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2 min read

How I learned to prioritize by dropping things

By Michael Shen · February 8, 2021
An icon representing tasks in a list in a white square on a light orange background.

Most productivity advice assumes you know which tasks are most important. The problem: I think every task is the most important thing

To combat this, I just drop things—gasp!—and see what happens.

Allow me to explain. If you think all your tasks are pretty similarly important, then no task is uniquely important. No unique task means that frameworks can't really do the hard work of sorting through your responsibilities. The solution is to stop guessing which tasks are important and do something to find out instead. 

By dropping a task entirely, you can see what actually happens. One of two very exciting outcomes could occur: 

  1. Absolutely nothing

  2. Absolute "disaster"

In either case, you've learned something.

You drop something and...nothing happens 

Nothing shows you that a task isn't necessary quite like dropping it only for no one to notice. It's liberating, if a little embarrassing. 

This happened to me when I joined a business that had a department-level review of important business metrics. By virtue of being the only person who knew SQL, I inherited the task of producing these metrics in addition to the responsibilities in my job description. The price of this assessment of task importance was many anxious evenings and weekends hoping that the queries would run. 

One week, I just couldn't get to it. "I'm fired for sure," I thought to myself, gripped by fear. Instead, it was through this slip-up that my skip-level manager discovered that I was the person working on this, rather than the responsible finance team. 

As a result, I was able to pass on the production of this report—and finally get some recognition for my work.

You drop something and it's a "disaster" 

On the flip side, dropping a task can have consequences. Though it's usually to a lesser extent than you might expect, and often leaves you with important lessons on how to better manage such tasks. 

This was the case in that same business, when I decided one week to start ignoring emails for a week, since at least 80% of requests were small favors that the 200+ vendors I managed could self-serve. While it turns out this was mostly fine, some vendors did reach out to my manager asking for more attention. She gave me feedback on responsiveness, as well as tips on identifying the truly important emails. In this example, even though this resulted in short-term feedback, it also provided a valuable learning on how responsive to be.

As a result, I created a rule to flag email from specific vendors and set an expectation on when I could get to them. In total, this experiment wound up saving me hundreds of hours in future email answering.

If you find that you're spending way too much time on email, here's how to tame your inbox with automation.

Being willing to experiment with dropping tasks is a leap of faith. I still get a flutter in my stomach when I do it as the brief thought of disaster flits through my mind. It also requires a certain environment, namely well-intentioned managers or people around you to assume best intent and advise you as you need help. Done properly, your dropped tasks reveal a path to better balance in your work and help you better evaluate priorities in the future. 

Now go drop those tasks.

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