The outsized effect of prioritizing
AI-generated image for "prioritize time" from DALL-E 2

How important is prioritization as an influence for the value you will create?
I generated sample data for 10 hypothetical tasks as a menu of items you might choose from on a given day. Each task has a "value" between 1 and 10 and takes between 5min and 2.5hr to complete. Value isn't realized until a task is fully complete, and you won't have time to do everything, just like real life. 😊

How would you attack this list of items?

Three ways you could go about your day

1. Do tasks in random order, work 8 hours: generates 31 units of value

Let's assume this is the default, and you work from 8a to 5p, taking an hour for lunch. You work on things somewhat randomly, based on some combination of value, how long things take, and what you feel like doing. Go with the flow, stay busy, get some things done.

2. Do tasks in random order, skip lunch, work an extra hour at the end of the day (10 total hours): generates 45 units of value

Here's a variation on the last scenario. Let's skip lunch and work until 6p, because you didn't feel great about what you were getting done. In the additional two hours, a few more tasks were completed. Maybe you feel good about that, but maybe you don't feel as good about working 10 hours.

3. Prioritize most value to least value, work 8 hours: generates 48 units of value

Now imagine if you executed your tasks in order of importance (and lowest duration to highest duration in the event of a tie) and logged off at 5p. More is accomplished than random, even compared to working an additional 2hr. It's the winner, of these options.


Limitations of the exercise, but things to consider in real life

That was an imperfect exercise that doesn't directly simulate reality, but even with those limitations, there are some valuable takeaways to consider about prioritizing and executing tasks in your day. The illustration makes me want to think harder about what I do.

Extrapolating this out to decades of work

Above is an example of one day, but what if you approached every day like that? Imagine the cumulative effect of a week of this behavior. Or a year. When you look back, there are likely to be far more success stories and highlights if you prioritize beyond filling your schedule. The outcome differences become significant when you consider what one person can accomplish over a career of carefully working on the right things.

Some thought is better than no thought

I randomly generated numbers 1 to 10 for "value” but rarely is value so easy to quantify. Are you prioritizing short- or long-term value? Personal or organizational goals? Something unimportant to you may be important to someone else. There's no perfect recipe, but any approach to prioritizing tasks is better than being along for the ride with where the day takes you.

What happens to everything that doesn't get done?

Does it matter that much? No approach enables you to do everything you will ever want to do. Unattended items may resolve themselves, become obsolete, or never get done. But it's better that this happens to the lowest perceived value tasks.

Prioritize discretionary time

Don't get frustrated if you can't spend as much time as you like on your priority list. Days are rarely 100% spent at your discretion because the world is interdependent. Your preferred schedule may conflict with others’ preferred schedules or time-dependent tasks. Focus on what you can control.

I start my Monday mornings with looking at what I must do, then what I could do, and prioritize the latter in a list. I know urgent things will pop up, and I just won't have time for everything, so I view the list as a charter for my discretionary time. Some days I don't get to that list at all, which is okay.

Do things to completion before moving on

One implied process in my example is that each task was done to completion before moving onto the next. If only we were so disciplined! Imagine the visualization above for somebody who likes to sample many tasks, rarely completes them, and spends lots of startup time switching between tasks. But that's how many of us work.

Your day will be fractured by meetings and time-sensitive items that must be done, but when you get to that flex time in your schedule, work on the top item until it is complete. If you must stop for meetings, just come back to that item. It's almost like meditation. Don't start something else until the top item is 100% done.

Be aware of how you are doing

Getting ahead by working more is limited by your effectiveness after so many hours of work. Are you as effective in hour 10 as hour 2? Probably not. Have the self-awareness to recognize when your time would be better spent doing what will make you productive in the morning: family time, exercise, rest, tending to your sourdough starter.

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