Everything Is Prioritization


Life is full of tradeoffs. In economics they call it opportunity cost. Every choice means you’ve denied all other options. By choosing to do something, you’ve chosen to not do everything else. So how do we choose what to prioritize? How do we be productive?

First, you have to know where you’re going.

Where’s Chicago?

This is one of my dad’s favorite sayings. The question is: where’s Chicago? Chicago is your final destination. It’s the goal that you’re heading towards. You have to know where your destination is and then you can set out to get there. You could get to Chicago by plane, by bus, by driving yourself, or by walking. You could go to San Francisco, then London, then New York, and then to Chicago. There are lots of ways to get there, but you have to know where you’re going. Otherwise you can set out on your journey and then you arrive in Dallas and have no idea how you got there, why you’re there, or if that’s the city you intended to end up in.

This is how your goals work. If you don’t know where your Chicago is (what your goal is) you aren’t going to know if you’re on the right track. Your goal becomes your true north and all of your priorities fall into place under that goal. The more specific the goal the better. Napoleon Hill in Think and Grow Rich says to write your goals clearly. That clear goal determines your actions.

For example, if your goal is vague like “I want to get in shape”, that could mean a lot of different things and it won’t be clear to you when you’ve achieved that. Does it mean eating different foods and losing weight, going to the gym 3 days a week, bench pressing 300 pounds, or completing a triathlon?

Compare that to when I decided to run my first half marathon. That’s a clear goal. It became incredibly clear what I needed to prioritize and focus on leading up to that event. I found a training guide online where I ran 3-4 times per week for specific distances and paces for about 16 weeks. The priority for that period of time was running and it meant I invested a significant amount of time outdoors running and not doing other things. And it meant for my exercise I wasn’t focusing on lifting weights or doing yoga, I was running because the goal here was to complete a long race.

In 2018 my Chicago was to become a front end developer. I had been learning to code for about a year at that point, but my skills weren’t at a place where I could make it my job yet. I wrote down my goal with a date of August 2019.

Piece of paper with goals written on it

Not Sure Where Chicago Is?

It’s important to remember that your goals will change over time. In this case, I was focused on front end development. Along the way though I discovered an interest for back end development. I explored that more and by August 2019 my goal shifted to become a full stack engineer. The time I invested leading up to August 2019 helped me have the foundation I needed to keep going with coding.

There will be times along the way where you aren’t sure what your big goals are. That’s normal. Before I wrote this goal down, there was about a 2 year period where I wasn’t sure where to go. In those times, keep exploring. Try lots of things. If something calls to you and pulls you in, listen to that and keep doing it. It’s OK to ease up, not be so rigid, and explore. Clarity will come.

You just have to follow your love. There is no path. There’s no path till you walk it, and you have to be willing to play the fool. So don’t read the book that you should read. Read the book you want to read.

Ethan Hawke – Give yourself permission to be creative

Four Burners Theory

This is a helpful framework that says to think of your life represented by a stove with four burners on it: health, work, family, friends. Think about a finite amount of gas flowing into the stove top. It’s not possible for every burner to fire at 100%. If everything was flowing evenly, each burner would be at 25%. That means you have to make tradeoffs to prioritize one part of your life and deprioritize another. If you want your work to take more priority, maybe you need to deprioritize time with friends. Or you want your health to improve, you might need to spend less time with your family and more time at the gym.

Stove top with burners on

Decide What Not to Do

When you know what you want to do, there are going to be a lot of things you need to say no to. Some of them are easy and you don’t want to do them, that’s an easy no. There will be other things that you want to do, but the better decision is to say no and keep focused. That’s much harder. Derek Sivers has great advice where he says if it’s not a “Hell Yeah!”, then it’s a no.

Busy vs Productive

This is a wonderful article that breaks down the differences between busy and productive and there are 9 tips at the end on how to be productive.

Eat That Frog! by Brian Tracy has been a big influence for me over the last 5 years in my work life. It covers how to prioritize and get more done. Ever since I read this book, I always start my work day by writing a full list of my priorities for the day, and when I finish a task I “cross the shit out of it”. This gives a feeling of accomplishment and I also just like to fully cross things out so I can’t see the text underneath it and can completely forget about it and move on.

Picture of my daily work notebook
Two days out of my work notebook

I rarely get everything on my list done. When that happens, I transfer any unfinished items over to the next day when the new list is written.

Outside of work, Getting Things Done by David Allen has been helpful. I’ll be honest that I only got through the first half of the audio book because it was quite boring, but I got a couple gems out of it. First, using an inbox system for all incoming physical mail. All mail goes into the inbox and is reviewed ideally once per week. Realistically that happens once every couple weeks. That helps to batch the task and not be distracted when new mail comes in. It just goes directly to the inbox. The second is to write everything down. I use Evernote on my computer and phone to write down every new task that comes in for my personal life. That way you don’t have to store anything in your head. It’s not possible to remember everything and takes a lot of brain power. Once something is done I delete it from the Evernote file.

Work

Many people struggle with too much work in their jobs. There is no denying that many people have an unrealistic workload. But there are things people can do to help take control, that they don’t do. It all comes down to communication.

A common scenario is someone in a 40 hour per week job who starts working a couple extra hours per week. Soon they are doing closer to 60-70 hours per week and feeling burned out and stressed constantly. You feel like if you just work a little longer you could get it done.

The issue here, is they might not have ever said a word to their manager/boss about the extra time they’re putting in. It can feel scary to talk to your manager about your workload. You don’t want to come across as weak or inefficient. You might think that others in your company are gritting their teeth and getting the work done, so you don’t want to come across as a complainer. It can feel especially hard to ever speak up because you may have already been doing this for months, so it can feel weird to speak up now. So you never say anything…

But you are setting yourself up to hate your work and that will carry over into all other aspects of your life with your own time outside of work and your health, and your time with family and friends.

What I’ve learned is that the reality is there is more work than can possibly be done. If that’s true, you must prioritize.

For example, an engineering team could have a backlog of 500 tickets. I guarantee not all of those 500 tickets will get done. It won’t happen. The only way to do it would be to 10x the amount of people on the team, and the company will not do that because they don’t have the budget to increase headcount that drastically. There will always be new tickets coming in for issues that come up or new features to be added. It also wouldn’t be smart to focus on those 500 tickets and neglect the present because many of those backlog items are no longer the most important thing to work on. A new request from an executive that could help your company grow should take priority over backlog ticket number 232 that will only impact a couple people. You have to decide what to do and what not to do.

So when you’re in a world where not everything can be done, you have to communicate the tradeoffs with others, especially your manager. Keep them in the loop on your workload and if you are doing a lot of extra time outside of work. Instead of saying yes to every additional task being asked of you, say that you are happy to work on that project but do not have the space to get that done in addition to your existing work. Ask if this new project is more important than existing work and recommend which of your other tasks could be deprioritized to focus on this new task instead. Help establish a culture within whatever sub-team you are on that you constantly discuss what is on each of your plates, get feedback on anything you need help deciding priority on, and give your feedback to help others prioritize their work as well. Communicate priority changes with outside stakeholders whenever priority is adjusted and explain why the change had to happen. There are frameworks out there to help, and I personally use Agile Sprints with my different teams where work is done in 2 week cycles, tasks are tracked in a software like Jira, and there are daily stand ups/check ins.

If after consistently communicating your work and recommended tradeoffs with your manager they don’t care and want to work you to the bone by working extra hours, perhaps it’s a good time to start looking for work elsewhere. You don’t want to work in a company like that.

Choices

We all make choices based on our priorities in life. Where to live, where to work, how close to family, to get a dog, to have kids, to go to college, what foods to eat, etc…

When you know where you want to go it makes deciding what to do each day easier. It helps you decide what to do now, what to do later, and what not to do.