Are you making a difference?

Whether at school, at work, or in personal life, there is always more work to be done, but how do you choose what to work on next? What will simply mark a task “done” vs. make you successful, launch a feature vs. grow the company, improve the product vs. annihilate the competition? To me, this is an important question which is worth asking myself every week. Without proper prioritization it is really easy to work hard and get nothing done. Trust me, I know.

When I started my first company, I had to teach myself to code in order to launch it. Learning to code was a brutal and a magical experience, and by the time the company was up and running, I got “okay” at it. I wasn’t great, but I knew enough to throw spaghetti at the wall and have it stick. For all purposes things were fine. When we hit harder times though, I failed to recognize that my job as the CEO was to stop coding and to refocus back on customers and their needs. I dug deeper into code, wishing in some mysterious way to code my way out. It did not work.

That was a hard pill to swallow, but the experience taught me that in life there are often two types of work to be done. First type is the work that you have to do to get ahead. The second type is the one that you know how to do, that you can do, but you probably shouldn’t be doing because the output of that work is marginal. Sometimes the two overlap, and when that happens fireworks go off, life is beautiful, and working is fun. But often times, the work that needs to be done is not my first choice of work, yet it is the most important. Often times, the important work is something that I haven’t done yet and I fear not doing it well. Yet when I think careful of everything that needs to be done and measure its potential outcome independently of my immediate ability to do it, it is almost always crystal clear which tasks should come first.

Let’s say for example, you want to test a startup idea. You can code and design a website, setup your bank account, come up with a beautiful logo, and then launch it on Product Hunt, only to find out that nobody cares for it. That’s the long and unnecessary path. Conversely, you could take out your phone with a Square reader and offer your service to the first person that fits in your target market. Talk to them and ask for money. This second approach is harder to implement because it requires actually talking to people, but outside of that, the second approach requires substantially less time and most likely yields 100x more learning per unit of time spent.

Continuous prioritization based on the expected outcome of my effort, that’s how I like to do things now. Try it out or find your own method, you have been warned :)