This month I’m focusing loosely on the theme of prioritization. My last newsletter focused on setting aside time in order to think strategically about the future and create an impact. Churchill accomplished this in one instance during a trans-Atlantic crossing to meet with FDR, during which he mapped out the strategy for WW2 with an incredible amount of accuracy. He was able to do this because he took time to stop and think about it, understand it, and write about it. Three things I’d say we’re often missing these days.
How do we do it, though? How do we prioritize the important yet seemingly less urgent?
Early in my career, I often let work dominate my life. If you’re a young professional, you may be able to relate. And it may not be a bad tradeoff for some, pushing to get ahead early on. But I let it become a bad tradeoff for me. It got to the point where I was leaving in the morning before my wife was awake and getting home after she was asleep. We’d go days at a time without seeing each other because of how much time I was spending in the office. And for what? I couldn’t really say. I had specifically steered away from certain career choices because they weren’t aligned with the lifestyle we wanted for ourselves or our family. We didn’t want the travel or constant time in the office. And yet here I was.
In his book Essentialism, Greg McKeown relates a similar story. His daughter had just been born, and he was in the hospital with his wife. Yet work called and he agreed to a work meeting. So he left his wife and newborn to meet with some clients. He thought it would ultimately be for the good of the business and the relationships, but nothing came out of it. No one respected him more for being there, and nothing important happened at the meeting. In fact, everyone (including himself) felt it strange he was there rather than with his family.
Why Prioritizing Our Time Is Critical
If we don’t prioritize our time, someone else will prioritize it for us.
Inevitably, our time will get filled. Call it a variation on Parkinson’s Law. Things will expand to fill the time available. If we don’t take control of our time, other people or other events will.
Importantly, that means that we won’t have the time or ability to focus on the things that matter most.
In another of my favorite books, Deep Work, Cal Newport describes what deep work is and why it is so important:
Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate. Deep work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity.
By being constantly distracted with less important things, we don’t have time for the most important things. For a writer, that may be working on a new novel. For a leader, that may be creating a compelling vision and strategy. For a product manager, that may be the product strategy and product discovery critical for the future. Those things often fall by the wayside to emails and meetings and calls and other distractions.
I’ve touched on a few of the problems already, but let’s discuss them. If the goal is to focus deeply on the important things in our lives and in our jobs, what keeps us from that?
According to Adobe’s 2019 email survey, respondents spent 35-40% of their days checking email. That sounds insane, but is up from about 30% in 2012 based on a McKinsey study. And if you think about your day, email and communication probably takes up a huge chunk. What a massive problem.
I talked about this in my last newsletter (and it will be the focus on an upcoming one as well), but the balance of time not spent on emails during the workday is likely spent in meetings. I’m almost ready to cry a little writing this thinking about the enormous waste in human potential with so many people focused on email and Slack and meetings rather than the other things they could be doing to change the world.
Too Many Opportunities
If you’re like me, you like to take on a lot of things. The world is full of incredible possibilities and taking on new, exciting roles or projects or responsibilities seems like a great idea. But too many opportunities can be just as detrimental as too many emails or meetings, diluting your ability to focus on the right things.
Fear and Discomfort
In his book Indistractable, Nir Eyal tells the story of a 2014 study where people were locked in an empty room for 15 minutes. The only thing in the room was a small machine that delivered a small electric shock. With nothing else to do, the majority of men (but only about 26% of women) shocked themselves to pass the time. Rather than be alone with their thoughts, they decided to shock themselves. I guess that answers my question about crossing the Atlantic, at least for some people.
Habits and Culture
We may work in cultures that are heavy on meetings and emails. Our teams may have developed the bad habits that we need to break. I’ve seen that firsthand. I’ve worked in cultures that relied on meetings for everything. I’ve also had product managers on my teams that have allowed their development teams to get in the habit of having them on-call all the time for questions or requests.
We are also addicted to distractions. Let’s face it, we love checking our phones for the latest Instagram posts or Tweets or articles or any other number of things. But we can’t blame it on technology alone. We crave the dopamine hit it delivers, but we’d get our fix in other ways and with other distractions if we had to. Our phones and tablets and computers are just the most accessible and quickest means to the end.
In order to our best work, as leaders, as creatives, as product people, we need to guard our time and prioritize ruthlessly.
Cut Out Distractions
We need to start by cutting out distractions. The book Deep Work gives four rules for how to do his:
Work Deeply - Make the commitment to start working deeply. Create rituals and stick to them, whether that is blocking out certain times during the day or taking large chunks of time during the week or month to fully dedicate to a project.
Embrace Boredom - Understand that distractions are an addiction. Just like a drug, we need to break the habit and train ourselves to not need distractions. It may take some time, but we can build the muscle of focus that we need to get proper work done.
Quit Social Media - Social media can be a great tool, but can be a terrible distraction (I’m as guilty as anyone here). Do you need to quit to focus more? Maybe a social media fast?
Drain The Shallows - Audit your time. You’ll find you’re losing more than you think. Start to squeeze out the fat and ensure that what you’re spending time on really is the most important.
Another splendid solution is to schedule your time. I talked about this last time, and Nir Eyal is a big proponent of the practice. He proposes that you schedule your days out completely. That means dedicating time to family, time for reflection, time for everything. Don’t allow for schedule creep to take over your calendar. Take control of your time and your calendar by scheduling out your days and weeks.
While I haven’t gone to this length yet, I’m a fan of the idea. I’ve had mixed success with scheduling time for specific things like “strategic thinking” and “roadmapping” each week because other things inevitably creep in. I think the answer is going further with scheduling so that everything has its place and I have space to dedicate to the urgent things that always come up while keeping time for the important, long-term items.
We have to say no to things. In order to dedicate time to the most important priorities, we have to let go of lesser important things.
Going back to Essentialism, there is a story about Peter Drucker and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi is known for his research and book on “flow”, which you should take a look at if you’re not familiar with it since it’s great work (and cited often). Csikszentmihalyi wanted to interview Drucker, but Drucker’s response was instructive. He said, “I hope you will not think me presumptuous or rude if I say that one of the secrets of productivity is to have a VERY BIG waste paper basket to take care of ALL invitations such as yours—productivity in my experience consists of NOT doing anything that helps the work of other people but to spend all one’s time on the work the Good Lord has fitted one to do, and to do well.”
Knowing what to focus on and what you can do well is one key to doing great work. One theme of Essentialism is “less but better.” We want to do fewer things but be able to do them better by focusing. And we do that by saying no frequently.
Break Bad Habits
I mentioned above many of the bad habits we get into. From checking our phones and social media to allowing email and meetings to take over our time. We also allow our teams and companies to develop these bad habits and cultures. It’s time we break the habits.
One thing I intentionally do is not respond rapidly to emails or messages. I haven’t in a long time, even if I can. Unlike the product manager on my team, I don’t want others getting in the habit of getting immediate responses from me. I want to condition colleagues to understand that I don’t check my email and messages constantly (because I don’t) and that replies from me will be delayed. Get out of the habit of constantly avoiding work by wasting time in email and Slack, and help others understand that you won’t be responding to everything immediately.
You can also help shift the culture of your team and company. It may be easier or harder depending on your organization, but change always has to start somewhere, so start it with you.
Best of the Rest
Unplugging the Static (podcast) - Speaking of two of the authors above, Greg McKeown and Cal Newport talked on the Essentialism podcast about some of these topics and more.
Flow: Living at the Peak of Your Abilities (book) - I mentioned this book by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi earlier. It’s an interesting read. It form the basis for a lot of other books and articles, so it’s a good one to have.