All Articles

How To Prioritize When Everything Is Important

It sometimes feel like the days get busier and busier. The to-do list grows and we are stuck in a place where the overwhelming dread of work to be done is insurmountable . There are a few things I do to allow me to escape the never ending onslaught. Some of these help prioritize, others will help you avoid unnecessary work. The tips here are meant for personal and professional usage.

Look for opportunities to automate

Pretty much any task you have to perform more than once can be automated. If you find yourself sending the same email over and over as part of a sales pitch, create templates. If you are manually uploading code to a server, set up a CI pipeline. In the fury of work throughout the day, its sometimes hard to consciously pull yourself out of the fray and spend time on automation tasks. Humans are notoriously bad at delayed gratification. However, automations can be a godsend for anyone willing to spend a day or two getting everything working smoothly.

Delegate early and often

As an engineering manager, I occasionally get the urge to tackle the hardest problems myself. I have to fight this urge and remind myself that it is not my main role to write every line of code, but to empower my team members to take on those really hard problems. I have incredibly talented individuals right next to me who are here to take on these challenges.

Learning how to delegate properly is the most challenging thing about becoming in a manager. To do so effectively requires a thoughtful breakdown and understanding of the problems you outsource and a willingness to trust in the individuals on your team. This is not to say you simply abdicate your responsibility to ensure your team produces high quality work, but you should trust in their individual abilities. If necessary, establish processes to check work periodically in such a way as to not micromanage. Code reviews are a great way to do this for engineering teams.

Delegation isn’t just a skill set for managers. Individual contributors should learn to properly delegate work as well. If you find yourself fixing issues your teammates created and it is eating into your work hours, reach out to them so they can address the issue. It is both important for you to ensure you can get your own work done and so that your teammates can learn from their mistakes.

Don’t block others

If items in your queue are preventing other teammates from getting important work done, tackle those items first. This helps in two ways: first, it helps keep the workflow going for your teammates. Second, it potentially will free up your teammate later to assist you in other complex tasks.

As a manager, I seek to constantly be a force multiplier for my team. It is not simply my goal to come in and contribute 100% of my effort on engineering tasks each day. Instead I look for opportunities to make my engineering team faster and more efficient. A large portion of the time it is simply getting out of their way and ensuring they have everything they need to get the work done.

Keep your to-do list clean

It’s 5PM and all you want to do is rush home. Before you go, take 10 minutes to review your to-do list. Move those items to be tackled the next day to the top and flag any items that are blocking others as important. This will help reset yourself to come in ready to go the next morning. When you arrive back at your desk, your to-do list will be in order and enabling to focus on the important things.

If you find that there are several tasks you are blocked from completing (e.g. a team member hasn’t provided specs, or you are waiting on manager approvals), move the item(s) off of your to-do list into a separate blocked list. Use this blocked list to schedule follow-up emails, slack chats etc. in order to keep tabs on things owed to you. The goal is to keep your to-do list as clean as possible and not become a place where you get lost in all of the partially complete tasks.

There are tons of popular strategies for todo list management. I try to keep it simple with either a daily list on pen and paper (I love these Post-it pads) or my longer term to-do list I keep in Evernote

Block off time on your own calendar

If you find that there is just too much to do, or you have a major project deadline, it is critical you put on the blinders and get things done. The simplest approach requires a few purposeful steps:

  1. Set aside 2.5 hours at a very minimum on your own calendar.
  2. Find a quiet spot — this is critical for those of us who work in an open office plan.
  3. Turn off slack — you are incommunicado. Don’t let your teammates nag you for the block of time.
  4. Lock up your phone. I am sure many of you are going to say you simply “can’t put your phone down”, “What if xyz calls?”. If you are so concerned, give your phone to a colleague and tell them you have a tight deadline and to only find you if such an important call comes through.

In a hyper connected world it is sometimes necessary to rip yourself away from the day to day in order to truly accomplish anything. One of the books I recommend the most is Deep Work by Cal Newport. Cal tells a great parable about Victor Hugo, the famous author of Les Misérables, who when facing a deadline to complete The Hunchback of Notre Dame, threw away all of his clothing and only wore rags while locked in his home. Not only did Hugo complete the novel, he sent it to his publisher early. Of course, this is a bit extreme, but the point is that in order to make true progress on complex and large tasks we must separate ourselves from typical patterns of daily life. Extraordinary output will require extraordinary preparations.

Do the little things first

The last thing that works well for me is simply taking care of small to-do’s early in the day. One of the biggest take homes from the book Atomic Habits by James Clear, was Clear’s description of a system in which we are to cast small votes each day to become the type of person we aspire to be. The best way to do this is to ensure you have small wins right up front. Don’t put the most daunting item first on your list, it will trigger the procrastination goblins in your head. Pain avoidance is a human instinct. If early in the day you can convince yourself that these to-do’s aren’t so bad, you’ll set yourself up for cascading success.

Systematically approaching chores, work assignments or homework can make you more effective and prevent procrastination from taking hold. When there is a ton of work on our plate we often fall victim to anxiety and dread that acts as an excuse for ever starting our work. I would love to hear any of your tips or tricks you use to handle priorities — send me an email at