Prioritization, or “I’ve been too busy”

I haven’t written a post in a really long time, but the other day I made a commitment to myself to get back to being intentional about posting regularly. I was trying to decide whether to discuss it here or just start posting and pretending like nothing ever happened, but I eventually settled on discussing it. So why now am I deciding to start writing again, and why am I talking about it? Let’s circle back to that in a moment.

So I’m going to be “that guy” and say it, I’ve Been Busy. Like, busier than I’ve ever been. But I get it, everyone is busy. This is something I try to be very mindful of when in a leadership or management role: everyone is busy. If you walk around to everyone’s desks (virtually nowadays), most people aren’t just sitting around goofing off all day. Most of them are trying to do their best with their job, and if asked will gladly tell you how much they have to do and how busy they are. One big challenge of technical management is ensuring that projects and efforts are making forward progress in the right direction, in other words, that everyone’s busyness is focused on the correct things.

There are multiple things to unpack here. If everyone is so busy, why are projects so often late or off track? And how do we, as leaders and managers, help people who have “way too much to do”? Let’s circle back to the second one in another moment.

But first, let’s address the seeming contradiction here. If everyone is so busy then why does it seem like nothing is getting done? How do we address this challenge? One issue is something I’ve talked about before, namely engineering discipline…you can be really busy, even productive, and get a lot done, but if it is not the right things then it doesn’t matter. This is one of the issues that Sprint and Scrum can address. You can get direction from management and leadership on what your true priorities for the next Sprint are, and even get a quick standup every morning for validation that you are still working on the right thing. Then, if there are any delays or other demands on your time that pop up and threaten to prevent you from working on the priorities, it is not a surprise to management. This requires that the backlog be carefully groomed and managed; in fact, taking care of the backlog is one of the most critical responsibilities of a technical lead, for this very reason.

Now let’s pop that item off the top of the stack: how to help people who have too much to do. Effort estimation and staying focused on the acceptance criteria for Sprint tasks is a key part of this, as I’ve discussed here. But another concept that is critical is being disciplined in terms of staying focused on your tasks. There’s tons of (dare I say it, almost cliched) advice on being productive: turn off your email except for certain times of the day, set aside time in your Outlook calendar to do Pomodoro or other blocks of uninterrupted deep focus, etc. And I tried to do these things but what I found with myself is that I allowed myself to get interrupted anyways. Sure, I wouldn’t check emails, but I would check my instant messages. I would think of something cool or fun to work on, promise myself it would only be 15 minutes, then end up spending 2 hours and neglecting higher-priority tasks. I had let myself get lax on following my own rules for productivity, and I needed to refresh myself with internal discipline.

Once I was able to get myself back on track with productivity, I had to reassess my priorities, or more specifically how I was setting my priorities. When I started a new role last year, I made an internal decision to say yes to everything I was asked for the first 90 days, to get as much experience as I could and integrate myself quickly. But I rapidly learned that this was an easy way to get overextended. I had to (re)learn how to set my priorities and work on truly important tasks or things that had the most value.

So popping that other item off the stack, I realized I had allowed writing to fall off the priority list. I initially thought it would just be for those 90 days, but then I suddenly looked around and realized over a year had gone by and I hadn’t posted anything. Although writing may not be high-priority from my employer’s perspective, I realized it was very important to me personally. In fact, it was high-value enough that I decided to be intentional about carving out that time every week to write a post. So as a result, here I am, back to posting. I hope you will continue to read and enjoy these nuggets of knowledge.


One thought on “Prioritization, or “I’ve been too busy”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s