Hi. I’m blogging about work, purpose and time, and inspired in this series of articles by a Harvard Business Review blogger’s post on “No is the New Yes,” in which he sets out several strategies for taking greater control of your time and as a result, focusing on what matters.
In my last two posts, I talked about the blind spots that crop up for people with various work styles. In this post, I wanted to make a point about priorities.
Make what matters to your boss what matters to you.
No matter your work style, it’s easy to get caught in a trap of working on the things you value. They might be what you assume is expected of your role, or something you’ve always done, or something you think no one else can do as well as you can. You might do them simply because it would take more time and effort to assign them and mentor that person into executing the task to your satisfaction.
But we ultimately report to a higher level—be that a manager, an executive, a board or shareholders—and so it’s critical to take the time to find out what these people see as important.
By drawing this out of your boss, you actually gain greater freedom to say no. If your boss values A, B and C projects most, when project D is thrust in front of you, you can say, “I’ve committed to A, B and C as first priorities.” If it’s your boss bringing you project D, start a conversation about whether you need to re-prioritize the A, B and C below D, or put off D until A, B and C are finished.
At Apple, Steve Jobs was known for inviting his top 100 employees to an annual retreat he called the “lifeboat”—that is, if he could only take 100 employees in a figurative lifeboat to start a new company, these are the people he would choose.
In this meeting, the elite team would establish the top ten priorities for the company’s future–new projects, new business lines. The team would lobby for their favorite projects, prioritize and re-rank that list until they’d settled on their top ten.
Then Jobs would ruthlessly draw a line under number three. “We can only do these,” he’d say, pointing to the top three. He was forcing his team to say no to seven more great ideas. For Apple, focus was the key strategy used to reinvent the company from the late 1990s forward.
As one of my favorite mentors, Nancy Morris, says, “It’s not about time. It’s about priorities.” (She doesn’t teach time management; she teaches priority management.) We all have exactly 24 hours in each day—no matter if we are the chief executive or an intern—and so the big difference isn’t that someone has more time, but that they choose different priorities.
One colleague told me a story about how he’d worked with his boss to outline priorities for the coming year and settled on one primary thing—we’ll call it Project P. A month later, the boss asked him how Project P was going. “Well, you know, it’s going slowly because we have the X to finish, we’re working on Y, and then there’s Z that has to be done by the end of the year….”
“Hang on,” the executive said. “I thought we agreed on Project P?”
“Yes,” my colleague said, “but these other projects have deadlines….”
The executive immediately set him straight. The other projects could wait. They could be pushed. They could be modified to take up less time and effort. The key thing was getting Project P done!
What had happened is that my colleague had unwittingly saddled himself with a host of other expectations, even though the executive had clearly given him the freedom to dispense with these other projects in favor of focusing on Project P. That conversation for priorities was a gift from the executive, and my colleague didn’t immediately see it.
How will saying no make a difference in your ability to balance work and stay off that hamster wheel of I’m-too-busy? Take some time to consider what your boss values most—and if you’re not sure, have that conversation immediately. Go so far as to make a list of every expectation you think there is on your time. If you can only do three, or ten or twenty, make sure those are the ones your boss values.
Make a list. Make it count. GO.