Steven's Notebook

Look Ma - No Hands!

What To Do, What To Do?

If multiple people independently set priorities for your organization, are priorities really set at all? How do you know what to do when you’ve got too many “very important” tasks on your to-do list, and someone brings you another?

One suggestion is to stop focusing on tasks.

My personality — and I suspect that of many of my tech-minded friends — leads me to itemize every little detail, plan every move before getting started. That can result in very little actual work getting done (more on that in a later post), but also causes a lot of frustration. When you’ve got a list of 20 tasks ahead of you, where do you start? Especially when each of them has been deemed “priority” by someone.

The frustration only mounts, of course, as the list grows throughout the day, each “priority” task interrupting the “priority” task in progress.

J.D. Roth, among others, suggest taking a slightly longer view. “On Mondays, simply identify three outcomes—compelling results—you’d like for the week.” For me, that’s a good way of asking Cass McNutt’s four questions. A week is long enough to provide context and direction while not being so long-term to be easily ignored.

I’ve found this not only helps in deciding minute-to-minute what task to work on. Once you figure out what are the important stories and how they should look by the end of the week, decisions become easy. Well, easier anyway. Focus on the tasks that move the stories forward; let the others go.

my whiteboard, showing three weekly goals at the topAt the office, I’ve also begun putting my weekly outcomes atop my whiteboard. “What to do next” becomes easier to answer in light of these medium-term goals.

Not only does this serve as a constant reminder to myself, it also helps sort out the question of others’ priorities. Now when anyone brings me a task and interrupts my work, I turn to the board and ask if it’s important enough to keep these stories from being completed by the end of the week. If they say yes, I cross the story off the whiteboard, making it plain that they’ve made a decision to change priorities for me and my team. I’ve found that this helps provide focus to other managers as well — and that can only help reduce frustration throughout the organization.

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