Bad prioritization, Good prioritization

Bad prioritization: Make an ordered laundry list and intend to make some progress on everything. Easy. Ineffective.

Good prioritization: Use judgment to pick the top 1-3 items we’re going to focus heavily on – an outcome of sound strategy. Agonize over saying no to perfectly good ideas that just aren’t making the cut at this time. Tough. Powerful.

Applies just as well to building good products, planning how to spend time on a holiday, and building a better quality life.

Maniacal prioritization

I’ve been mulling the the idea of “maniacal prioritization” recently.

When you’re the type who tends to have more you’d like to get done than the amount of time required to get all of it done, the only way I know to get through the experience with a semblance of sanity and satisfaction is maniacal prioritization.

Maniacal prioritization = Always push to have 1-3 clear priorities. Write them down when possible. Execute against them – ideally in order.

In the absence of clear priorities, I find myself flailing about in a flurry of activity with that niggling feeling that I’m going to be disappointed at myself for doing the wrong thing.

As an example, maniacal prioritization (for me) often involves clarifying that – as important as getting something done on a weekend might sound – rest and time with the family are more important. Doing this consciously guides the trade-offs that help with daily decision making.

“Engaging with engagement” was a new year theme for 2017 and the early part of 2018. My lesson from observing my ability to be present was that any failure in this regard came to a lack of clarity about what I was optimizing for. If I wasn’t clear that I was doing what was most important, it was impossible to be present. When I wasn’t present, I was less effective and I definitely wasn’t seeking to understand.

The solution?

You guessed it.

Maniacal prioritization.

“Yes, Mom, I am thinking”

When Bill Gates was in the sixth grade, his parents decided he needed counseling. He was at war with his mother, Mary, who would often find him locked up in his basement bedroom.

Exasperated with no response from Bill one day, she asked him what he was doing through the intercom.
“I’m thinking,” he shouted back.
“You’re thinking?”
“Yes, Mom, I’m thinking,” he said fiercely. “Have you ever tried thinking?”

I was feeling weary last evening as I looked ahead at a weekend full of activity. And, I was lucky to have one of those long discussions (the sort that seems to yield more insight the more you think about it) with a couple of close friends last night. And, at a point in this discussion, this anecdote about Gates surfaced. Aside from marveling at the fact that Gates “got” this concept in his sixth grade, I realized that that was exactly what I needed to do. I had been in a perpetual state of motion this entire week and it was time to stop. And, so I did.

And, after 15 hours of time largely spent either asleep or in thought, it is incredible what the effect is on the other end. I have more clarity, renewed purpose, more direction and a lot more energy.

Many of us spend large parts of our live running away from thought. A state of perpetual motion is easier and a complete lack of activity is easiest. Yet, activity only becomes productivity when we make progress towards a purpose. There is no point optimizing small parts of our life if they aren’t helping the main thing.

It takes a commitment to regular reflection and thought to keep the main thing the main thing. And, I’d echo Stephen Covey’s prescient quote – the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.