Checking in on your life with a periodic priority probe

Summary: Regularly reviewing the things we are glad we are doing, the things we wish we weren't doing, and how to change these lists can be a tremendous benefit in keeping our lives on track. Here's a form to help make that happen.

It's all well and good to think about how to spend our time and attention, but how do we know how effective we're being?

Put another way, how often do we take the time to sit and reflect on our lives, and how much we enjoy what we're doing?

The answer, for me, is "not often enough".

Thanks to a colleague I recently came across Sackett (2001), which includes several nuggets of career-oriented wisdom. One that especially stuck with me was the "Periodic Priority List", which Sackett suggests one goes over every 6 months:

  • List 1: Things I'm doing that I want to quit.
  • List 1a: Things I've just been asked to do that I don't want to do.
  • List 2: Things I'm not doing that I want to start.
  • List 3: Things I want to keep doing.
  • List 4: How I plan to shorten List 1 and lengthen List 2 over the next 6 months.

One thing I especially liked is there is no cop out for "things I have to do"—these have to be sorted into things I'd like to keep doing, or things I'd like to do less of.

I hold regular (every 6 months) meetings with trainees and employees in my lab, which I try to structure more as discussions about personal development than as "performance reviews". However, I don't have many opportunities for receiving the same kind of feedback. This periodic check-in is a nice way to provide some self-direction, or to share big picture ideas with colleagues. I would suggest finding a colleague who you can chat with your periodic probe with and put the next 6 month review on the calendar to keep you both accountable. (And if it's an excuse to get a coffee, or a beer, or whatever, together, so much the better.)


I reordered Sackett's list to match how I'd like to think about it (starting with the positive) and rephrased the items:

  • List 1: What are the things I am doing that I would like to keep doing?
  • List 2: What are the things I am doing that I want to stop?
  • List 3: What are the things I am not doing but would like to start?
  • List 4: Over the next 6 months, what concrete steps will I take to lengthen List 1, shorten List 2, and/or move items from List 3 to List 1?

One issue that comes up a lot for me is the matter of degree. I don't want to stop reviewing manuscripts entirely, but I would like to do less of it. Do I put this in the category of "things I would like to keep doing", or "things I would like to stop doing"? Similarly I would like to spend more time analyzing data. But I analyze some data so it's not really something I would "start" doing.

To accommodate these more graded situations—and at the risk of making the lists slightly more complicated—I've simply added subheadings. For example, I divided List 1 ("things I would like to keep doing") into "things I'd like to keep the same" and "things I'd like to do more of".

I've also called it a "probe" rather than a list. If you think this is because I like the name "Peelle's Periodic Priority Probe" (P^4), you'd be right. Just be glad I didn't specify that it works on both the professional and personal levels—I was trying to be particularly parsimonious.

The periodic priority probe

You can view the source or just download the PDF on GitHub.

(Of course, you can also just pull out a sheet of paper and make four lists.)

Concluding thoughts

Although sometimes the specific lists may prove useful, I suspect the most helpful aspect of this exercise is providing a time and space for really thinking about how things are going: the good, the bad, and the ugly. In some cases this kind of self-examination may lead to a small change (I need to drop a collaboration, or review fewer papers), in others a big change (I don't enjoy anything about my job and perhaps should get a new job). The main goal is to encourage our own thinking. The periodic probe is flexible enough it can accommodate many different situations or goals, and may result in a different kind of evaluation every time we fill it out. To me, that seems like one of its biggest strengths.

Now go put a date on the calendar to do your first probe!


Sackett DL (2001) On the determinants of academic success as a clinician-scientist. Clinical and Investigative Medicine 24:94-100. ProQuest Link