Setting Priorities

One of the problems, when one cares about the result, is knowing when to stop.

Knowing when good enough is good enough.

Because you see in your mind’s eye what could be. And you want to achieve that the first time and every time.

But if everything is important than nothing is important.

And so we must learn to prioritize.

I sometimes do an exercise with clients where we discuss the project triangle: the balance between time, money, and scope (aka beauty, truth, requirements, quality, results). If time is at the top, then you are willing to compromise on money and results. If money is at the top, then you’re going to meet your budget no matter how long it takes or how much you have to compromise on the results. And if scope is at the top, then you are willing to pay anything and wait any amount of time to get it.

Some people want all three and it’s hard for them to choose and, yes, it is a balance – that’s why it’s a triangle. But what they choose to put at the top is telling.

A client recently described his department’s focus as something along the lines of bringing beauty and value to customers. Later, he mentioned that his team is feeling a little overstressed. Yes, because he puts scope at the top every time, and they don’t have time to make everything perfect.

It can be helpful, when faced with this, to set some priorities. Ask yourself, of everything you are working on, what truly deserves the investment of your time. What really requires your personal attention. Perhaps some things could get away with less. Perhaps some could use with some satisficing: the level of attention required to keep people happy without making them perfect.

And then, once you know that, you can compromise on the others. Delegate to a junior member of the team and use it as a learning experience. Automate the process so you don’t have to touch it. Or teach the child to tie their own shoes so you don’t have to do it for them.

I taught myself to ask the people who worked for me to reflect on this question when they complained that they had too much to do. It is the nature of life today that we all have too much to do. At work, the promise of technology to simplify has turned into the expectation that we can do more and more and more; and that we are on duty all the time. At home, we are expected to remember hundreds of passwords. Every interaction with a place of business turns into an expectation that we want to have a relationship with them, that we want to have an account with passwords and engage with their app or their website, to have blogs and advertising pushed at us all the time. Social media leads us to expect that we should be doing more, improving ourselves all the time to reach a constantly-shifting standard. While television holds up a model of a perfect person, beautiful women, funny men, who live in beautiful, always-clean homes, and whose problems are neatly solved within a 20 or 40-minute block.

The appeal of the Lake Woebegone, where all the children are above average, is the voice that lulls us into a slower pace of life, and where really small things matter enough to write a radio show about them.

And so we all feel overwhelmed, as if we aren’t measuring up, having an impact, making a difference. And we bring that anxiety to work, where we overthink things, where we make everything important.

Things are important not because they are important but because of what you are trying to achieve with them.

Yes, it would be awesome to provide your everyone on of your colleagues or clients with such awesome service that everyone admires and appreciates you. But let’s be real. Is there a minimum level of service that you can deliver most people – a smile, a response the same day (even if to say, I hear you and will answer you tomorrow) that allows you to focus on one colleague or one client where you need to improve relations for a strategic reason?

Yes, it would be awesome for every project to achieve perfect results, while coming in under budget, and earlier than expected. But some projects, you just need to get done. Like expense reports – I used to make every expense report perfect, providing receipts and explanations even where unnecessary, and submitting them every week, even if I had to stay late to do it. But the truth is, even the Expense Department rarely looks at expense reports – and no one in Expense ever called to thank me for my beautiful, on-time expense reports. When you’re doing an expense report, you just do it, get it done, and get back to life as quickly as possible.

I was talking to a colleague yesterday about ironing. When I was a child, my father used to pay me 5 cents per shirt to iron his shirts. That lasted about a week because I quickly determined that I hated ironing and that even 5 times that amount would not entice me to iron. I’d accept less than the going rate to wash the car – that was fun, involving soap and getting wet, and turning the hose on my little sister or the dog. But ironing, no, there was no amount of money that would justify that. As I grew older and moved out, at first I accepted ironing as a part of life, until one day, after struggling with it one time too many, I decided that I was not going to iron any more. When I buy clothing now, I choose things that don’t require ironing. And if something does require ironing, or I really want that perfect crease down the front of my khakis — something that brings me a sense of joy, like clean sheets — then I will pay to have the khakis professionally cleaned and pressed.

So what in my life right now is an expense report or ironing? Is something that just needs to get done? And do I need to do it? Or can I hire someone to do it? Can I set up my work to avoid things that need to be ironed? Or does my team include someone like my college roommate who loved ironing so much that she ironed her sweatshirts?

We’ve got to set some priorities here, folks.

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