I Have Two Priorities

on November 22, 2011

Productivity expert and snarky blogger/Twitterer Merlin Mann is a personal hero of mine. The guy’s (clearly) got ADD, spins about a thousand plates in his professional and personal lives, and still manages to maintain an output of killer, creative content. Something he recently said resonated with me and caused me to think through how I was handling the important things in my life.

He did a presentation for a little animation studio in California (you probably haven’t heard of them), wherein he discussed maintaining your priorities. The example he gives comes from a company he was consulting with, wherein a manager confessed she oversaw a list of 27 priorities. She felt the need to check in on them and receive status updates on each project, which explains why she constantly “needed” to check her email. Many in the organization thought this made sense, but it sent Merlin into a conniption.

He asserts that each of us really only have one or two real priorities. He says that we can easily tell what a priority is by one simple fact: it gets done. Too often we pile ourselves up with “important” and “essential” tasks, and refuse to let ourselves admit anything else. In reality, something might just not get done, due to internal or external forces, or something might just not be a good idea. The fear of failure often binds us from making the right decision and killing our dear “priority”.

I was spending a lot of time fretting about little details, making mountains out of molehills, instead of focusing on what really matters. So, thinking this through, I realized I have but two priorities. They are:

  1. Keep my clients happy.
  2. Keep my coworkers happy.

That’s it! Sounds simple, right? At the end of the day, anything outside of these two thoughts doesn’t matter. These criteria identify that which is important to our business, to our clients, and to me. This makes decision-making and prioritizing a cakewalk.

Now, if the thought of boiling down your job that far makes you nervous, I also came up with the rationale by which I manage these priorities. It goes like this:

  1. Plan ahead.
  2. Work hard.
  3. Be nice.

Certainly there’s minutiae inside each point: planning ahead incorporates budgets, schedules and tasks; working hard includes how I manage my time and our team’s time, plus over-delivering on expectations; and being nice incorporates, well, not pissing people off. These may not be easy, but they are simple. Thinking about my job this way relaxes me, and allows me to rationalize an idea or project based on these simple principles. This is the Occam’s Razor of project management. Spend a few minutes with it and figure out what your priorities really are.