Prioritisation: The One Management Hack That Will Help You Keep Your Sanity

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Have you ever wished that you could go back to the good old days, before you were a manager? When your work days were long, uninterrupted periods of concentration and progress? When meetings were rare, and not something that took up the majority of your time? When you could — you know — actually plan your day?

Chances are, that all went away the instant you became a manager. Your day now feels like a rollercoaster of random events, piling down from on high. You find yourself flitting from task to task. Joe from marketing needs someone to talk to about the next version of the product? Sure, you think, better you than one of your software engineers. Mary from the backend team wants a quick chat to sync up on the upcoming API changes. Sure, you think, I have 15 minutes to spare … but then Vivian from design pings you on chat about one of her mockups that didn’t get implemented during the last release cycle, and Bob from your team wants a code review for that tricky feature you discussed last Thursday, and Jane needs a quick chat over the specifications you gave her this morning …

“Urgghhhhh”, you think.

The truth is, your schedule was a lot simpler when you were an individual contributor.  Sure, you had the occasional meeting or one-on-one, but the vast majority of your day was spent in ‘actual work’.

Today, though, the calm and concentration from IC work is like a half-forgotten dream — and completely absent from your manager's schedule. Your day is fractured, random, and unpredictable ... leaving you harried, frazzled and unhappy.

So how do you fix this? How do you gain a semblance of sanity over a schedule that can’t be anticipated in advance?

The Importance of Evaluating Management Tasks

The solution is deceptively simple: you learn how to evaluate management tasks. That’s it! Once you learn how to evaluate the relative importance of management tasks, you can quickly gain a semblance of sanity in your highly chaotic schedule.

You see, the problem with the manager’s schedule isn’t that the events are chaotic and random. The problem is that you always have a niggling feeling at the back of your head: is this the most important task I can do right now? Is there something else that needs to be done? Am I missing something big?

The speed at which new random events enter your todo list merely compounds this fundamental problem.

More often than not you’ll end your day, go home, and then suddenly realise — in the shower! — that you forgot Bob’s code review or Jane’s specification, and now you have two engineers sitting around, blocked, unable to continue with their tasks.

That feels bad. It feels bad because you’ve affected someone else’s work. It especially feels bad because you had no way of knowing what thing was more important in the heat of the moment.

New managers often face this problem without realising that it's a problem. When you were an individual contributor, it was easy to evaluate which task was more important than which other task. Completing your assigned feature? Important. Helping John with his new bug? Maybe not so important.

But when you became a manager, your ability to evaluate your work went out the window. Every task now seems equally important, so you prioritised whatever was top of mind, or whatever seems most urgent, and left the truly important tasks till later. Cue the chaos.

You really shouldn't.

That’s why the ability to evaluate management tasks means so much to your sanity. You won't have a niggling feeling at the back of your head if you can instantly evaluate each new request that comes in. You'll immediately know if this new task merits your attention — compared to every other task you have on your plate at any given moment!

“So!” I hear you asking already, “What’s this secret sauce? How do I evaluate management tasks, and how do I know how to sort them?” We’ll get right to that …

Evaluate According To Output

The secret is simple once you know it: for each task, ask yourself two questions:

  1. How urgent is this?
  2. By how much does this increase the output of my team?

The first question is obvious: an urgent task is an urgent task. What’s urgent is usually very clear to members of an organisation. But the second question is where things get interesting.

Let’s look at it again, but this time with the important parts in bold:

By how much does this increase the output of my team?

Your job as manager is to increase the output of your team. This means you should make this your primary means of evaluation!

Notice that I’ve highlighted ‘how much’. If a task increases the output of your team a lot, then you need to prioritise this task higher in your todo list.

The other bold bits tell us other things: if a task increases the output of another team, you should prioritise it — you’re all part of the same company, after all — but perhaps not as highly as the ones that directly concern your direct reports. You are ultimately responsible for your reports, and helping another team while yours remains blocked is a terrible thing to do.

Last, if not doing a task should result in a problem that decreases the output of your team in the near future, you should prioritise that task according to how bad you expect your team to be affected.

Or, to put it simply: prioritise tasks that increases the output of your team, or prevents decreases in team output!

In truth, this isn’t a strictly quantified formula. It’s a heuristic. When I’m given a new task in the middle of my day, I perform a really quick mental calculation: “how urgent is this × how impactful is this to the output of my team if I do it/don’t do it?”

The answer to this calculation is then slotted into my todo list, which is sorted according to the same formula. If it’s very urgent and it affects the output of my team in a material way, I drop everything and do it at once. But most of the time it isn’t; and I delay it, or I schedule it for another time.

But notice what’s happening: at no point am I ever worried about my work. I know exactly where my current task ranks on my todo list, and I know what else I’m giving up when I’m working on whatever it is I’ve chosen to work on now.

This is what gives you peace of mind. It’s how you increase your effectiveness.

Applying This Framework

So let’s use this framework on the hypothetical example I gave above.

  • Bob needs your code review. This affects your team’s output directly: if you don’t unblock Bob, you lose an engineer’s output for however long Bob remains blocked. Plus this is a tricky feature; you’re not willing to delegate the code review to someone else. This is important.
  • Jane needs a quick chat — this, too, affects your team’s output directly: if you don’t unblock Jane, you’re likely to lose her output. But it’s also important for another reason: if you don’t clarify the specifications to Jane now, Jane might go off and implement the wrong thing, which then costs your team time and energy to fix later. It’s much cheaper to fix potential problems now, and because chatting with Jane is faster than a code review, you should do this first, before checking Bob’s code.
  • Mary from the backend team — Mary’s from a separate team, but the upcoming API changes are likely to affect the output of your entire team. This is not urgent, but it is important, because it may affect the output of your team in the near future. If you don’t sync up now, you might find that the API changes aren’t to your team’s liking, and it’s highly likely that you’ll have to spend more energy working around the bad bits.
  • Vivian from design — Vivian wants to discuss a design of hers that wasn’t implemented in the last release. Now: this may or may not be a sign that something is wrong with your team: maybe a problem with a specific engineer, or a problem with process, or a problem with cross-team communication. Either way, this is important because whatever has gone wrong is likely to go wrong again — which would then affect the output of your team. I’d schedule this for later, and place this lower in importance than Mary. Vivian is likely to accept: this isn’t urgent, after all.
  • Joe from marketing — Joe’s request doesn’t affect the output of your team. And, frankly, there’s probably a more efficient way to deliver what Joe wants than to set up a whole meeting explaining features to him. I’d place this dead last in terms of priorities, and ask Joe to give me a list of questions to triage beforehand. If the questions are trivial, I’d think about delegating it. If they’re not, or if Joe can provide information as to why this is important to the company and/or urgent; I can quickly write up what he needs during my commute home, or on my way to work the next day — you get the idea.

As you can see, these calculations are fluid, simple, and easily done. I make many such calculations over the course of a day. And I remember just how life changing this technique was when I first learnt it.

I recommend that all new managers sit down at least once a week to organise and rank all the tasks that they have. I do it every morning, actually — grab a pen, a paper, and 10 minutes — right after coffee but right before work.

I can’t recommend it highly enough.

If you enjoyed this, you'll like The Starter Manager Guide (from which this post was adapted).

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