Stressed? Stop Multitasking. Start Prioritizing.


By Ben Olsen, CEO, Analytics Guild

Stress in analytics comes in many forms: wrong calculations, architectural impasses, elusive bugs. Put them all together and give them a due date of “yesterday’s not soon enough,” and all these issues can create the uber-form of stress: paralysis. Our prioritization mechanisms become so bombarded by distractions and attempts to multitask (in case you haven’t heard, multitasking is dead) that we seem to lose the ability to decide what to work on or finish. 

That’s when we need the analytics master’s secret of prioritization, the beginning of all prioritization: the word “priority” never used to be plural. Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, writes: 

To be precise, the word is priority—not priorities—and it originated in the 14th century from the Latin prior, meaning “first.” If something mattered the most it was a “priority.” Curiously, priority remained unpluralized until around the 20th century, when the world apparently demoted it to mean generally “something that matters” and the plural “priorities” appeared.

Prioritization requires us to find the one thing we must do at the expense of all other things. And this applies no matter the size of the list, no matter how many stakeholders we have or bugs to fix. But this isn’t all that prioritization is; it’s not making a list and picking the most important thing. The next step is ranking all tasks for subsequent “one thing-ness.”

Prioritization is the exercise of ranking tasks for maximum impact and efficiency in preparation for execution. In order to rank our tasks according to this general definition, we need a method for ranking. Things like Eisenhower’s box, the urgent/important matrix, can always be used in a pinch to throw darts at tasks, but because we’re analytics professionals, let’s talk about how to force-rank a list with some other relevant variables. 

Exercise: Write down all your tasks for today.

Don’t consider long-term work or vague goals, but what’s on your calendar and mind now, for today, and score each task with the following four questions on a scale of 1-10—use your first reaction:

  1. Ask of every task, “Is this the lead domino?”
    Work efficiency isn’t always linear. One focused piece of work can provide a pattern for future problem-solving. Efficiency expert and master teacher Tim Ferriss speaks often about this heuristic: “Which of these [tasks], if done, make the the rest easier or irrelevant?”
  2. Identify the most terrible task.
    Sometimes the thing we’re avoiding should be the priority, and we’re actually performing mental gymnastics (without realizing it!) to shift our priorities in less efficient ways.
  3. Does it require more planning and communication, or is it just execution?
    Piles of requests around urgent needs from management and others usually result from unclear planning and poor setting of expectations. Save yourself time and plan/communicate more in future tasks. If a task is currently clear and executable, give it a lower score. 
  4. What's the potential impact?
    Impact can mean many things. Identify what impact means to you in your context: potential revenue impact, proximity to customers, “Rome is burning” scenarios, disappointment if not completed, and so on.

Once you’ve completed this quick exercise, force-rank your answers. Your priority, as well as a prioritized list, should come into focus. There you have it—your prioritized list! Further tweaks can be made as you perhaps start to weight these questions for your own needs.

The great thing about analytics professionals is that we are poised to master prioritization by virtue of our existing skills. Perhaps the reason “priority” became plural in our culture cannot be identified, nor reversed. But by reintroducing that concept of “one thing” and dumping the myth of multitasking, we are able to approach the work ahead of us clearly, avoid paralysis, and do our jobs with incredible efficiency no matter what comes our way.