Prioritization Principle

Are you managing your day, or is the day managing you?

One of the most jarring and lasting memories of my youth happened on a cold January morning in 1986. I was in science class and our teacher had brought in a TV for the class to watch the space shuttle Challenger launch. My teacher had a particularly close connection to this launch because he had been one of the finalists for the Teacher in Space Project, which would send a civilian educator into space.

Just 73 seconds into the flight, the shuttle exploded, killing all seven crew members. The focus of the investigation quickly pointed to a failure of the O-ring seals used in joints not designed to handle the unusually cold conditions of that day. The contractor, Morton-Thiokol, took some of the blame, but NASA’s organizational culture and decision-making processes also contributed to the disaster.

It was only many years later that I learned of another finding. The investigation noted that certain managers involved in the launch had only slept two hours before arriving at work. The report acknowledged the danger of excessive sleep deprivation, stating, "The willingness of NASA employees in general to work excessive hours, while admirable, raises serious questions when it jeopardizes job performance, particularly when critical management decisions are at stake."

The costs of sleep deprivation are well known. Per a RAND report, the US suffers $411 billion in economic losses and 1.23 million working days due to insufficient sleep. Lack of proper rest not only increases mortality rates, it also leads to more accidents. Some of the worst accidents in human history such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill and Chernobyl were in part caused by exhaustion.

I have experienced this in my own work. When it was crunch time to get a release out the door, sleep was the first thing to get sacrificed, going 16 hours or longer per day for days on end in order to wrap up coding, testing, QA, and build. This was when the most bugs got introduced and most production issues would arise. These were often dumb mistakes like checking in older versions of code, making obvious syntax issues, mistyping variable names, clobbering build files, etc.

My friends over on the operations side had it just as bad. Friday deploys never went as expected, causing the team to work most of the weekend to fix errors. They would come in Monday looking haggard and deflated. This cycle repeated itself every few months and always resulted in people fleeing the team.

None of this would be the case if we got enough sleep. Invariably, we fall into the same trap of growing work queues, unexpected problems shifting schedules, and sudden demands causing us to scramble. All the kanban boards, story points, and careful work planning seem to defy our simple yearning for peace, order, and full night’s sleep.

The past month has been like this for me, a continuous state of anxiety and chaos. This is why I did not have a new newsletter post for the past few weeks as I worked through my own growing pile of to-do’s and follow ups.  It was with this thought in mind that I shared a tweet:

You will always be behind.

The work never stops.

It comes constantly in waves.

And you have only one tool.

One means to stop the onslaught.

It's called prioritization.

Your job is not to do all the things.

Your goal is to have impact.

And priorities lead the way.

In the IT and engineering world, we spend an enormous amount of time planning work. This effort fuels an entire industry of vendors promising to solve our work queue and time management woes. Asana, Jira, Notion, and many other apps exist to organize our work into buckets, just for us to moan about how these apps are stifling our ability to get actual work accomplished.

Maybe it is not the fault of apps though. Maybe the fault is with us and how we prioritize?

In the book Essentialism by Greg McKeown, one of the first of many thought provoking quotes he shares gets to the heart of the matter of priorities:

“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”

How often is our day dictated by the needs and goals of others versus the things we need to accomplish in our own work? When you consider your email and calendar through this lens, you may be shocked to see that very little of it advances your work goals or positively impacts one of your key objectives. Your availability is dictated by the whims of others.

The first step in gaining control over your ability to prioritize is to understand where you want to have impact. At AWS, one of our leadership principles is “Deliver Results”. It is easy to be fooled into thinking being busy equates to results. What actually matters are the outcomes of our work, so be clear on how the work you prioritize moves the needle in a meaningful direction for the team and company.

Once you know what is important, get a better grasp of how your time is spent. One of the time management principles I often share is the Eisenhower Method. But putting activities into one of four quadrants, you can better visualize how and where your time is spent. Activities fall into a spectrum of urgency versus importance.

The goal should be to spend the bulk of your time in the “important but not urgent” bucket. Spending time in this quadrant gives you the space to learn, think, and plan. This is also where you can automate or remove undifferentiated work to gain even more time and control of your day.

The last step is to harness the power of “no”. This is often the hardest step because it feels like you are disappointing others. This can feel even harder to do on small teams or startups where you may work more closely with the people you are saying “no” to.

The ability to reject work imposed on you is critical for your effectiveness. The inability to push back leads to a diffusion of your own efforts and is the most common culprit in causing anxiety, stress, and delays. As Steve Jobs once said:

“Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.”

This is a simple framework that you can begin to implement today to gain the upper hand in controlling your time and energy. Instead of trying to do more with the time we have, adopt the mindset of doing less and measuring effectiveness by the impact you make by being more focused and purposeful. By doing this, perhaps we can finally get into the habit of getting a healthy amount of sleep every night.

How are you managing your time and work today? What are some tools or mechanisms you use to help you better prioritize your effort?

Mark Birch, Editor & Founder of DEVBIZOPS

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