Working on the right things at the right time is 80% of the game. Nevertheless, most people do not prioritize enough. This article should help you train your prioritization muscle. Because prioritization is only hard if you don’t train your decision muscles. Is it worth the effort? Yes, because for every CEO, Entrepreneur, and Creative, prioritization is always a high-leverage intervention.
This is an area that I’ve personally focused on for 16 years now, and here’s the 4 steps I found to be most helpful:
- Start with Strategy
- Define project sequence [Opportunity Costs]
- Define project importance [Leverage]
- Let go of all other distractions
Start with Strategy
Before we even get to prioritization, there is a prerequisite — strategy. You know your strategy is lacking when everything looks equally important. If prioritization seems impossible, it’s not because you need to work harder, or smarter, on prioritization. You need to go up a level and work first on your vision and then on your strategy on how to make that vision a reality.
Your strategy should help make it clear which work is most important, or at least cut away huge chunks of possibilities. If it doesn’t, it probably needs to be done properly.
We at Strategy Sprints use this Focus Card to align our values with our daily activities.
Models of Opportunity Cost
Much of the challenge of prioritization is one of Opportunity Cost. Where to allocate resources and effort, given our goals and strategy. Even with infinite money, we’ll always be constrained by time.
Find the Bottleneck
One of the most commonly-assigned readings in business schools is “The Goal” by Eliyahu M. Goldratt. This book explains the “Theory of Constraints” and the summary is “Find and improve the constraining factor — no other work will matter.”
As Goldratt puts it, once you have defined the goal, there are really only two questions:
- What’s the current limit?
- What’s the obvious way to improve the limit?
The key is to look at the whole system to find the limit. Traditional strategic fields are: Markets, Innovations, Productivities, Attractiveness, Liquidity, Cash Flow, Profitability. At Strategy Sprints GmbH we audit every third week our current bottleneck in the categories:
If you’re building or repairing something that solves the bottleneck, then you’re not improving the throughput of the system. You are doing a lot, and maybe even feel stressed, but essentially you are wasting time and resources, where any improvement to the bottleneck would be moving the needle massively forward.
Cost of Delay
Cost of Delay is a way of communicating the impact of time on the outcomes we hope to achieve. To make decisions, we need to understand not just how valuable something is, but how urgent it is. If we’re going to make better decisions, we really need to understand the Cost of Delay of the things flowing through the system.
So the key questions to ask yourself are:
- How urgent is this?
- How valuable is this?
- What is the cost of not having this done yet, each week? (relative to other options)
Leverage (order of projects)
Understanding which possible feature, initiative, or task is the “most important” is not easy. There are a few tools or mental models we can use to find out which projects will get us the most leverage (most progress toward our goals, given the resources needed).
What project solves the most problems?
Multiple problems can be solved with one project, but it rarely works by accident. You need to do this exercise to find out which solutions can knock out a few problems for you.
There’s also a similar version of this question from Tim Ferriss:
What is one thing that, if completed, makes the rest of these tasks easier?
So it doesn’t have to remove the need to complete the other tasks — just ordering projects in a way that makes the other easier, faster, or cheaper can be a great investment of time.
Let go of stuff
At Strategy Sprints we like to look at what NOT to do. We believe innovation and growth are best achieved by letting things go and getting rid of activities. Here are some tools to avoid common pitfalls in prioritization.
Learn to let go
Or: “Don’t have too many priorities”
The most simple prioritization tool I’ve come across is Warren Buffett’s “2 List Strategy.” Here’s the story (if not true, then well told):
Flint (Buffett’s pilot) was talking about his career priorities and Buffett instructed him to do this:
STEP 1: Buffett started by asking Flint to write down his top 25 career goals. So, Flint took some time and wrote them down.
STEP 2: Then, Buffett asked Flint to review his list and circle his top 5 goals. Again, Flint took some time, made his way through the list, and eventually decided on his 5 most important goals.
STEP 3: At this point, Flint had two lists. The 5 items he had circled were List A and the 20 items he had not circled were List B.
Flint confirmed that he would start working on his top 5 goals right away. And that’s when Buffett asked him about the second list, “And what about the ones you didn’t circle?”
Flint replied, “Well, the top 5 are my primary focus, but the other 20 come in a close second. They are still important so I’ll work on those intermittently as I see fit. They are not as urgent, but I still plan to give them a dedicated effort.”
To which Buffett replied, “No. You’ve got it wrong. Everything you didn’t circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top 5.”
The lesson here is to cultivate a healthy fear (bordering on paranoia) about your “secondary” priorities leeching productivity from your main priorities.
You are the problem. You are the solution.
The sad truth is that the secret to prioritization is not in the tools; it’s in you. The discipline is what makes the method work, not the method itself.
The reason there are one million prioritization methods is because people fail using one and try the next. Really, bringing discipline to any of them would work well enough. It’s not the method, it’s how thoroughly you follow it.
Watch this 14 minutes video on the minimum viable systems you need.
So don’t be a pansy when it comes to prioritization. Just like Strategy, you know you’re doing well when the decisions you’re making feel hard, but clear. Make the relevant choices.
Then, stick with the plan. Don’t creep into your “B List” or sneak in a small feature that doesn’t have a high score on the Cost of Delay chart.
The Repeat Test
Bruce Kasanoff has a great way to let activities go that should go. Take a piece of paper and write every hour what you did. Every hour, stop for one minute and consider how you spent the past hour. Was it useful or a waste of time? Would you repeat the same action again? You can use this technique to improve your own performance by doing less. Elegant and effective. If you keep at this, The Repeat Test will give you a valuable record of how you spent your week, month or year.
The No List
At Strategy Sprints we use the “No List” to help us avoid taking up average projects for average people. Since our first intuitive reaction to every new project request is: “Let’s do this!” we had to build in some decision filters, in order to accept only projects that really fit our nature and focus. Our solution: First we published our manifesto stating as honestly as possible what we care about. This became a great external filter. Then we installed the internal filter: Our favorite 12 problems which helps evaluating if taking this project on is really a good fit to our purpose and priorities.
But one thing I learned in the Tony Robbins seminar is that you can have a perfect plan, but you need the right state to execute the plan. So we came up with one more tool to prepare us for the right state (or energy, as Tony puts it) that catapults us into that right state to say no with confidence. We have a List of all the No’s we said and every time we struggle internally to say no, we read it. IMMEDIATELY we feel much more capable of letting this current opportunity pass away, in order to make space for a new opportunity that fits better.