[Learn More Doc] How to Prioritize
What’s included here:
📓 Notes & Key Takeaways
🗣️ Discussion & Reflection Questions
📚 Further Study & Resources
Begin with the end in mind (03:24)
First things first (05:33)
On strategy (08:27)
Compounding nature of prioritization (10:58)
Frameworks & Structures:
The Eisenhower Matrix (12:05)
Pareto Principle (16:25)
Priority Codes & Management by Objective (18:35)
Tips, Tricks & Tactics:
On Saying No (31:23)
General Outlook/Philosophy (33:00)
Inspiring Quotes (33:47)
📓 Notes & Key Takeaways
Begin with the End in Mind (from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Successful People)
Begin with the end in mind: “What are the things I want to accomplish?”
“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”
First Things First (from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Successful People)
We all have many roles (e.g., daughter, father, spouse, board member). Ultimately, you can put these things in order, but you will always be pulled from one role to the next (e.g., you need to buy those symphony tickets, and then your daughter calls). To prioritize effectively, you must lead a principle-centered life.
“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked.” - Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning.
“Principles are deep, fundamental truths, classic truths, generic common denominators. Our security comes from knowing that unlike other centers based on people or things subject to frequent and immediate change, correct principles do not change. We can depend on them.” - Covey
The best managers clarify their values & set goals. They plan each day and prioritize their activities. “The key is not to prioritize what's on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”
“What is Strategy” by Michael Porter
“The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”
“Trade-offs arise from limits on internal coordination and control. By choosing to compete in one way and not another, senior management makes organizational priorities clear. Companies that try to be all things to all customers, in contract, risk confusion in the trenches as employees attempt to make day-to-day operating decisions without a clear framework.
“Frequently a strategy at one managerial level is the tactical concern of the next higher level.” - Andy Grove, High Output Management
“If everything is a top priority, nothing is.” - Ben Horowitz
The compounding nature of prioritization (Edmond Lau, The Effective Engineer)
The right focus can significantly accelerate a product’s growth rate. Even small 0.5% wins in key areas can compound like interest and add a million users down the line. But by the same token, the opportunity cost of working on the wrong ideas can set back growth by months or years.
“Prioritization is a high-leverage activity because it determines the leverage of the rest of your time. After all, if you work for weeks on a project that has little impact and garners few lessons, how is that different for your business than not working at all?”
Frameworks & Structures:
The Eisenhower Matrix:
Also known as the Eisenhower Box or the Urgent-Important 2x2
Invented by US President Eisenhower, who was a five-star general in the US Army; prepared the strategy for an Allied invasion of Europe; made many tough decisions about what tasks to focus on; invented the Eisenhower Method - which helps people prioritize by urgency and importance
“Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.” - Stephen Covey
Mere urgency effect” can lead to distraction by the urgent/ unimportant tasks (e.g., email)
Importance has to do with results - if something is important it contributes to your mission, your values, and your top priority goals. If you don’t know what is important then you will easily get diverted toward the urgent.
Quadrant 1: crises & problems - many people get stuck here. People who are crises managers and problem-minded people, deadline-driven producers - some people only get relief here in moving to quadrant IV
Quadrant II - the most important & heart of effective personal management. The things we “know we need to do” - but often postpone b/c they aren’t urgent. Peter Drucker said, “effective people are not problem-minded; they’re opportunity-minded.” Covey paraphrases, “they feed opportunities and starve problems. They think preventatively.”
“It’s almost impossible to say “no” to the popularity of Quadrant III or to the pleasure of escape to Quadrant IV if you don’t have a bigger “yes” burning inside.”
You have to be proactive in working on quadrant II b/c Quadrants I and III will work on you.
The Pareto Principle
80/20: 80% of the results flow from 20 percent of the activities. Aka 80 effect comes from 20% of causes.
Engineer and management consultant Joseph Juran coined the term “Pareto Principle” in the early 1940s after discovering the work of economist Vilfredo Pareto. Pareto pointed out decades earlier that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population.
80% of sales come from 20% of customers; 20% of your product experience will lead to 80% of all support cases – especially important principle for perfectionists who can get stuck on that last 20%
Priority Codes & Management By Objective (MBO) - by Andy Grove
P0: something so critical to the release of the product that you would hold the release to include or fix it. P0 – the site is down, and all work must stop until this issue is resolved. P1 – finish this task to unblock someone else, required to be done before other things; P2 – the ordinary flow of work; P3 – nice to have, but not required; P4 – informational only
MBO - Management by Objective by Andy Grove - “if you don’t know where you’re going, you will not get there”; Indian saying, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”
Where do I want to go? (answer provides the objective)
How will I pace myself to see if I am getting there (answer provides milestones or key results)
MBO should provide focus, but only if you keep the number of objectives small. If we focus on everything, we focus on nothing.
Tips, Tricks & Tactics
Invest time in planning: “Prioritization is a Quadrant 2 activity” - Lau in Effective Engineer; If you have a clear mission/strategy in place, especially one grounded in deeper held values & vision - it is easier to determine what priorities should flow from it. Many ways to do this (e.g., create a mission statement, resolutions, strategy doc). Plan regularly (e.g., weekly on Sunday afternoon). Many people plan daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annually. Ultimately it will be up to you to find the balance.
Scheduling: Maker vs. manager schedule: “When you're operating on the maker's schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon by breaking it into two pieces, each too small to do anything hard in.” - Paul Graham
The goal is to reach a state of flow - “a state of effortless concentration so deep that you lose your sense of time, yourself, problems.” - happens for many artistic people (e.g., painters, chess masters, writers) - optimal experience b/c of the joy we feel when we are deeply focused; interruptions break the flow.
It can take 15-23 minutes to regain focus after an interruption. Many makers require 3-4 hrs to get into a state of flow and stay there.
Use tools to help you focus on your priorities: Pomodoro technique - focused work in sprints (e.g., 25 min) – many apps for this, but a simple timer works too
To-Do/check-lists: helps get things out of your head; the brain is not optimized for processing or storage (a central tenet of Getting Things Done by David Allen.) Expending effort trying to remember something is draining. Master list (e.g., sticky note, software like Asana, calendar, notebook) somewhere to check back. Can even label every item on the to-do list by quadrant.
Seek leverage: “Ask yourself on a recurring basis: ‘Is there something else I could be doing that’s higher-leverage?’ If not, continue on your current path. It’s best to focus on what directly produces value.
Decrease time spent on things that don’t lead to output (e.g., status reports, organizing things, creating organizational systems, recording things multiple times, going to meetings, replying to low-priority communications. Focus on things that move things forward (e.g., products shipped, users acquired, business metrics moved, sales made) - not hours worked.
Don’t forget the opportunity cost of your time. Embrace your priorities and recognize that you are always saying no. Ensure that the effort you invest is proportional to the expected impact.
Limit the amount of work in progress – when we work on too many different things, we waste energy context switching. Better to prioritize and serialize things so you can finish projects/tasks and maintain a sense of momentum.
Momentum is critical for maintaining motivation. If you are constantly hopping around and not getting things done, it can be demotivating and ultimately lead to burnout.
Burnout, contrary to popular belief, does not just come from hard work. It’s often from feeling a sense of futility from all the hard work. If you are working hard but not having wins, it can be seriously problematic for you, and the team. Better to get things done, celebrate, and keep going.
Determine how many things you can work on at a time. For some people, it’s 1 single priority - for others, it might be 2 or 3.
Don’t change your strategy/plan too often. Grove writes that we must “allow ourselves time to judge the impact of the decisions we made and to determine whether our decisions were on the right track or not. We need the feedback that will be indispensable to our planning the next time around.”
“Time management is an oxymoron. Time is beyond our control, and the clock keeps ticking regardless of how we lead our lives. Priority management is the answer to maximizing the time we have.” – John C. Maxwell
On Saying No:
Shift mentality from “I don’t have time” to “It’s not a priority”. Feeling or saying “I’m busy” or “I don’t have time” can make you feel like you are lacking something. It’s a scarcity mindset. Saying “it’s not a priority” puts you back in the driver seat. It also sends the message that you are in control of your schedule & thoughtful about what you spend time on.
“People who plan have to have the guts, honesty, and discipline to drop projects as well as to initiate them, to shake their heads “no” as well as to smile “yes.” - Andy Grove
Say no with grace & kindness, pleasantly, smilingly, unapologetically. (e.g., “Thank you so much for the invitation/request. I feel flattered/honored that you would think of me. Unfortunately, I have to decline as ___ is not a priority for me right now, but if I think of anybody else, I will let you know.” Remember you are *always* saying no to something (e.g., reading that article, attending that event, going on that trip.) What’s one more no?
Managing up: sometimes helpful to share what else you have on your plate if another request comes in (e.g., “here are all the projects I am working on and the expected timing. Which of these should I deprioritize to make room for X?”)
“Good is the enemy of great” – if you keep accepting good projects, good results, or good priorities, you will not have time to get to the great ones.
When you get the important things right, the small things don’t matter. (e.g., if you are getting features shipped, people won’t care if you are slow to respond to unimportant emails)
Don’t be too hard on yourself: You’ll have days where you misallocate your time, but as long as you’re retrospective, you’ll continuously improve.
“The essence of effective time and life management is to organize and execute around balanced priorities.” - Steven Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
“If there is any one “secret” of effectiveness, it is concentration. Effective executives do first things first, and they do one thing at a time. - Peter Drucker
“Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things.” – Peter Drucker
Prioritization is crucial to giving teams the clarity they ended to succeed in their roles. Otherwise, chaos ensues. - Sarah Drasner in “Engineering Management for the Rest of Us”
🗣️ Discussion & Reflection Questions
Of the various frameworks mentioned in the episode (e.g., Eisenhower Matrix, Pareto Principle, Priority Codes, MBO), which do you use today, if any? Did any new ones appeal to you? Why or why not?
What are your top priorities right now? Your team’s? Would your manager agree with those priorities? How do you know?
Which of your priorities would you categorize as “Quadrant 2” activities?
If you are struggling to prioritize, which of these three areas would you say is the biggest driver: (1) inability to prioritize (2) inability to organize around the priorities, or (3) lack of discipline to execute and stay with priorities and organization?
For Team Leads/Managers:
Of the frameworks mentioned (e.g., Eisenhower, Pareto, Priority Codes), which is your team using for decision-making, if any? How did you pick this approach? What is working well about it? What could be better?
What % of your team’s time is spent in Quadrant 2? Do you think this is the right allocation of time & energy?
Are the individual contributors on your team getting sufficient time for focused, flow-oriented work? What structures are in place to support them in focused work time? (e.g., no-meeting days, grouping interviews together)
Are you and your team clear and aligned on your top priorities? If not, why not?
What activities are you doing with your team today to align and focus on your priorities? How well are these approaches working?
If you make no changes to your current priorities, what will happen one month from now? Where will you be a year from now?
If you could make one change to the way your team is prioritizing, what would it be?
📚 Further Study & Resources
7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
High Output Management by Andy Grove
The Effective Engineer by Edmond Lau
Getting Things Done by David Allen
The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
Behind the Cloud by Marc Benioff
The Daily Drucker by Peter Drucker
Articles & Videos:
What is Strategy? By Michael Porter
Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule by Paul Graham
The Philosophy of MaxF [Life School]
How to Become Indistractable [Growth Path]