I think one of the most valuable skills I've learned so far in my career is the power of effective prioritization.
While I am certainly no master, I am way better than I used to be at understanding the Pareto Principle
(also known as the 80/20 rule).
If you can figure out what the most highly leveraged activities, tasks, and strategies are in your work and personal life and then spend 80% of your time on those activities, you will instantly add much more value than people who simply go through life reacting to external stimuli and confusing urgency with importance.
The thing is - this is really hard to do, and it's not necessarily natural. As humans, we are wired to react and respond to urgency.
As Jason Fried says in Rework
: "ASAP is poison."
What's so poisonous about "ASAP"? It drives deep into that biological, evolutionary part of our mammalian selves that lights up our adrenal system and gets our blood pumping and puts our nerves on high alert.
These days, our work is filled with ASAP and a million other requests, texts, and other incoming stimuli that light up our ancient mammal brain.
So yeah, it's hard to ignore. But if we want to do meaningful work, ignore we must.
While I have slowly gotten better this, it's been a long road. I used to be terrible at the Pareto Principle and would spend 80% of my day tearing through email like a machine.
At the end of the day, which had felt so damn productive, there would be a pit in my stomach because I realized I couldn't actually figure out what true value I had really added. What had I done that actually mattered? What had I done that couldn't be outsourced to literally anyone?
After I had that realization enough times, I began to develop systems to help me organize my tasks and prioritize and focus on the most important ones.
This post will quickly run through a few of those systems. In future posts I plan to deep dive into a few of them - for example, how I manage email.
This is how I decide what tasks to focus on:
On Monday morning I create a master list of all my tasks for the week. I do this by:
1. Sitting and thinking about what will add the most value to the company. This can take up 5 - 30 minutes depending on the week.
2. Looking at old to-do lists from the past three weeks, and re-adding things I haven't done but which are still important and relevant.
3. Going through my inbox, and adding anything that A) is important to the success of the company and B) requires action on my part.
Usually this list ends up being 30-40 things depending on the week. I used to use Trello
for task management, but now I just write them all down down in a big graphed notebook
Then, every morning (Mon-Fri) I reference the master list I made on Monday, and select the top 3 most important unchecked items.
(BTW this isn't always easy. Sometimes it takes 10 minutes of thought, or asking my team what they think is higher priority for the company.)
Then I write those 3 big-win items on a new page for that day, along with 5 to 15 more shallow or administrative tasks, and I try my very very best to tackle at least 1 of the big-win items before I do email or any of the shallow items.
If I make progress on all 3 big-win tasks in a day, I consider it a huge win.
The more you practice, the more frequent huge wins become.
Doing important work is easier when you reduce incoming clutter and effectively and efficiently manage both your incoming and outgoing communications.
These are tools I use to keep my mind and inbox clear, and help me focus:
So clutch. Hundreds of emails a week skip my inbox and go to separate folder which I batch all at once a few times a week.
- Boomerang for Gmail.
I love Boomerang so much. I use it to schedule emails - some more than a year out - and manage follow up communications, or simply get messages out of my inbox until a more appropriate time.
- Focus App
. I use Focus to block any distracting websites during the workday. This way when I need a distraction I go for a walk or something, which is way better.
- Airplane Mode on my phone - for when I really gotsta focus.
I also work away from the office one day a week
, and make sure I schedule no meetings or calls on that day, so that I can get into some real deep work flow. I stick to this about 3 out of every 4 weeks. My goal is 4 out of out 4.
Finally - Once a year I do a personal annual review. Just me, by myself, for anywhere from 8 hours to 2 days.
Alone, focused, I revisit my life and work priorities and make sure the way that I am spending my time aligns with those bigger picture goals and values.
OK, that's all for now. I hope some of this was helpful. If you have any questions or anything you want to know more about specifically just ask and I will try to write about it in the future.
Also - while I have gotten way better at being consistent with all these habits, I still miss and give into the resistance at least 25% of the time. It used to be 75%, then 50%, and hopefully in the future it will be more like a 10% miss rate. I think it's important to say this, because if you're interested in developing any new habit or system, don't feel discouraged if you're missing A LOT at the beginning.
It takes practice just like anything, but improvement compounds just like money, so why not start today?