In school I was thorough and a hard worker. I liked to do everything, and do it in order. When I first worked at early-stage startups it quickly became obvious that my to-do list was longer than my available time. The only way to be successful there was to prioritize heavily, which means ignoring some tasks entirely and doing others quickly and imperfectly. My overachiever self found that painful and stressful!
I've been working on prioritizing ever since. It's a constant struggle, but totally worth it. Even though I'm not currently helping start a company, getting better at prioritizing means my work matters more and my days are less packed. It's the productivity paradox: the only way to do more is to do less.
Here are some notes from The Startup Chat's Steli Efti and Hiten Shah talking about prioritization, but this advice is certanliy not limited to people at startups. Hiten is a really thoughtful guy and was a very helpful mentor to me as I transitioned into the tech industry, and I found this episode thought provoking. The notes:
Everyone who's bad at prioritization fits into one of two categories:
- go-getters who are good at attacking what's in front of them or what's top of mind (Ed-it me!)
- people who have just a LOT of things on their list
Take a step back and ask:
- What are the things that make a significant difference? What actually matters?
- What would happen if I just stopped doing some of the things I'm doing?
- What if I double down on things that matter?
- What are things that matter that I'm not working on, since I'm drowning in the little tasks?
- (Ed- I love these questions because they reframe success from "doing many things" to "doing what matters" which means that getting dumb things done is actually bad since it has an opportunity cost, which I need to constantly repeat to myself for a few more decades until I internalize it)
Keep your to-do list short. Interrogate everything on it to make sure it's worth doing.
Prioritizing is a skill, they've gotten better at it (Ed- I have too!). It's a skill you can grow.
CEOs have good perspective because it's their job to see the business at a higher level. Connection to people like that can help us set our priorities at work.
Take a step back every morning or every evening and make your to-do list for the next day. "Good advice, no one does it."