The Bad Habit That Even Productive People Keep Falling Into

After managing large teams across Google for many years, and now, as an investor, having the chance to observe dozens of highly effective startups, I’ve seen there is one major difference between people who are “just” productive and those who are truly effective: knowing how to prioritize.

My own relationship with prioritization is a perpetual work-in-progress. I still fall back into a habit I’ve long tried to break: working on the stuff that seems easiest to complete, or the tasks that give me the most satisfaction or accolades, or simply the latest item that came in, rather than what I actually most need to work on. But I have been improving lately by following three guidelines, which might help you, too.

Prioritize what requires your input for others to move forward. Think of it as “downstream” impact. Is your lack of action on a task blocking others from moving forward on something that is important to them? Move it to the top of your list. Especially if my involvement doesn’t require much time, I try to move these tasks along quickly so as to not create process delays. If I know it’s not something I can attend to quickly, I’ll give the dependent parties a clear timeframe so they can gauge their own plan or come up with a different solution. And if I don’t think I need to be involved at all, I’ll extract myself from the project completely.

Think “top down, not bottom up.” Whether you use your inbox, a to-do list, Post-its, or your memory to track open items, there’s one mantra I want you to repeat: “Top down, not bottom up.” Do what matters first in terms of impact. I use the metaphor “avoid snacks,” which you can read more about here.

Long to-do lists are fine as long as you set deadlines. Lots of people have different opinions on this one. Some believe if something has been on your list for more than X days, you should either do it or delete it. Others suggest your list should have a fixed amount of items, and you have to either delete or complete something on it before adding any new task. I also know people who use only daily lists and won’t even track anything they’re not focused on accomplishing that day.

My own practice is to maintain long exhaustive lists and segment them by area (personal, shared with wife, work, etc). The ones that need to get done within a timeframe have a due date assigned, whereas the others are things I’ll maybe one day get to or are pending prioritization. And then each day, I’ll work on the ones that have deadlines within the next 24 to 48 hours. Disclosure: I don’t always get them all done, but I try to make sure that even my sublist is prioritized.

How about you? What are some systems you’ve utilized and what bad habits are you trying to break?