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How To Prioritise Your Tasks
When I’ve got a lot of energy, I ask myself the following questions.
If I could accomplish everything I wanted by the end of the day, by daring to give my all, what would my finished day look like?
What trail of achievement would I have left in my wake?
What would I be prepared to give up to achieve that?
And what's stopping me?
I’m generally a productive and disciplined chap, but I don’t get too many days where I absolutely smash it, particularly during these unparalleled times. So I set myself more realistic goals and don’t beat myself up for it. After all, if even Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak has been prepared to suspend all fiscal restraint and vigorously shake the magic money tree, in direct opposition to his party’s principles, I should maybe cut myself some slack too?
Priority then, is what matters. And priority, as I’ve mentioned before, is singular. Just as you don’t have two winners in a football match, you have to choose the one thing that matters more than anything else right now; not two things, one thing. Every effective person knows this.
The man who wrote the book on this, I mean literally the book, Peter Drucker, said this in his seminal “The Effective Executive” over half a century ago:
“If there is any one “secret” of effectiveness, it is concentration. Effective executives do first things first and they do one thing at a time.”
Great, now we know we need to be realistic about our work and not starry-eyed, we know that we must work on one thing at a time, with focus, but what we don’t have is a system for prioritisation. Here’s mine.
Given a set of tasks, order by duty, then contract, then growth.
Duty is an old fashioned word, but I’m an old-fashioned man. Let me tell you why duty comes first for me.
I have a duty to my family. Checkmate.
What trumps family? Not in terms of priority or value, but duty? (Well, justice does. In Islam we are taught to put justice above ourselves and our families. So as long as I’m already being just, my family is my main duty.) As I want to be around to look after my family for a long time to come, exercise has to come pretty high up on my list, as does managing my diabetes. As the latter is something I’m doing all the time anyway, it’s essential that I put my walk at the top of my list. If it’s at the top, I do it first. If it’s too cold, well, that’s why I have a treadmill.
I once had the extraordinary privilege of sitting between Jim Ryan and Nainan Shah at a company offsite, when my career at PlayStation was beginning to take off and people were beginning to notice. What I still remember to this day is that their advice to me was that I should make the time for exercise. It wasn’t an edict, but of all the things I needed to hear to become more effective, it was that, and it still is. Exercise doesn’t cost me time, it is an effectiveness multiplier for the balance of my time.
Now when you choose to do exercise is entirely up to you, if you consider it a duty, even to your self, provided that it gets done. It becomes in effect, a non-negotiable. I would have failed in my duty if I didn’t get my walk done today. I went out for a walk with my youngest children today, so that was even more efficient. You’re allowed to have fun with your duty!
Your contracts go next. These include your promises to others. I recommend that you make very few promises. Your reputation takes damage points every time you break a promise. There’s a very old fashioned saying that I try to live by:
An Englishman’s word is his bond
I’ve no idea where it came from, but I try my best (not always successfully) to live up to this. So if I’ve made a promise to someone, I do my damndest to keep it.
Contracts you’ve made with clients also fall under this category, but I place duty slightly above contract, because life becomes unbearable the other way around. I used to have these two the other way round and it nearly destroyed me. You have a duty to yourself too, remember. If you try to honour a contract at the expense of your health, either the contract, or your health will be broken, sometimes fatally.
Now I shudder at the thought of reputational damage, but it can be limited by good, open communication with the party you have the contract with. This applies not just to parties you have formal contracts with, but to promises made to friends.
Renegotiate your promises early. Make fewer promises. Then keep your promises.
Growth is anything that improves you. Learning a new programming language or API, procedural animation, shaders, formal project management techniques, whatever takes your fancy. You become more valuable to the marketplace by learning new skills, but that’s a one-dimensional view. I believe we enrich our lives by creating more dots to connect. It almost doesn’t matter what those dots are, so long as you love what you’re learning and are excited and motivated to learn.
Growth, or expansion comes last, but I’d encourage you to not cram your days, or work too late, so that you have time to invest in it.
At the end of a day, if I’ve done just my duty, that’s a good day. If I’ve fulfilled my contracts, that’s a great day. If I’ve also managed to find time for growth, well that’s outstanding. I make it easy to have a good day at the very least.