Deciding What to do Next

Years ago I had a meeting with my manager regarding three projects that I was responsible for. Each of the projects had considerable technical problems, tight deadlines, and were short on resources. In the course of the conversation, I asked my boss what his priorities were on the projects. He said all three projects had number one priority. Aargh…

Absent useful guidance from others, how should we decide what should be done and when? Priorities, even when present aren’t enough —unless we can just ignore lower priority tasks. The following questions/topics can help us make decisions on what to work on today.

  • Is there a risk of death/loss?
    Death is not reversible. If you don’t water that plant in the backyard it will die, and no amount of post-mortem watering will bring it back to life. Items in this category aren’t good ones to delay. It might be possible to recover after missing a deadline, but do you want to take the risk of losing that opportunity forever?

  • Is something being damaged, or on the threshold of being damaged?
    Typically damage is also a non-reversible thing. If you don’t put on sunscreen before some significant time in the sun you will damage your skin. Maybe the damage will be minor, maybe it’s something that can be replaced but there may be a much higher price to pay later, compared to dealing with it now.

  • Is something under undue stress?
    Regardless of whether it is a thing or a person, if you see it experiencing excess stress it is probably worth some attention. Ultimately too much stress leads to death or damage which usually takes much more effort to fix than the energy required to reduce the stress.

The following questions help determine the importance of tasks and assist in problem-solving:

  • Is there preventative work that needs to be done?
    Sometimes there are things to do that can prevent stress, damage, or death. Is the effort worth the payoff (e.g. lower chance of damage)

  • Can efficiency be improved?
    Can you figure out a cost-effective way to do things better? The sooner you put this improvement in place, the sooner you start experiencing the benefits. Even small improvements, if done on an ongoing basis can really add up.

  • What can be done in parallel?
    • Typically two people can’t finish a task twice as fast as one, but they can usually beat the time it takes a single person. If your goal is to get things done as quickly as possible, rather than as cheaply as possible, then you should be trying to get stuff happening in parallel.
    • Putting tasks in parallel often involves delegating. Assume that the other person won’t do it the way you would, or as good as you would. If you’re ok with that, then go for it. Make sure they understand and agree to the goals and the boundary conditions (e.g. restrictions on how they can do things) and periodically verify their progress.

  • Are there long lead time activities that can be started?
    Some things inherently take a long time to complete (e.g. getting your passport renewed). A little work getting these items started early can save a lot of stress and expense later. Often you can expedite yourself out of trouble but it will be stressful and probably expensive.

  • What tasks are suggested from risk mitigation/contingency planning?
    Going beyond what we think will happen, consider what can happen. What can be done to reduce/eliminate the risks associated with those eventualities? The oil companies that hedged their businesses with oil futures before the 2014 crash prospered, many others went bankrupt. For ideas on how to do this methodically, there is a process known as FMEA that’s helpful. Of course, we can’t cost-effectively eliminate all risk but it’s better if we make those trade-offs consciously, and reasonably analytically rather than just being reactive.

  • Is now the right time to consolidate gains?
    After a good run of accomplishments, it’s important to look around and ask if there are some things you could do that will reduce risks, or knock-off some nagging problems. For example, consider buying out your competitor when you have reduced them to a state of existential despair. If you don’t someone else might buy them and build them into a formidable opponent. If you’ve done well with an investment is it time to take some money off the table or pay for put options to lock in some of the profit?
  • Should we throw money at a problem?
    A useful adage is that if you can afford to spend your way out of a problem, then you don’t have a problem. Sometimes cost is critical, but make sure that you consider the time/risks associated with lower-cost solutions.

  • Are there any commitments at risk?
    I take commitments seriously, but I won’t automatically let something important die or experience significant damage just to meet my commitments. Consider re-negotiating commitments if it appears that the overall cost is too high. Don’t do dumb things just to meet commitments (e.g. overstress an employee, neglecting important preventative work). Of course, sometimes we will be forced to do dumb things but that’s a different topic.

  • Should we build a tool/utility to deal with a manually intensive task?
    If there are two ways to do something and one way would make things easier to do in the future, that approach may be worth some extra investment now. However, don’t fall into the trap of always building a tool or automating something. just because you don’t want to manually slog through something. Many investments in tools never pay off, often because we underestimate the development/debug time.  Consider waiting to see if the situation comes up again before investing much in a utility.

  • Are we underinvesting in aesthetics?
    I’ve seen restaurants where it sure wouldn’t hurt for them to improve the landscaping or eating area a bit. They might feel that having good food is way more important and generally customers do care more about the value you provide than what paint color you use.  However, there is a threshold effect.  When a restaurant or a website gets sufficiently ugly it drives customers away.

Typically we’re faced with a nearly overwhelming list of tasks that should be done, and almost everything that we do undertake is harder and takes longer than expected. Because of this, it’s important to figure out what’s really important to do (not just tasks) and be persistent. Persistence is key.

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