How do I prioritize my time?
The simplest way to think through what needs to be done right now
Today marks 10 weeks of Gridology, and I’m loving it. Thank you all for being on this journey with me. If you are enjoying this newsletter, can you commit to sharing this post with at least one friend, family family member or colleague that you think would be interested? I’d love to continue sharing these analytical frameworks with everyone who could benefit. Let’s see where this project goes.
Now, on to today’s grid. Enjoy, it’s one of my favorites:
A lot has changed with me personally in the last five weeks since I wrote a post called “How do I deal with adversity?” In early to mid-April (who even knows time anymore), I had just learned that my 10 weeks of time off between working at LinkedIn starting business school had transformed into 8 months off—I was super unemployed and searching for ways to meaningfully fill my time (and ideally make some money, too). Pivoting professionally was my preeminent focus. Fast forward time and today I’m working at two awesome startups (Sounder and Section4). Thus, my focus has shifted.
Instead of leaning on my network and staying optimistic, I now think about how I should be prioritizing my time. What needs to get done now vs. later? What work requires days vs. hours vs. minutes vs. no time at all? Where does my exercise routine fit in? How can I be a better partner to my fiancé?
There’s only so much time in a day.
In today’s grid, I’m sharing a prioritization framework I learned from a manager I had at LinkedIn. The essence of the framework—or what you should be thinking about as you map your projects/goals on this grid—is simple: Pursue fewer things done better.
When we start new jobs or take on new projects, our gut instinct—or at least mine—is to say yes and take on more. This was a habit I cultivated throughout my life. More school extracurriculars. More side projects. More hobbies. More meetings. More hours spent working. It wasn’t until I learned the power of this framework that I anchored, strongly, on the concept of pursuing fewer things done better.
Focus matters more than we realize. When I say focus, I don’t mean the ability to sit down and perform a task undistracted. Focus is the ability to say no to projects that seek your input, but are outside your scope. Focus is your commitment to become an expert in a domain, the go-to person on a topic, or a master of your trade. Achieving focus, however, comes at a cost.
I love one of the ideas James Clear shared in his newsletter called 3-2-1 this week (a fantastic, weekly newsletter for those who don’t already subscribe). The idea hits home:
“A practical definition of opportunity cost:
If you spend too much time working on good things, then you don’t have much time left to work on great things.
Understanding opportunity cost means eliminating good uses of time. And that’s what makes it hard.”
Pinpointing what those “great things” are is tough. Today’s grid will help you identify great projects from good ones. Here are the two axes we’ll use to help us identify areas of focus and prioritization.
On the x-axis, we have level of effort. This can be calculated in several different ways: amount of time spent to complete the task, the number of people needing to be involved, how much your brain needs to physically or emotionally strain to complete the task.
I’ve spoken about the concept of flow several times in this newsletter, and I find it a very good proxy for gauging level of effort. Flow can be used to identify projects that drain or energize us. Simply put, we all have easy things we hate to do and difficult things we love to do.
On the y-axis, we have weighted size of prize. Mathematically speaking, this is calculated by multiplying a project’s likelihood of success by the estimated impact (dollars generated, time saved, customer-satisfaction, career growth, intensity of life experience) of the project once it’s completed. This equation isn’t an exact science, but the point of it is to capture the idea that not every project we take on ultimately succeeds. The level of uncertainty needs to be taken into the equation. Otherwise, projects that are surefire and clear wins are placed on the level of risky and unlikely ones. That’s not good. That’s why we use weighted size of prize.
An example: In starting Gridology, I have hopes of creating a community of thousands of readers. Assuming I succeed, that’s a pretty high impact. However, achieving that goal is no easy feat. It requires hours of work, my content being engaging and topical, and—of course—a ton of luck. I don’t need to calculate an exact number here for the weighted size of prize of working on Gridology, but I directionally know how to stack rank it versus the other projects I’m currently or planning to work on.
Understanding the Grid
This grid, in all honesty, is one of the reasons why I started this newsletter. Since learning about it in the fall of 2017, it has been an unbelievably powerful tool in my life. To fully grasp the concept, you have to be okay thinking directionally and learning a new skill: how to say no. Saying no is really tough. So tough, people have built tools to help you learn how to do so. Especially if you are early in your career, people aren’t used to hearing you say no. Doing so in a polite way is challenging. It’s often easier to say yes to things than no to things. However, once you have a strong idea of your priorities, it gets easier and easier to pursue less so that you can focus on the things that matter most.
Tactically, when using this grid to prioritize your projects, keep in mind you have only a finite amount of time. Meaning, in a given week/month/quarter, you can’t work on three Big Bets, three Home Runs and three Quick Wins. That means you’ll do nine things awfully.
These are the three rules I look to follow when I use this grid:
Never have more than three items on the right half of the grid (Home Run or Big Bet quadrants).
If a project falls in the Junk quadrant, get it off of your plate.
Try to have one Quick Win for every two items on the right half of the grid. This will keep you energized with success stories as you trudge through some of your meatier items on your plate.
For each quadrant below, I am sharing personal examples of projects that have gone in each quadrant. Please know that I didn’t do all of these things at the same time (and, of course, this list is specific to me).
Home Runs require high levels of effort, but the level of work required is warranted because it leads to a big and highly likely impact or reward. Home Runs are large, meaty projects that move the needle for your life or career. Knocking these projects out of the park (pun intended) can pay massive dividends for you down the road. When choosing these projects, think about things that push you outside your comfort zone. Having a learning or growth component embedded within these goals make them more fun to conquer. As a rule of thumb, a Home Run should typically take more than a month (probably between three and six) to complete. I like to have one or two Home Runs on my plate at all times.
Personal Examples: Running the NYC Marathon in 2018, Learning Python, specific sales deals I worked on at LinkedIn
Big Bets require high levels of effort, but the weighted size of prize is much lower than that of a Home Run. With Big Bets, projects come with a serious dose of adversity. This can be for a variety of reasons: the ultimate success could be out of your control; there could be many stakeholders and collaborators involved; or finding success may require some old-fashioned luck. Across all of these reasons for adversity, one thing remains true: the potential for something going wrong is high. However, with these types of projects especially, accomplishing them and watching them succeed is even more rewarding than completing a Home Run opportunity. The added layer of difficulty and trudging through uncertainty makes success that much sweeter when it’s all over. I like to have just one Big Bet on my plate at all times.
Personal Examples: Writing Gridology, applying to business school, fantasy football team management, highly collaborative projects at work
Quick Wins require smaller levels of effort, yet still provide high levels of weighted impact. Quick Wins empower you. The repetition of completing a project and succeeding motivates you to attempt any other project. It’s like a basketball player warming by shooting free throws: the more they see the ball go in the hoop the more confident they are that the next shot will go in, too. The beauty of Quick Wins is that for a small amount of effort, you can still have a fairly large impact. Having a few Quick Wins on your plate makes the arduous road of pursuing your Big Bets and Home Runs more manageable. To continue with the basketball analogy, Quick Wins are your free throw shots, Big Bets are your game winning shots, Home Runs are wide open three-pointers. When it comes to Quick Wins, I like to have one or two on my plate at all times.
Personal Examples: Helping friends write and edit their resumes, 1:1 coffee chats, helping to interview candidates for roles on your team
Junk are projects that usually don’t require much time, but their impact is small and negligible. The interesting thing about Junk is that these projects usually stem from inbound requests of your time in a domain you’re interested in, but not focused on. Here’s the number on thing about Junk projects: they shouldn’t be done. They aren’t worth your time. Every moment you spend working on Junk is another moment not spent working on a Quick Win, Big Bet, or Home Run. The tricky part about these projects is it can be challenging to remove them from your plate. It’s hard to tell others you won’t do something for them. We all have a human need to be liked. The level of additional focus you will have removing Junk from your plate will allow you to achieve more with your other goals.
Personal Examples: Work-related side projects that are outside of my scope, cooking (a small time commitment and the result is a disgusting meal), some professional favors
To me, this grid is the gold standard. Organizing your time in this way can make you more productive and lead you to pursue (and accomplish) lofty goals. When you’re able to remove Junk projects, it frees up time for you to knock out high impact projects. Most importantly, when you set your prioritization grid, protect it. Be ruthless about how you spend your time. Try to push unessential projects for later down the road or, even better, don’t commit to it in the first place. If there must be one shortcoming with this grid, it is this:
This grid can place too much emphasis on pursuing projects and goals that are centered on driving impact and seeing results. Not everything you do in life needs to follow that formula. Spending time pursuing things just for the sake of doing it (think: painting, reading, writing, doing a puzzle, meditation, etc) is something you should spend time doing despite it not leading to a necessarily high impact. If it provides you inner peace, that’s arguably more valuable than anything else on this grid.
So, what do you think? Is this grid something you can see yourself implementing in your life? I’d love to hear how it goes if you choose to give it a try.
Life’s only as confusing as you let it be,
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