No matter how long you’ve been working in technology, it’s likely that prioritizing your work is still an ongoing challenge.
Serving in a leadership role increases the difficulty by requiring you to prioritize not just for yourself, but to help your team prioritize as well. Prioritization is persistently hard because the list of things you or your team could work on is always so much longer than the actual amount of work you have time to do. There are so many different ways you could sort your to-do list that it always feels like the one you’ve chosen must be wrong somehow.
Prioritization is so challenging that there’s a whole cottage industry of books and tools out there that try to make the process easier. Approaches like David Allen’s Getting Things Done and the Eisenhower Matrix as popularized by Steven Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People can help you strategize around picking the right next thing to work on, and software like Todoist and Things offer tools to implement those systems.
These tools are great and the strategies they provide can definitely be helpful, but they really only help you sort and track your work at a surface level. As you progress in your career, though, this surface-level prioritization will no longer be enough. As your responsibilities grow and your to-do list further outstrips your capacity, you’ll need to understand what makes certain work more valuable in order for you to prioritize. So, how can you do this?
The answer is leverage.
What is leverage?
Leverage is the concept of multiplying your work to yield results that are greater than the energy you put in. When you use a jack to lift a car, you’re using the leverage of the jack to lift the car off the ground. Your strength alone would never be enough to directly lift a car, but it’s not all that difficult with the leverage that the jack gives you in the form of mechanical advantage.
Technology itself is a great example of leverage. We almost always use technology to apply leverage to an existing non-technological task. We use spreadsheets to find leverage on any number of jobs requiring complex, interdependent calculations – saving untold hours of manual tabulation. Digital cameras and image editing applications let a photographer apply leverage to their workflow – saving hours in the darkroom and rescuing frames that would’ve been unsalvageable had they been shot on film. Word processors saved us from a world of strikethrough and correction fluid – fixing our typos before they ever make it into print.
Many of us actually got into technology in the first place because we enjoy the leverage it gives us in solving problems. It’s pretty thrilling to be able to take a tedious task that would take a human hours to complete and teach a computer to complete it in minutes. Larry Wall famously identified laziness as one of the three virtues of great programmers, defining it as ‘the quality that makes you go to great effort to reduce overall energy expenditure’. This ‘good laziness’ – using your energy on tasks that save more time or create more value than you put into them – is the definition of finding leverage.
So how do you go about finding the opportunities for leveraged impact lurking in your to-do list and bring them to the top? Here’s a series of questions you can ask yourself as you triage your list.
1. What would happen if I just didn’t do this task or skipped this meeting?
This is the first question because it serves as a great baseline filter for importance and is often the easiest to answer. If you can just ignore a task or a meeting and there’s zero impact, then it’s obviously not something that’s important for you to spend your time on. It might sound far-fetched, but if you ask yourself this question consistently, you’ll find a surprising number of things that fall into this bucket.
One great example is the meeting that you get invited to from time to time out of politeness but that you don’t actually need to attend. If you know you won’t have input in the conversation and that you can catch up on any salient points from meeting notes, there’s likely a better way to spend your limited time.
2. Am I the only one who can do this task? Am I the person best suited for it?
This question tends to be a very effective filter, and as a bonus, it’s helpful in spotting things that you should consider delegating. If you’re not the best or only person for a task, it’s a pretty good sign that it might not be the best use of your time.
One obvious example of a task that only you can do is coaching your team members via ongoing 1:1s and more formal periodic feedback. Writing periodic project status reports, on the other hand, might be a good opportunity for you to practice delegating and for someone on your team to build valuable communication skills they’ll need to advance in their own career.
3. What are the chances this task results in outsized impact?
Once you’re through the initial sort and resulting delegation provided by the first couple of questions, you’re ready to prioritize what’s left. This last question gets at the heart of finding leverage: does your work on this task have the potential to yield a bigger outcome than the work you put in? How much bigger? How likely is it? It’s important to realize that this is ultimately an investment decision. There’s often no way to know for sure that your work will succeed at all, let alone yield outsize results. The good news is that the longer you operate with this mindset, the easier it will be to spot potential leverage.
Ongoing feedback and 1:1s are a great example here as well. If you invest in them, your input can have a disproportionate impact on the effectiveness of your team and, more importantly, the trajectory of your team members’ careers. Helping someone identify a leveraged opportunity they’re interested in and making sure they get the chance to work on it through advocacy and sponsorship can accelerate someone’s career like few other things.
Digging into process inefficiencies and eliminating the toil that wastes your team’s time is another great example of an opportunity for leverage. If your deployment process requires 30 minutes of an engineer’s hands-on attention, and you deploy 2-3 times a day, then automating that process potentially saves nearly 2 months a year of engineering time.
Making time for leverage
The challenge of working this way is that the kinds of tasks you can leverage for outsized impact tend to be big and involved. They often take significant time and focus to even figure out how to get started, and they require consistent effort over time to see through to completion. High-leverage quick wins are few and far between. If you want to work this way, you’ll have to be deliberate about it. Here are a few practices that will help.
1. Schedule time for it
This is precisely the kind of work Cal Newport unpacks in his book Deep Work. It’s hard, it takes concentration, and it’s difficult to do amidst constant interruptions. To be effective at leveraging these opportunities to their full potential, you’ll need to set aside regular time on your calendar to work on them. And once you have put that block on your calendar, it’s important that you stick to it as much as you can. The boundaries you set are meaningless if you don’t show others they’re important to you.
2. Pick one (or maybe two) and dig in
Humans are far less effective at multitasking than we like to think we are. It’s important to pick one or maybe two of these high-leverage opportunities to work on at any given time. Trying to do too many of them at once dilutes your efforts and makes you less effective at all of them. These are also the kinds of problems your subconscious loves to churn on while you’re sleeping or doing other things, so keeping your focus narrow lets your subconscious do its thing that much more effectively.
3. Mind your progress
Because these tend to be long-running tasks, it’s important to regularly look at your progress. It’s easy to be a completionist and try to grit your way through everything you start, but it’s better to check your progress periodically to make sure you should continue. If it becomes obvious that what you’re working on isn’t as important as you thought, or that you don’t have the time and energy to see it through, it’s better to be honest with yourself and stop or hand it off to someone else who does. Repeatedly slogging through hard work that doesn’t pay off will eventually lead to burnout.
With all that’s asked of us by our companies and our teams, it can be easy to be reactionary as leaders, moving from crisis to crisis. You can break that cycle by finding high-leverage opportunities and making deliberate time to work on them. Doing so can help you have the kind of impact you’re looking for in your company and find the kind of satisfaction and happiness in your work that only purpose and mastery can bring.