tasks she suggested first. 

I find the same thing at work all the time. I set out with one to-do list, and find something of equal priority to what I was doing, then wind up working on that other problem. Progress is made, just not necessarily in the expected direction.