Prioritize Ruthlessly

“I think the most important thing we’ve learned as we’ve grown is that we have to prioritize,” said Sandberg. “We talk about it as ruthless prioritization. And by that what we mean is only do the very best of the ideas. Lots of times you have very good ideas. But they’re not as good as the most important thing you could be doing. And you have to make the hard choices.” – interview with Inc. Magazine

When the COO of Facebook talks about prioritization we would all do well to sit up and take note.

We all want to be more productive; squeezing more out of the day and crushing that to-do list.  But at what point does ”productive” degrade into “busy”?  Just because we can be working on something doesn’t mean that we should.  It may not be the best use of our time, but how to choose those activities that will have the greatest impact?

Adding to the trouble these days is that as we transition further towards a knowledge worker based economy, there just isn’t as much physical evidence of completion.  Working with your hands offers tangible evidence of how hard you work.  Pound enough nails and eventually you’ll build a house.  But what evidence is left after a day of crunching numbers on a spreadsheet and collaborating online?

This has inadvertently given rise to the “always on” phenomenon, where emails are replied to immediately and colleagues eat lunch with their cellphones on the table.  Each email sent represents a unit of work completed, so you can get feedback about how much you are doing feel good about what you’ve accomplished.  At least until the end of the day when you look back and can’t think of a single thing you did that was actually valuable.

Ruthless Prioritization

The key to success is to focus on the things that truly matter, to the exclusion of all else.  Easy to say, hard to do.

Defining what truly matters can be tricky and takes time.  The employee handbook at work is a good place to start but won’t take you all the way.  Your job description is just the baseline of what is expected of you in order to maintain the status quo.  Those that shine learn to read between the lines and focus on the unspoken tasks that really matter; the 20% of activities that make 80% of the difference.

Modeling others who you feel are high performers in your industry is another good place to look.  Watch what they do and ask questions about what they feel is important.  They may not be able to articulate what it is they are doing however, as it might just come naturally.  But the more information you can gather the better a position you’ll be in to make informed choices.

Priority = One

Prioritization is the act of ranking items in their order of importance.  Ruthless Prioritization then is to eliminate everything on the lower end of that list that doesn’t provide enough value for your time invested.

In business, we all want more sales.  So do we focus on making sales calls, or should we focus on doing an amazing job so that our sales are driven by referrals?  If we are trying to both do the work and generate the work, are we doing our best work?  Or is it better to focus on the work and let the results generate more work?  I argue the latter, and we all know of a company or individual who stays so busy from referrals that they have to turn work away.  It is no coincidence that those individuals are also typically at the top of the pay scale as well.

Focus on one thing at a time to the exclusion of all else and your results will skyrocket.  The hard part is cutting out the non-essentials, because we feel obliged to work on them too.  But think back to how much busywork you completed last month and ask what value it truly generated.

Reducing the number of things you focus on allows you more time to focus on what matters.  You’ll do a better job, achieve better results, and will actually have more time to spend doing what you want; because focused work gets finished quicker.

Choose one thing, block out a chunk of time, and get after it.

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