Episode 38 - Priorities
Jen: Hi Pete.
Peter: Hi Jen.
Jen: I am coming to you with a question from one of my clients, based on something we were talking about in a meeting last week, which is this idea that you can't land a plane when there's another plane on the runway. And how do you clear the runway to land the plane that is circling in your mind?
Peter: Right, so not a literal plane. You're not asking me for pilot advice, are you?
Jen: Well, I'm so fascinated to learn that you know how to fly a plane, if that's true, but in this case I'm speaking metaphorically.
Peter: Metaphorically is good. I have no idea how to fly a plane. This is The Long and The Short Of It.
Jen: Okay. So essentially I, I took up this practice that I learned from you, which is, I send my clients a video voicemail, which is something that you taught me, and it's so effective. It's so much more effective than just a text-based message, cause it feels more important when it comes as a video. And essentially, the video voicemail was asking, what do you need to make space for? And what is the, what is the thing that is clogging the runway? Like, what can you actually name and quantify the things you need to let go of in order to make room for the things that you want to bring into your life? And so, this client sent me a message, which I'm going to paraphrase, but essentially she said the thing that is cluttering her life is her inability to prioritize. And she has so many things on her plate that she can't figure out what she wants to eliminate, or at least postpone so that she can focus on a priority. So, here's the question she asked: "Is there any research or tips or strategies that you're aware of to help you with ranking priorities, and then breaking them down into smaller achievements, and then help you to learn to be okay with really being in progress." And she goes on to say, "I'm really trying to shake my all-or-nothing mentality, which trips me up pretty regularly, and takes up a whole lot of space."
Peter: Hmm, interesting. So the first thing that came to my mind is the Pareto principle. I think it's called the Pareto principle, Pareto principle, and it is essentially that - it's also known as the twenty/eighty rule, which is that usually in most cases, I think it started in economics, but now it's been extended to a lot of other use cases - that twenty percent of an input, twenty percent of the inputs usually equate or are responsible for eighty percent of the outputs. So to give an example, twenty percent of a company's clients usually equates for a roundabout eighty percent of the company's revenue. Like, the big clients that you have, if you work with twenty clients, usually the big ones are the ones that are responsible for most of your revenue. And I think if you, if you look at the things in your life or the work that you do, you can extend that to, to almost be in some cases, like, ten and ninety, as opposed to twenty and eighty, twenty and eighty; that so often what we don't realize is a very, very small percentage of the things that we work on are responsible for the outputs that we get. So I just want to throw that out there as a first thing that came to my mind. Does that, how do you feel about that?
Jen: I think that's fantastic. And you and I both have journals from this company called Intelligent Change. Is that the name of the company? They make the Five Minute Journal and the Productivity Planner, and they, I don't know if they actually call it the Pareto principle, but they essentially use the same idea that in the productivity planner, you acknowledge the number one priority for the day, and you commit. You commit it to paper that you will not do anything else until you've done that one thing. So that's what that reminds me of. And I go through these phases of really relying on my productivity planner - and I'm calling myself out on this - in the moments when I'm using it, I tend to be most productive because I'm setting clear priorities and actually committing them to paper. There is some really good science around the need to write things down in order to make them real. So, just the strategy of putting all the stuff you're working on down onto paper and then prioritizing it rather than doing it in your mind, but actually doing it on paper could be useful.
Peter: And so, building on that, and building on twenty-eighty, and so you've written everything down, and what I think a useful frame of references is, which of these things makes the other things redundant?
Peter: So, if I tackle this one first, does that all of a sudden make the rest of these things easier because I've done the hard work of that one thing? So I think that is a useful question to ask when when looking at prioritization is - I think I've stolen that from Tim Ferriss, but it's essentially, yeah - which of these things would make other things redundant, or eliminate them altogether?
Jen: I love that.
Peter: Yeah. I mean, like, everyone, the thing about this is, the thing about prioritization that comes to mind is, everyone can write a list of things that they have to, like, everyone's got a list of, a list as long as their arm of things they could be doing, they should be doing, they want to be doing, and so the hard part is prioritization. And where we can hide is in our list of, like, "Oh, I've got all these things to do that I'm ticking off the list." It's like, well are you actually, are you doing the hard work of understanding what it's for, each of these things, what they're for, and then doing the hard work of prioritizing against that, "what's it for?" I think it's an unbelievable, like, it's a great question that your client asked, and it's also, it's a struggle of so many of us, I think, of like, how do you, and how might we get better at prioritization?
Jen: I also want to acknowledge something that I think could also be cluttering up the mind-space, which is the distinction between "prioritize" and "eliminate"; that when we say that we're prioritizing something, we are committing to doing it. It might not be the top priority, but the fact that it's still on the list means that it's taking up some of our mental capacity. What sort of courage does it take to eliminate something that is truly not a priority for you? And I think this goes back to, I can't remember if we've talked about it on here, but the Urgent Vs. Important Matrix, the Stephen Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, that we are so good at adding things to our to-do list, and when they are not even low priority, but no priority, they could go into the "eliminate" quadrant, not urgent, not important.
Peter: Yeah. Yeah, I like that. So the other thing I would say, just thinking about this is, so the system that I use for example is, I think I stole this off the productivity planner, I'm sure, is like, my little iteration of this, but it's called "one three five," and the reason I like it is, I saw it once, someone had drawn it on a sticky note. So it's like it's small enough that you can put on a sticky note, basically, and I love that. So you essentially split your day into one, three and five, and so the idea is, the number one thing, the one thing that you have at the top of the sticky note is, the question you can ask yourself with that is, "If this was the only thing that I did today, would I be happy?" And so, trying to identify what that one thing is goes at the top. And so you can only move on to the three once you've completed that one thing. So you start with that one thing - has to be the one thing you'd be happy and satisfied with if that was the only thing you did today. Once you've done that, you can then move on to the three, and the three are three kind of, the mildly important tasks, but you might not get all of them done, so it's gotta be okay with you if you don't get all of them done. If you are amazing and you get all three of those done, then you've got, like, the five things on the bottom, and the five things on the bottom are the admin tasks, right? Like, replying to the email or checking your social media, like, it doesn't have to be that medial, but yeah, the five things on the bottom are usually, in my experience, really simple admin tasks that had I not gone through the process of prioritizing, I probably would've started with the one of five, and I would have told myself a story that I was being super productive. Like, "Oh, I responded to that email that I needed to respond to." It's like, well yeah, you probably could have done that at five o'clock, though, once you'd done everything else. So, "one three five" is a system I find super useful.
Jen: I feel like if you were to log your "one three five" over the course of a month, you know, thirty days, you could take all of the things that are on your five and really make a case for yourself that you need an assistant.
Jen: Because that stuff that's in the "five bucket" is the, the reason you have help. So if you're, I know for myself, for many years I was very resistant to getting an assistant, and then when I finally did it was like, "Oh my gosh, this makes so much more sense." I could be doing the kind of work I want to be doing and delegate the things I don't want to be doing to someone who is very happy to do it.
Peter: Yeah. And probably better at it than we are.
Jen: For me, that is a "definitely" better than I am. So I was batting this idea around today of priorities with my friend Michael Hicks, who is this extraordinary guy, and I was saying to him, "I need to make another podcast called Conversations with Michael Hicks," cause he has ideas about every single thing. But essentially, what he was saying is whatever you're doing right now in this moment is the thing that you have prioritized. Like, you need to recognize that the thing that you're doing right now is what you've chosen to do right now, which means it is your priority. It's the thing that is apparently most important to you because you're doing it. And I love that because I think it challenges you to ask yourself then, "Is this the thing that's most important to me?" And if the answer is "No," then the question becomes, "Then why am I doing it?"
Peter: Yeah. And so on that, I think the other, another thing to consider is, who is determining my priorities? Is it me, or is it someone else? Is it, you know, is it that, a potential client, or collaborator or something? Someone has sent me an email and says "Urgent," and so I tell myself a story that this is now a priority. Well, if that's the case, you are not creating the priorities; your clients are, or the people that sent the email are. So I think getting clarity on who is determining your priorities is really important. And I think this goes to your point of, when you start writing things down, you start to realize this, of like, "Oh wait, that's not my priority. That's someone else's priority."
Jen: I heard a strategy once - I cannot remember if we cut this out of a previous episode, so listeners, if this is a repeat, enjoy - I heard a strategy once around whether or not to say yes to a coffee date, but I think this can apply to everything. And essentially the strategy was, would you, ask yourself, "Would you clear something out of your schedule today to make it happen?" And if the answer is "No," acknowledge that four weeks from now when this coffee date happens, you'll be as busy then as you are now. And let's not fool ourselves into thinking that life isn't going to start crowding your calendar, so really ask yourself, "If I had to make room for it today, would I do that?" And that helps you, sort of, filter into the "yes" or "no" pile. And it, it seems to me that when you're thinking about prioritizing tasks that are hopefully cumulatively adding up to reaching goals, that if you wouldn't make room for it today, maybe you still won't make room for it tomorrow, and so on, and so on. So you need to figure out some way to move forward without that thing.
Peter: Mmm. Okay, I just have to go back to what you just said. So I think, one is, being clear on whether the things on your list are actually cumulatively adding up towards your goal. So I think, like, the goal is important to be even clearer on, and like, we frame it often as "What's it for?" Like, what is my work for? And then this list that I've just written of my "priorities," in air quotes, do they actually serve that "What's it for?" If not, I can start to eliminate. And then the other thing that you just reminded me of is stolen from Derek Sivers, who I've mentioned a few times on this podcast - genius entrepreneur, very funny writer, and he's got a couple of amazing Ted Talks that are worth checking out - but he talks about the "hell yeah or no." So essentially what that means is, whenever an opportunity or a decision is placed upon him, his decision-making process is, "Did I think, 'hell yeah, I want to do that'? If I did, then I'm going to do it; if I didn't, then it's a 'no.'" So it's either a "hell yeah!" or a "no." There's no in-between. And for him, this creates a bunch of space because it's not often, not often that you get an opportunity where you're like, "Hell yeah, I want to do that," and so, when an opportunity does arise in a four-week timeframe, like you mentioned, you can go, "Hell yeah, I'm ready for this."
Jen: I want to also call out that every day our circumstances change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Life throws you all sorts of curveballs, and my hope is that, similar to how we've talked about goal-setting in the past, where it's like, it's the process, it's the process of identifying what you're aiming for and then creating a way to actually get there that is more important than whether, than whether or not you actually get there - I think this process of asking yourself what your priorities are and asking yourself what's important to you and what are you willing to make space for is probably more important than the things on your to-do list themselves. And when life throws you an opportunity that you never saw coming, of course you want to have the flexibility and agility to say "yes" to something that wasn't previously part of your priority because you didn't know that it was coming. And similarly, when life throws you something that is quite challenging, you know, a loved one dealing with an illness, or some sort of financial setback, or whatever it might be, that you can also embrace your new circumstances and realign your priorities, so that your priorities don't become a burden; that they don't hold you back from forward-motion and personal development.
Peter: Mmm. Oof, I like that. Okay. So I know, I feel like I've said another thing a few times on this podcast. This is just one big giant "Yes, and..." so it feels like Rule #6 applies a little bit here too, which is to not take ourselves so damn seriously, because I - and I heard this in, it was actually on an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, which is hosted by Jerry Seinfeld, and, of all places, that's where I'm drawing this wisdom from - and one of the comedians, I can't remember who it was, said, "We all walk around thinking we're the president, but really we could skip a day or two and nothing would change." And it was so off-the-cuff, that it was, like, classic in that show that you don't even stop to recognize that. But it just popped into my head right now of like, it's so true. We all tell ourselves a story that we're so busy and so important and we couldn't possibly say no to things or miss a day or be sick and not go to work. And it's kind of like, well, don't take yourself so seriously; you're probably not that important. No offense to all of the listeners out there, and to your client, but I think there is a story that we can tell that is limiting, which is, "I can't afford to say no to this," or, "I can't afford to prioritize, because I need to keep all of my doors open." And it's like, you probably can. You really probably can.
Jen: There's a phenomenal woman named Iyanla Vanzant - I don't know if the spirit of Iyanla has traveled all the way to Australia, but she's, she's a powerful force of nature. She used to be Oprah's life coach, and they, they had a falling out, and then they had a falling back in, and so they, they're on very good terms now. But she wrote this book - she's written many books - but one that I use in class a lot called Faith in the Valley, and essentially they're one page pearls of wisdom. And I was reading it once, and it's - I'm totally paraphrasing it - but the gist of it was, "I bet people are telling you nobody's going to wait around for you to accomplish this thing, or nobody's going to wait around for you to finish this thing that you said you were going to do." And she says something like, "so instead of beating yourself up for that, say, 'Hallelujah!' It's like, great, don't wait, go do your own thing. I'm going to do my own thing," with this sort of, like, release of, I think it's pointing back to what you were saying, where it's like the whole world isn't waiting for you to make good on your to-do list. So, give yourself a break.
Jen: Give yourself a break, a little room to breathe, a little "white space," as we spoke about in a previous episode.
Peter: That, I think, might be The Long and The Short Of It.