Our CEO, Wade Foster, recently asked the entire company to choose a single priority every week and to focus primarily on that. I couldn't help but laugh.
The team I work for at Zapier—the app integration team—is responsible for all sorts of tools and interactions. There are always dozens of things that need doing. Never mind a week: how could any of us have a single priority even for a day? The idea seemed absurd.
But then I tried it—and I'm a convert. It's essential that we find ways to focus on core priorities, even if it's hard. Here's why, and how I'm trying to follow this advice myself.
Reactive work has less impact
Every job has small tasks. There are fires that need putting out, yes, but there are also always dozens of little problems and challenges to react to. Checking those small tasks off a list is rewarding. The big, important priorities, meanwhile, are more nebulous. It can be hard to start working on them because it rarely feels like you're making progress.
This is why you need a plan.
Personally, I try to start each day by thinking up, and writing down, the most important things I need to get done. Some days, that may be mentoring others and ensuring I'm ready for that. Other days, it may be coding a feature request or a bug fix. And others, it may be writing up documentation. The specifics don't matter: the point is to start my days by thinking what is the most important and, crucially, why it's most important. I start from there, as opposed to just reacting, to ensure that my days line up with the company's priorities.
This productivity strategy has a name: it's called eat that frog, and it's all about working on your most important work first.
Because there are real consequences to ignoring your company's top priorities. The small tasks are rewarding, but finishing lots of side projects and ignoring core company goals comes at a cost. Your company will likely fail at its mission if everyone does that.
You might read that and think it's a stretch. You might think that your actions won't affect the company much. It's easy to fall into that way of thinking, but if everyone thinks that way, there's going to be problems.
It reminds me of voting. Many people don't vote because, in their heads, it's unlikely that their specific vote will be the deciding factor. And yet, when millions of people all have that thought, we end up with results that don't necessarily reflect what people want. Choosing not to focus on company priorities works the same way—it's about the cumulative impact.
Setting priorities makes you more productive
Now, this isn't easy. From a mental health standpoint, it's common to think you've failed if you set a priority and don't make any progress toward it. This is true even if you do other things that are useful. Plus, you may not have the mental capacity to add yet another thing to your plate—and thinking up a top priority for your day can feel arbitrary, or even confusing.
I get where you're coming from. It's how I felt when I first heard the idea. But I still think setting a priority for your week and working toward it is worthwhile.
And not just at work. Taking the time to consider what you're doing, and why, is a better approach than reacting to whatever problem is currently the loudest. It allows you to accomplish more in the long run, and it can help make some things less stressful. I'm trying to learn Japanese. If I constantly changed how I'm studying, switching between different courses and software tools whenever someone recommended it, I would make significantly less progress.
I need to take the time to consider what works best for me, choose the right tools accordingly, then make sure that I follow through. It's the only way I'll get anything done.
It takes a village
Maybe it feels impossible to think of a top priority. That might not be your fault: it might be the environment you work in. I think there's a shared responsibility to define priorities, and that should involve your entire team—or, at the very least, you and your manager. The culture matters—trying to figure out a top priority when things aren't working properly may not be realistic or useful. Trying to force it may be harmful.
If you really can't get behind the pick-one-thing method, here are six other ruthless prioritization strategies.
And don't judge yourself too harshly if you don't accomplish your top priority in a week. This isn't about whether or not you're successful. It's about thinking about what's important, and setting goals for yourself based on that. Remember: it's okay to miss goals if you learn from it.
Sometimes you need to do what's right for you, but part of being a good employee is making sure your priorities align with company priorities. You need to work to make sure that what you're working on, over a significant time period, helps you as well as the company.
That's why, after initially writing it off, I now think setting a weekly priority is a worthwhile exercise. In fact, I now try to come up with and focus on a top priority every day and every week. You should too, but take care to do it in a sustainable way that benefits you rather than adding stress to your life.