I’m recovering from an addiction. I bet you have it, too.
It might not seem nefarious. You might not even know you have it. It’s not as pervasive as coffee or even cell phones. But over time, if not addressed, it could put your business in jeopardy, and you likely won’t even realize until it’s too late.
I was addicted to checking things off my to-do list.
At first glance, that doesn’t sound like a problem at all. Undeniably, I was being productive! The problem was, I was completing items on my list based on how urgent they were or how much time they would take, not based on their importance. I was busy but not getting a lot done. I had no sense of priority.
I’m not alone. Most people, when given the choice between less important tasks with shorter deadlines and more important tasks that are less urgent will complete the first over the second. The reason? It feels good to finish things. Checking items off your to-do list releases dopamine, which feels rewarding and makes you more likely to keep doing similar tasks.
But checking items off your to-do list doesn’t make you an impactful leader; it just makes you good at email. Prioritization makes your productivity meaningful.
What should you prioritize?
Prioritization is an exercise that requires understanding your work, your team, and yourself. Two guiding questions that will help you prioritize your work are “What is my highest contribution?” and “What am I passionate about?”
Understanding your highest contribution requires understanding both your organization’s needs and your own capabilities. The question isn’t what can you do. Most leaders, especially in the startup world, have a broad skill set that allows them to go from a pitch meeting to working in the weeds on code. Your highest contribution isn’t the full breadth of your capabilities, but the best use of them. What can you bring to the table that no one else can? By focusing your energy on your unique strengths, you’ll excel in your role while having a magnified impact on your company.
But, you shouldn’t prioritize just what you’re good at. Passion, too, is motivating. Working on initiatives you find fulfilling lets you live your values every day. People who do work they find meaningful are willing to make less and work more, demonstrating the inherent value in prioritizing work that’s aligned with your values.
For me, that means making time to coach, both more junior employees at JotForm and my kid’s soccer team. A thirty minute mentoring call might not be urgent, but I feel so energized afterward that I’m excited to get through the other tasks on my list.
Not all tasks are created equal.
It’s normal to do the low-lift work first, especially if it’s time-sensitive. However, meaningful tasks are less likely to have deadlines. Priorities like skill development or enacting your values should always have a presence in your life. They don’t have a deadline because they’re never finished. The result is, paradoxically, the most important tasks ending up at the bottom of your to-do list.
So, how do you prioritize the important over the urgent?
First, translate your business and life priorities into discrete tasks. Making progress on learning French is a vague goal that seems less achievable than doing fifteen minutes of Duolingo. By keeping tasks small and manageable, you can make them into habits.
For bigger projects like defining a quarterly strategy, break the work up into its different elements. Then, give yourself a deadline or schedule the tasks in your calendar like you would a meeting. I like to block time every morning to make incremental progress on bigger goals before the day gets away from me. Plus, by working on it every day, my priorities and values stay top of mind, which is never a bad thing, even if I’m just doing administrative work.
Invest in solutions.
In order to have more time to spend on important work, you have to do less of the unimportant stuff. But, often, the urgent, less important work still needs to get done to keep the ship running. So, how do you find the balance?
First, make sure that the task actually is as important as you think it is. Organizations — especially as they grow — have a tendency to fall into the trap of “This is the way we’ve always done things.” Evaluate your processes and see what no longer fits.
Then, see what no longer makes sense for you to do. In the early days of startups, every member of the team is doing multiple jobs. As you grow, it’s likely that you’ve hung on to some tasks just because you’d done them back when you were the only person who could. Delegating those tasks to the right person both clears them off your plate and gives your colleague fuller ownership over their position.
For everything remaining on the list, see if there’s an easier way to do it. Often, as Alice Boyes describes, we’re so busy chasing cows that we don’t have time to build a fence. It’s worth an upfront investment to be able to save time by automating, streamlining, or outsourcing in the future.
For everything else, timebox it. Parkinson’s Law states that tasks expand to fill the amount of time you have to complete them. Timeboxing forces you to be decisive and to prioritize the “good (and finished)” over the “perfect.” It also gives you a sense of control. You can decide how long a task should take based on the work itself and schedule it, rather than organizing your time based on availability. The payoff of being more deliberate with your time is that you will have more of it than you’d realized to focus on what matters.