Weed-Pulling =/= Prioritization

Scott Brown

In my old life as a product manager, I was constantly asking co-workers about their “process”:
“Urgent emails aside, how do you decide which emails you should answer now, and which ones to triage?”
“Urgent meetings aside, how do you decide which meetings to accept as scheduled? Do you base it solely on your availability, or do you put a cap on how many meetings per week you’re willing to attend?”
“How do you make time for the low-priority projects? Moreover, what logic do you use to prioritize projects in the first place?”
When I asked my coworkers questions like this, they would often take a pause before answering, in some cases it seemed like they weren’t sure if they were comfortable talking about their time management strategies, but a lot of times they hesitated because they hadn’t thought about it until that moment. Whatever decision heuristics they used to making these decisions were ones that they had just kind of settled into over time.
One day I was out to lunch with one such co-worker, a fellow product manager who knew me well enough not to be surprised when I asked him how he prioritized his tasks. As dreary as his answer was, it also made perfect sense:
“I work on whatever will get me in the most trouble if I don’t finish it.”
I knew what he meant. As product managers, there are so many plates spinning and deadlines looming that it's a "win" just to have it all documented somewhere (some combination of to-do lists, emails, file folders, sticky notes, etc.). At least if we have it all written down we can identify the task that:
  • is approaching its agreed-upon due date, and
  • will most severely damage our reputation and/or the product itself relative to the other tasks on our list if we don’t complete it in time.
Obvious redundancy errors arise when there are multiple tasks with the same due date and potential to inflict damage. Realizing that there's a tie usually results in a late night at the office, or working through the weekend.
There's little actual achievement felt with this prioritization method, because there's just no time. Once the most dangerous timebomb on the list has been defused, there is always a new most dangerous timebomb. It’s like the gardener who wants to plant new flowers, but instead spends her time pulling out weeds that are a danger to the existing flowers. The garden will survive, but it will never flourish. The gardener will never feel as though her goals are being realized, and she risks losing her motivation to garden altogether because the results of her labor aren’t even perceptible from one day to the next.
There’s no better way to avoid this situation than to adopt a daily planning practice, one in which you “zoom out” to identify when you can make time to plant those new flowers, brainstorm ways to keep weeds from coming up in the first place, and reflect on how your planning practice has better aligned your efforts with your goals.

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