Jason Fried, founder and CEO of Basecamp, published a great piece on Signal vs. Noise that I just stumbled upon thanks to Twitter.
Being able to see what matters, to know what’s worth doing is an instinct you can hone, a skill you can build. I’d consider it a top requirement for anyone tasked with making key decisions.
I would expand that to say it’s a top requirement for anyone. Making key decisions about what to work on is something we all face.
I’ve had the same conversation a few times now with new Happiness Engineers that start at Automattic. When they first join the company, they’re obviously excited and ready to make a big impact. They dive right in to every project they find helping out here and helping out there.
For a short time, the juggling act works, and everything is sustainable. Over time, the foundation starts to crumble, and they become overwhelmed, forced to take things off their plate to maintain some sense of sanity.
I know this feeling all too well because it happened to me.
Fried describes “being able to see what matters” as a skill. We could break that skill down even further:
- Knowing which projects will have the biggest impact on your bottom line
- Knowing where your time is best spent, which projects you should be working on
- Knowing when to shut a project down and shift focus to something else
All of these individual skills take time and trial and error to develop. However, Fried listed several questions that can help guide you to the correct answer. They work equally well for business (What product lines should we create?) and personal (What individual projects should I focus on?) use. Some of my favorites:
What other work will this create? Whenever you choose to do something, you’re always creating the possibility of additional work. Is that worth it? Is it worth it right now?
How many people will this affect? Does this help 25% of our customers? 75%? Or just 3%? Or less? It’s not just the raw number that matters. Sometimes that 3% could be 30% of your business, so make sure you know what the numbers mean.
Here’s another one that wasn’t specifically listed in the article that works quite well1:
What are you going to give up to work on this? Where is this time going to come from? What other areas are going to take a hit?
Time and attention are finite resources. Dedicating more time to a new area means other areas are going to get less attention.
Here’s a related, helpful exercise. Get out a sheet of paper. Write down everything you’re working on or responsible for. Make a star next to the non-negotiables, meaning things that absolutely have to get done and you’re uniquely qualified to do them. Everything without a star is something that could be swapped out, stopped, or handed over to someone else.
- I’m 100% sure I borrowed this from somewhere, but I can’t remember where!