Friday, 3 February 2012

Priorities And How They Can Get Away From You

We all prioritize. We have to. The demand for us as a person is strong. People demand our attention, our money, our time, and our brainpower. They all are asking for something from us, and we ask for something in return. We find something we can do easily (think, speak, lift, lead) and we offer that service to others, prioritizing to get what we want. You can spend your time on an open source project or you can stare at the sun. Both bring benefits and both have downsides. You probably would like to see a great tool for X technology instead of damaged retinas, but that's only because you're a developer and I am assuming that you don't want burned eyes. We do this trading all the time, and most of the time we don't even know it.

Our output is measured in how much we can finish in a period of time. If Guy A can do 3 things a week, and Guy B can do the same 3 things plus 2 more, Guy B is considered a better guy. Whatever the skillset they possess, that's typically how it works. One's ability to do something is much higher the more motivated they are, and intrinsically motivated people are not swayed easily from their motiviation. The challenge a lot of employers face is how to motivate people enough to make money off of them.

So when we sit down and think "What should I do?" (as those who are self-directed tend to do quite often), we tend to think about our highest priorities and act on those. Now, most people have a obstacle where they haven't established priorities or they aren't clear, even to the person setting them. If you are looking to be continually improving, I have noticed that there are a number of people who have the energy and want to advance their interests, but they still aren't able to move forward. One thing I am still learning is that almost as important as having priorities is keeping that list small. A large list of priorities that isn't written down can distract you from your goal. Similar to a software project, if your priorities are always shifting and never nailed down, you will suffer from having 30 half-finished goals at a time, which really lowers your output.

I got a tip from a mentor once. He told me that every decision you make to advance a specific priority is an automatic decision to not advance a different priority. Additionally, you might not know exactly which priority is going to suffer, but it's going to happen. And that's because we only have 24 hours in a day and only so much energy. So by reading a good book, I am investing time in my career, but that also means that I won't be investing in my skill of Internet trolling. It's always a tradeoff.

So what do you do? How do you beat the system? The key is in making sure you are prioritizing correctly. Because really, if your priorities are not clear to yourself, then you are liable to make the decision that invests time in the priorities you want less than the one(s) you sacrificed for. So make a list! Write down all your priorities. I have such lists for all sorts of things. I consult a list when I want to decide what I should do to become a better developer. I also consult a list of things when I would like to furnish my bare apartment with. I consult a list when I'm trying to decide where to eat (I have prioritized a list of places I want to try). I tend to have lots and lots and lots of lists, all meant for a specific mood. I even have a list when I'm not in a particular mood! And it works. I find my top 10 choices laid out nicely and it's just a matter of maintaining that list and then acting on it when the time comes.

The reason this works is because we tend to forget lists like what we want out of life. We can't keep track of what to get on the way home from work as well as the 3 things we want to work on to become better devs. Something has to give, and we forget something in there. As well, lists can help you focus on a goal. Consulting a list is really taking the time to decide where to put your time (or money or whatever), and taking a couple seconds and thinking about a decision is typically a good idea. God knows I could make use of doing that more often :P

So make some lists! Get everything down and out, and get used to using the lists. Phones are a great place to stash lists, and there's some neat ways to share them with the people you need to.