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  • Stephanie Morillo

How Ruthless Prioritization is Helping Me Stay Focused

Women writing down notes
Photo: #WOCinTech Chat

I spent the month of June working on my Q3 plan with my business coach. It started with creating a "parking lot" of ideas: a list of every possible thing I could do or would like to do related to my business without thinking about timelines. I listed a bunch of things and spent three weeks refining my list, and last week, I hit a point. I realized I was tired.

I'm working a full-time job and I'm growing a business on the side. I had recently announced my big project—a content strategy training program for DevRel professionals, which will launch this autumn. The training program was listed as my top priority for the quarter but the plan was really aggressive; there were at least two other items that could take up significant time to see through. And I was also trying to balance these goals with my personal life. (I do want downtime, after all.)

As my coach describes it, each person's life is a solar system. You are the sun, and everything else—your job, your hobbies, your dreams, your goals, your relationships, etc—are the planets that revolve around you. The system is completely out of whack if the sun is out of whack. I, the sun, was in danger of burning myself out with all these additional tasks. So he walked me through how I should go about reprioritizing my original plan.

This, by the way, is supposed to happen. Planning is all about refinement. The end goal was always to make sure that my goals were measurable, actionable, achievable, and more importantly, exciting. If I was not going to be excited about my plan, what was the point of doing this anyway?

In this post, I'll go through my current process for ruthlessly prioritizing my life to remain productive, and most importantly, happy!

  • Create your parking lot idea list. You know you need to cut things down but aren't sure what to cut. Do two things: (1) Write down everything you're planning to work on in the upcoming period and (2) Decide what is the top priority, meaning the one thing that you have to do to feel accomplished.

  • And add personal goals that you have outside of your hobbies to the list. Many professionals have heard the quote, "What gets measured, gets managed". If you have goals that are unrelated to your professional aspirations, you should include them here. Why? Because you run the risk of not working on them. If you have fitness goals, goals to get more sleep, goals to read more, or do anything that has nothing to do with professional development, add it to your list. Remember, you are the sun in your solar system, and all of these things are the fuel you need to shine brightly.

  • Next to each idea write down why it's on the list. Coming up with ideas to execute on is a good first step, but we need to scrutinize why we have them in the first place. Is this something you have to do? If so, why? Or is this item something you think you should do? If so, why? I sometimes take on more than I should because I am scared of turning down an opportunity—but is it truly something that will help me achieve my goals, or am I doing it out of a sense of obligation? Not saying “no” would hurt me in the long run. Look out for the ideas that are mental drains disguised as opportunities.

  • Decide how much of this list you can put on the backlog. Imagine the list of everything you're working on as a cup filled up to 100%. Your goal is to figure out what 50% or 75% looks like. Cross out items that either don't excite you and feel draining or distract you from your goals. For example, tax preparation may not excite you, but you know you need to get it done for your business and it furthers your business goals.

This exercise helped me determine that I wanted to do only 65% of what was on my list. I prioritized my personal time and removed things that felt like busy work. I moved items to the backlog, I said no to a few things, and I pushed some things out. I’ve been tracking my time in my planner and I feel more rested already. The best thing about this is, by keeping my list manageable, I feel more accomplished without feeling like I’m buried by an endless to-do list. And I’m focusing on the things that I genuinely want to do.

When you ruthlessly prioritize and optimize, it carries over into other areas in your life. I quickly realized that I could be more efficient with my time at work, so I’ve started to do the following:

  • Whenever I add a time block for "work" (in other words, not meetings) on my calendar, I specify which tasks I'm going to work on in the calendar invite. I'll add links to documentation, meeting notes, slide decks, and any other asset related to the task at hand. It’s helped me feel more productive during the day by cutting down on information recall.

  • I‘ve started spacing out my meetings more by adding more “work” blocks to my schedule. This ensures that I don’t get booked in multiple back-to-back meetings without any breaks (I once had six back-to-back meetings and I don’t recommend it). I’m also more conscientious about which meetings I should attend and why.

  • In addition to my short lunch breaks, I take a 20-minute walk in the afternoon. During the colder months, I’ll do a short workout but in the warmer months, I’m not always motivated to move. I force myself to leave my house for 10-20 minutes and the change of scenery does wonders for dealing with stress and regaining focus.

There is no limit to the things we can possibly do, but there is a limit to how much we can take on. When we critically analyze how we are spending our time and energy, we begin to notice the tasks that drain us and distract us from our goals. Ruthlessly prioritizing is an ongoing effort; there is always room for improvement and none of us is perfect. But remember this: you’re the sun in the solar system that is your life, and the system can’t function without you at your best.

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