The Art of Prioritization

30 Nov 2020 11:30 AM | Annmarie Uliano (Administrator)

by Pat Sweet, P.Eng., MBA, CSEP, PMP

[This post is adapted from Episode 15 of the Engineering and Leadership Podcast.]

As engineering managers, we all feel the burden of increasing workloads, growing complexity, and the pressure to perform. For many of us, the response to this added pressure is to work more. We get to work early. We work through lunch. We work late. We skip breaks. We spend our weekends at our keyboards. We try to stay on top of things and get sucked into “whack-a-mole” management – if I can just keep up, we reason, we win the game.

The trouble with this approach, of course, is that you can’t keep up - not in the long run anyway. At some point, you hit terminal velocity, yet the work keeps building, and you start to fall behind.

The solution? Engineering managers must learn to prioritize and focus on what’s most important.

Doing the Right Thing vs. Doing Things Right

If we accept the fact that our to-do list will never really be done, and that there will always be more work to do, then “doing it all” is illogical. The best course of action then, is to make sure you’re always using your time on what’s most important. 

Most people believe that being productive is all about being efficient – getting things done as quickly as possible. In my productivity course for engineers, I teach that efficiency is absolutely important, but it takes a back seat to being effective. Where efficiency is about doing things right, effectiveness is about doing the right things – those things that are actually important. 

Peter Drucker, the father of modern management once said, “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” Prioritization is the act of choosing which tasks and projects are really worth doing.  

How to Figure Out What’s Important

Now we know that prioritization is all about choosing and doing what’s important. How do we go about figuring that out?

Importance is determined by how well a given task or project supports your goals. If a project contributes in a significant way to either your goals or your team’s goals, then it’s important. If not, then it’s not important. 

Importance is all about whether work moves you forward. All too often we get caught up in the urgency at the expense of the important. We make time for things that need to happen now if they’re to happen at all, regardless of whether they’re actually helping us achieve what we ultimately want to achieve. 

The real crux of prioritization, then, is about understanding your goals in a concrete way, and making sure your work is helping you achieve those goals.

Learning the Art of Prioritization

The first thing you need to do in order to learn to prioritize is to get clear on your goals and the work you have on your plate. List your goals on paper, including deadlines and clear descriptions of what it means to have them be 100% complete. Do the same with your projects and tasks. Next, you can determine how each project supports each goal using a house-of-quality-style assessment. 

For most people, many projects support goals, but many others either don’t contribute or actively get in the way. That should tell you a lot about which projects ought to be priorities, and which ones should be delegated, deferred, or deleted from your list.

Once you know which projects are important (those that support goals), you can plot your projects in an Eisenhower Matrix – a quad chart that has importance on one axis and urgency on the other. I prioritize my projects as follows:

  • Priority 1 – Important and urgent

  • Priority 2 – Important but not urgent

  • Priority 3 – Urgent but not important

  • Priority 4 – Neither urgent nor important

Next Steps

Take some time today to write up your goals and projects lists. Even without doing any kind of in-depth analysis, you can intuitively start to make sense of things just by capturing what all is on your plate. Just understanding the lay of the land can do wonders for productivity and helping you prioritize the right work. 

About the Author

Patrick Sweet, P.Eng., MBA, PMP, CSEP is a recognized expert in engineering management, productivity, and leadership.  He is also the host of the popular Engineering & Leadership Podcast, a show dedicated to helping engineering managers thrive. Download his free productivity guide “Finding the 6th Day” to learn how to create 8 hours of additional productive time this week.

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