How to Decide What to Prioritize At Work

Deciding what to prioritize during work is a critical skill that every employee in any job must understand in order to excel. In my previous post,  regarding praise and criticism at work, I discussed how the coherence of priorities among members of a team results in opportunities for criticism or praise. Given that an individual’s prioritization of work tasks has direct results which other coworkers and managers evaluate, picking the correct order of priorities has high social stakes as well as obvious economic stakes.

Let’s define the term priority in the context of work. A priority is a task or collection of closely related sequential tasks which consume a worker’s time and energy resources to complete. Most workers have numerous priorities which must be completed. Priorities frequently exist in a list of importance, whether this list is explicitly stated or not– we’ll talk more about the “importance” of priorities later on. Certain priorities have dependencies on other priorities that must be completed before they can be performed; dependent priorities are often completed by a coworker.

The completion of priorities consumes the majority of an industrious worker’s time and energy spent at work, and businesses hire new employees in order to complete more priorities. The role of the manager is to assign priorities to the members of the team, and ensure that the members of the team are able to complete their priorities. Frequently, meetings are held in order to discuss which priorities are “more important” than others. Let’s unpack the concept of more important priorities versus less important priorities.

A priority is considered to be “high priority” or “more important” than other priorities if the completion of that priority is time sensitive or is a dependency of another person or group’s priority. We will define a time sensitive priority as a priority that is initiated close to its deadline. Most priorities do not fit this bill, and so there may not be a clear reason to complete one before the other.With that being said, missing or confusing the reason for arranging priorities in a certain order is a perpetual stumbling block for most employees.

Typically, employees and managers alike have only a case-by-case way of reasoning about which priorities should be completed first. I’ll try to clear this up by offering a concrete thought system for ordering priorities.

Figuring out a process to correctly determine the list of priorities requires thinking from a holistic perspective. The efficiency goal of a team is to maximize the team’s completion of high priorities; when the highest priority is completed, the next highest priority takes its place. Teams are made of individuals, and the priorities of the team are divided among the individuals in the team. For the maximum priority completion capacity of an individual team member to be met, at minimum, their priority dependencies must be completed.

If a worker’s priority dependencies are not met, they may become unable to complete a priority and instead opt to complete a different priority. If a worker can’t start on any of their priorities as a result of the dependencies not being completed, the worker is said to be blocked. If a worker is blocked, the team is wasting that worker’s time and energy resources, so organizing priorities in a way which avoids blocking is critical to a smoothly functioning team.

While dependent priorities may seem to always take the highest place on the list, there is an inherent tension between dependent priorities, time sensitive priorities, and general time management. Is it higher priority to finish writing a report by its deadline, or to proofread a coworker’s finished report so that they may start writing a new one? The answer is that it depends on how much time and other priorities you have, and also how much time and other priorities your coworker has.

A worker’s general purpose is to transmute their time and energy resources into completed priorities. Time at work is hopefully finite, and is marked by the explicit or implicit passing of deadlines. Most priorities have deadlines after which their completion will be considered discordant with expectations, likely resulting in criticism. Priority deadlines exist together simultaneously, and approach the present with equal speed regardless of the amount of resources invested. Having strong knowledge of time management and the time it takes a given worker to complete a given priority is critical.

A smart team will have a calendar with the deadlines for all of the team’s priorities as well as the individual team member priority deadlines. Having this information and mapping it out is the first step in a system for determining the most important priority.

  1. Organize all priorities onto a calendar with the deadline marked clearly. A non-calendar schedule is also fine. This organization scheme should be zoomed in to the minute, or zoomed out to the year as necessary. The more detailed and particle-sized the calendar is, the more effective it will be. A digital calendar or schedule shared by the entire team is the way to do this correctly, as a paper calendar would probably get full too quickly.
  2. Mark into the calendar or schedule who is going to devote their time to each priority. Be realistic about what each team member can do, but also recognize inertia: people in motion tend to stay in motion. An overloaded teammate making good headway is often a smarter choice for an even heavier load relative to a moderately loaded but frequently dependency stalled teammate. Time insensitive and non-dependent priorities can be left unassigned to remain as extra for whoever finishes their priorities first, but I don’t recommend it unless the team is exceptionally motivated to churn through work, which most are not. Unassigned priorities tend to fall through the cracks, so don’t set yourself up for failure by assuming someone will pick up the burden.
  3. Identify the amount of time it takes to perform each priority assuming that the priority’s dependencies are met. If you don’t have this data, I highly suggest gathering it. If you want to get fancy, you can also identify how much worker energy each priority expends per unit of time. Understanding which priorities are effort intensive can often lead to insights.
  4. Identify which priorities are dependent on the completion of other priorities. Write down exactly which other priorities need to be finished first in order to start work. Identify who is responsible for completing the dependencies, and identify if they are going to be dependent on further priorities being completed before they can unblock each other. Identify the points at which blocking is likely to happen.
  5. Identify which priorities are time sensitive. Time sensitive priorities are always close to their deadline; the affix of time sensitivity can be surreptitiously imposed by management, meaning that time sensitive priorities are not always known in advance. A priority could be time sensitive if it is a priority which is another worker’s dependency, and that worker will be stalled and unable to do any work if the priority is not finished by its deadline.
  6. Arrange priorities to eliminate blockages as much as possible. Ensure that all dependencies are completed to avoid stalling. Perfection may not be possible here. Pragmatic judgments about the harm of missing deadlines in order to maintain steady flow of priority completion will be required. Time sensitive priorities passed down from high may cause hiccups in steady flow, causing blockages– it’s best to leave some slack time between a priority’s minimum completion time and its deadline whenever possible.
  7. Assess blockages as they occur and determine whether a different ordering of priorities would prevent them. A no brainer: adjust based off of how the plan works in action. Sometimes multiple blockages can be alleviated with a single change.

I highly suggest that managers take this explicit methodology for priority ordering to heart. Conducting endless meetings to assign priorities and gather status updates on completion is one very popular (and very time-wasteful) method of ensuring the team’s priorities are ordered in the same way. Having a shared team system for picking the order of priorities reduces blockages, reduces workplace stress, and improves a team’s output.

When everyone is on the same page when it comes to priority completion, we call it good teamwork. A frequent sensation of good teamwork is the gratefulness of being handed a snack immediately before actually being hungry.

I hope you liked this article! I struggled a bit to clarify my thoughts during the final two items of the list, and I may revisit them shortly to edit. If you liked this piece, follow me on Twitter @cryoshon and if you’re feeling generous, check out my Patreon page to support me writing more articles like these!

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Time Management Tips from the HIV Lab

Growing up, I hadn’t ever imagined that I’d be at high risk of HIV infection for years on end as a result of my chosen profession. I thought that HIV was mostly a problem of Africans, or homosexuals in the US– a problem that was steadfastly irrelevant and completely opaque to my white, straight, middle class American self.

When I was desperately scouring for jobs to apply to after graduating from college, my only thought about working in an HIV lab is that it might be a cool opportunity to help people with HIV. I liked the idea of “doing science”, and I liked the idea of “helping people”. I grew to understand that in the course of my work, HIV would be my problem too: the high level goal of my job was to create a vaccine for HIV, and the only way to get there was by slogging through experiments involving HIV+ blood, stool, cell, and tissue samples every day, for years.

When I was interviewing for the job, they told me informally that the rate of infection at this laboratory was %0.3 per year, meaning that if I worked there for three years, I’d have about a %1 chance of contracting HIV due to my own mistakes. I don’t know if that statistic is true or not (I suspect not), but I ended up working there for three years, and definitely had a few close calls due to carelessness– a problem addressed later in this piece. At the time of my application, I wasn’t even a little bit scared. It wouldn’t be until much later that the full meaning of what I was going through would be clear to me, and the caution would take over– far later than it should have, of course.

Formally, my title at the start was “research technician” (how demeaning this term grew to be!) at the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard, an academic research laboratory group devoted to the formulation of a vaccine or cure for HIV, an immune system disease that has proven to be increasingly problematic in the developing world.

At this early point, I hadn’t yet understood that HIV was a problem outside of poor and minority communities. Luckily, I joined the Ragon book club, and read a biography called A Song in the Night written by one of our research subjects regarding his fight against HIV. Reading his account of HIV divested me of my delusions, and made me think more about the white, straight, middle class HIV epidemic that was largely hushed up during the early stages of the disease’s spread.

My job at the Ragon Institute (or Ragon for short) was my first “real” job after college, and I experienced a huge amount of personal and professional growth during my time there. In the course of my time at the Ragon, I went from being a lowly “pair of hands” quasi-biorobot to being one of the most experienced technologists in the Institute,  responsible for leading, training, and advising my peers.

The biological sciences are extremely demanding in terms of attention to detail, and immunology is no exception. Each experiment must be designed properly, and executed with caution and precision. In order for experiments to have statistical relevance, they must be repeated many times with slightly different variables, leading to a high volume of work.

The work must be performed in standardized ways, making use of components which have been tested and standardized themselves. These factors quickly create workflows that are extremely time consuming, dangerous, and psychologically demanding, generating stress. A tiny mistake could ruin a week long experiment, wasting time and money. A larger mistake could give you HIV.

This piece will chronicle the distilled professional wisdom from my time at the Ragon Institute, with a special emphasis on time management.

Many of my nuggets of wisdom have been culled from times when I made mistakes, or witnessed others making mistakes, frequently as a result of rushing through an experiment in a stressed out fashion due to fear of reproach and political fallout.I also frequently consulted Extreme Productivity, which is a decent resource for jump-starting your own thinking about improving your work experience.

After a year of working at the Ragon, I realized that I needed a solution to the problem of making easily avoidable mistakes in order to save my sanity. The mistake that prompted this thought occurred when during an experiment, I performed an action that was akin to adding dish soap directly into a fresh cup of coffee that you’re planning to drink. It was a mixup of order, and relatively simple to avoid. I figured that the solution to avoid making the harder to avoid mistakes would become evident if I managed to find a technique for the small ones. I wasn’t wrong– any problem that’s large is a problem that’s waiting to be split up into particle-sized steps which are easy to solve.

First off, I figured I’d decrease the speed at which I worked. This seemed like a pretty basic common sense way of reducing mistakes. Later, I’d reform this idea to fit it into my concepts of stress reduction and time management, but at this early phase, I didn’t quite execute it properly. I pledged to slow down, especially when doing “simple” tasks. I didn’t think about breaking down large tasks into smaller ones, or planning more effectively, or making accommodations for my reduced rate of perfectionist work.

As a result, when I slowed down, I’d quickly have a backlog of work, and trouble making my appointments and reservations to use certain instruments or people’s time. Sure, the work that I produced didn’t have quite as many mistakes– until I began to get stressed about the growing pile of work yet to be done as a result of my slowness. Then, the growing stress would take its toll, causing mistakes on the more complicated manipulations of my experiments.

The missed and late appointments and reservations were also a stressor, causing tension with the other people in line to use the various research apparatuses. Just slowing down without taking anything else into consideration definitely wouldn’t work. With some trial and error, I made a system for improving my work quality.

My system has three main parts, and one main variable. The three parts are time management, stress management, and professional relationships. I’ll be focusing on time management in this post. The variable is perfectionism. I’ll describe the other parts of the system separately in a different piece. Your time management strategy must be consciously calibrated for the job at hand in light of perfectionism. The level of perfectionism that you choose to apply is going to have transformative impacts on the details of your time management, your levels of stress, and your professional interactions.

I’ll explain in more detail how perfectionism fits into each piece as we go, but the main theme is that perfectionism is a sliding scale which has both good and bad consequences. In the HIV lab, I occupied every shade of the perfectionism gradient at one time or another, often unwittingly. As a novice, I had no control over my own level of perfectionism or lack thereof, meaning that simple but inconsequential tasks (slapping labels onto vials) were performed slowly and perfectly, whereas deeply difficult and complex tasks (calibrating the cytometer’s laser voltages to prevent spectral overlap of excited-state flourochromes) were breezed through without care. When I reached mastery, I understood how to regulate my own level of perfectionism to best complete the tasks at hand. I hope to share this ability with you.

The first step in revamping my time management ability was to estimate and then measure the amount of time that it took me to perform various common tasks. I measured how long it took me to prepare my samples for the analyzer machine, and then how long it took me to analyze them, including the physical walking time to transition between the two places I’d need to go. I measured how long it took me to manipulate my samples if I did preparatory work during my otherwise unproductive incubation times. I measured how long it took me to add entries to our sample database. I measured how long it took me to jot neatly into my lab notebook, and, for fun, measured how long it took me to merely scribble unintelligibly into my lab notebook. Attention to detail takes time.

I wrote it all down, and had a nice collection of most of the things that I did and about how long they took me, along with a few variations of those common things and the extra time the variants would take. This is a critical step to time management, and I highly encourage you to do the same: think of things you do frequently, time yourself (even if you think you know how long it takes, get an objective measurement!) and write it down. Once you have several pieces of data for each task you commonly do, you are closer to being ready to making a realistic work schedule for a given day.

Before we get to actually making the schedule, there’s one other thing that I learned which is critical: breaking down tasks into particles and tracking completion of each particle like a tyrant. It’s an old piece of advice, but it actually works. Don’t write a plan and have an item that says “do the laundry” with an estimate of two hours. This is asking for stress, because in order to do the task “laundry” you have formed the idea in your mind that it will take 120 minutes of continuous work, which is not true. Doing the laundry isn’t all one step, either. It’s a common work flow with a few different steps that fits into your larger plans for the day, and comes with transition times between steps which can’t be neglected.

In order to put the concept of “doing the laundry” into your schedule, it should really look more like:

Laundry (estimated time 2H total):

  1. Gather the dirty clothes (2 minutes)
  2. Separate the white clothes from the colored clothes (3 minutes)
  3. Put the dirty clothes in the hamper (1 minute)
  4. Grab the detergent (30 seconds)
  5. Bring the detergent and the hamper downstairs (1 minute)
  6. Put the detergent into the washer (30 seconds)
  7. Put the clothes into the washer (1 minute)
  8. Start the washer (15 seconds)
  9. Wash cycle (35 minutes, could do something else in the meantime)
  10. Remove the clothes from the washer (2 minutes)
  11. Transfer clothes to dryer (2 minutes)
  12. Start dry cycle (15 seconds)
  13. Dry cycle (50 minutes, could do something else in the meantime)
  14. Remove clothes from dryer (2 minutes)
  15. Fold clothes (10 minutes)
  16. Bring the folded clothes and detergent back upstairs (1 minute)
  17. Put away the detergent and the folded clothes (10 minutes)

None of these steps are intimidating whatsoever, and you can adjust the times to be more accurate as you go. You may also notice that there are a few opportunities here to reduce the amount of “hands on” time. If you were to gather the dirty clothes, separate them, and put them downstairs the day before you had to do the laundry, for instance, that’d reduce the amount of time you’d have to be working on the day of. In this case, the prep work wouldn’t make a huge difference in reducing the total amount of time spent on the task, but it certainly would give you more flexibility to fit doing the laundry into a given slot of time, because it would take less time on that day.

Doing the prep work before it was actually needed was a lesson which also greatly improved my ability to multitask. Once you have made lists with particles of things to do for a given task, you can very easily fit your overall schedule together such that while you are doing hands on things for one task, a different task is in its incubation time. This also works for situations in which you hand off your work to someone else, who will later return it back to you. It’s nice to rest sometimes, but this is time that can be used to be productive. If you hand off your work, you can usually make headway on something else in the meantime. If you’ve done your prep work or do your prep work during these times, you’ll find that you can knock down a lot of tasks by just fitting task particles into any open space.

Realizing that turning my tasks into particles allowed me to accomplish more by cutting down my dead time was a huge improvement for my work at the lab. Of course, multi-tasking has consequences: a task with maximum perfectionism applied will be performed alone, so as to allow a full devotion of attention.

Doing something while something else is out of your hands is a basic productivity strategy, and it also implies another good trick for scheduling your particle-sized tasks: leave yourself a margin of error. If you can plan your day to the minute accurately and have no spare time whatsoever, you’re overbooked. In the lab, I always left myself extra loose time in my schedules in order to account for things which might pop up: a coworker asking for help, running out of a reagent and needing to borrow it, a fire drill, coffee with a friend passing by, etc. You need this loose time as an insurance policy against fate, and also for your own sanity. Having extra time to play with often means that you have more time to take more care and more perfection in the tasks that you are doing. Not having extra time means that in the event of anything unexpected, you will be behind schedule, and your tasks can’t be attended to as much as they really should be.

The last major consideration is the amount of perfectionism you are going to invest in each task in your day. I suggest an easy rating scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being tasks that require an extreme amount of care and perfectionism and 1 being tasks which can be breezed through without much fear of a mistake causing a major derailing. Each particle in your list of tasks on your schedule can be rated this way. This way, you can allow yourself to relax a little bit in between focus intensive tasks while also understanding when you are going to need to really put in scrutiny.

Judgments of what amount of perfectionism should be formed based on the ease of the task, the ease of correcting mistakes, and your familiarity with the task. If it’s quick, easy, hard to mess up, and simple to fix, the task is a 1. If it’s extremely involved with irreversible consequences in the event of a mishap, it’s a 5. This system can help to relieve stress or at least channel stress at the correct moments as well. A quick self-reminder that “this task is a 1” or “this task is a 5” helps keep things in context. In lab research, far more things are closer to 5 than to 1.

In summary, time management is absolutely critical, and easily separates effective and productive employees from those who are drowned, stressed, and overwhelmed. It is a common story that giving an extra task to the busiest person results in it getting done the fastest. I think that this story is a result of the superior time management and productivity dispositions that the highest producing people have to have.

To a certain extent, a person that is an effective time manager is a lot like a wood furnace for tasks. There is a finite capacity for how much a wood furnace can burn at any given time, but its response to having wood put into the fire is to burn hotter and more efficiently.

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