Getting Work Things in Order: How I Get My Priorities Straight

It’s that time of year again, the time when we start throwing together resolutions, albeit some more well thought through than others. If you’re anything like me, these go a bit beyond go-to-the-gym-more and only-drink-on-the-weekends, and while these certainly top the list, other resolutions often hop beyond the personal space and into the work space.

I often find myself at the end of the year running rather haphazardly. At Facebook, launch season typically comes to an abrupt halt before the actual end of the year due to branch cuts and launch deadlines, so product work slows down. It’s a great time for people to take time off and enjoy the holidays. I quite enjoy this slow season; I use it myself to take a few days and work from home, writing performance reviews for our end-of-year cycle and taking some time to reflect on the past year and plot and plan for the next. What I usually find is that I’ve lost my organizational strategies, and that my priorities are all over the place.

The more often I’ve pulled myself back into organizational rigor, the better I get at it. I don’t wait until the end of the year to reset now that I have a few tricks I can employ. They’re pretty simple, and you may already be familiar with them: write down the things, categorize them, give yourself time to prepare, and get those things done.

1. Write down all the things

I’d like to think I’m a master manager of things, especially things to be done. I have a great memory. Sure, I have difficulty remembering names, and I sometimes forget feedback people have given me, and yes, my phone is probably most likely in my hand when I’m looking for it. But I have a great recollection for everything I have on my mental to-do list.

Or do I? While I’m always busy and I’m usually productive, I’ll be the first to admit that I might not be efficient all of the time. It’s often that the busy state I connect with productivity becomes thick with a sense of being underwater. This is often because I don’t have a concrete grasp on what I have to do: both what is most important and what is most imperative.

Over the years, I’ve begun to write the things down that I need to accomplish. I write down everything: that necklace that broke a year ago that I need to send in to get to repaired, that sign up flow I need to mock, that lunch with a mentee that I need to schedule. These are all things that loom above me. They themselves aren’t always weighty, but together they can be daunting.

Writing down all the things we have to do gives us instant access to them so that we can understand and prioritize without any cognitive load.

I used to be a big fan of hand-written lists in beautifully bound notebooks. I’d carefully print uppercase to-do items next to perfectly square checkboxes, and check them off with a sense of elation and accomplishment.

And while that was cool, I often had to—or wanted to—rewrite the list and once written, couldn’t move things around. That method of thing-writing never lasted more than a few days.

Now, I use a simple cloud-based writing app called iA Writer. It’s where I do a lot of my personal writing, so it’s a natural place for me to be. It allows me to work across a number of devices and supports quick formatting and structure.

It doesn’t matter how you choose to write your things down, as long as it’s a low-maintenance system that works for you. What matters most is that you can access it at any time, and that it’s easy to parse.

2. Categorize and rank your things

Once you’ve written all your things down, identify what type of things they are. I usually try to avoid time-based labels when I’m categorizing. It’s easy to make a pile of “for later” things but then never get to them. Instead, I prefer to understand what type of thing it is so I can pit it against similar things. Then when the opportunity comes to address that thing, I’m ready: I haven’t forgotten about it.

These days, I find myself breaking my list down into three categories: product, non-product and personal. As I’ve grown in my role as a product designer at Facebook, I’ve taken on a lot of leadership. But it’s not just about product leadership: strategy and such. It’s how I can be a design team leader, how I can be a community leader. That comes down to non-product type things, like mentorship, recruiting, speaking publicly, and writing. I have to make time for these things within my work time; otherwise they encroach on my personal time. And if work things encroach on my personal time, which I value and protect aggressively, they won’t get done.

Now it’s okay to recognize that not everything will get done. You can be at peace with that. If things are duly important, they will make it to the top of the list eventually, or if they sit there for long enough, you might recognize that they have little to no value to you, and you can remove them.

3. Give yourself time to plan for the things

Once you’ve determined the mass quantity of things and understand their relationships, give yourself time to plan and strategize. I’ve gotten into the habit of scheduling myself one hour at the beginning of each week to plan and a half hour at the end of the week to reflect.

Planning aids my efficiency. Reflecting helps me plan better.

When you’re planning, it’s important to know both your view and your goals. Essentially, what is your scope? What are you trying to accomplish, and in what amount of time? If you know what you need to deliver and the timeframe you have to do that in, you can backwards plan from that endpoint.

My view tends to be a week. I identify what I need to accomplish throughout the week — not just by the end of the week—and have a general understanding of how much time each thing will take. If I can’t assess the amount of time, I have to break the thing down into smaller, achievable parts. Then I reorder them in terms of urgency and impact.

What exactly does impact mean? It might mean something different for me as a product designer at Facebook than it does for you. You need to do your due diligence here. You need to know the goals of your company, and the goals of your team. You need to know your personal goals. You need to know what makes you feel invigorated. Ideally your priorities would be at the intersection of all of these things: work that has impact that brings you joy and pushes your development. But if you don’t know the objectives behind the things you’re doing, I guarantee you that you’ll feel lost. If you haven’t yet, take a moment to ask what those things are.

4. Get the things done

Prioritizing is only half the battle; we begin by understanding the value of the things we set out to do. Actually completing things is the other half, and it can be the most challenging, especially if we don’t follow the order of priorities we’ve set in place.

So, you’ve got all the things documented, you have an understanding of how they’re categorized and how they rank, and you’ve made space to work. To get started, you begin with the smallest thing. Right?

Nope. Not for me, at least.

There’s menial satisfaction in getting a small thing done, and the same is true of a bunch of small things. The big, impactful work still peers over the top of the list. Meanwhile, we might end up with a color-coded calendar and a clean desk and a Medium draft on prioritization. And after weeks upon weeks of attacking the easy-to-do things, the product work is suffering and stress levels are high.

I often think I’ll make space for the big thing by clearing out the small things, but the truth is, the small things never stop building up.

I recently reached out to a mentor for recommendations on how to decide what to do first. At the time, I was trying to deliver on product stuff, which is mostly directly related to my job; I had management duties, which are important to the team, and I had the peripheral stuff that really gets me going, like writing and working with other writers on our team.

He shared this little exercise with me. Draw a box, or use a sticky note, and draw two horizontal lines. The top field is the one thing you must do. Draw a vertical line to section the middle field into two things you should do, and draw two lines in the bottom into three sections of things you could do.

Now, do that first thing. Only do that first thing. Minimize your distractions. Turn off your music if you have to. Close your browser windows. Close Facebook (ludicrous, I know). Mute your emails and messages. And do that one thing until it’s done.

You might not get to the other things the first day. That’s okay. And whether you do the could-dos or the should-dos first doesn’t matter, as long as you’ve completed your must-do. But every day, you start again, until you’ve made a habit of doing the most biggest, most important thing first.

Gradually, but surely, you’ll be making progress in meaningful ways.

As you plow through your days and your weeks, make sure to evaluate your progress. Understanding past successes and failures can help you make smarter plans. Ask yourself: What went well? What could have gone better? What was missing? What tweaks can you make for the next round?

Things like organization and prioritization and efficiency are simply about practice. It takes time to establish good habits. Even more so, it takes experiments to find the right strategies and tools that might supplement good habits. Regardless, it never hurts to try. So go be your best work self this New Year!