I've talked a lot before about priorities in a macro sense-- that it's a good idea to have one large overriding first priority. In my case, that priority is SETT. So when another really exciting project comes across my desk, I can easily turn it down and just focus on SETT. On a daily basis, though, SETT isn't actually my top momentary priority at all times. If it was, I wouldn't ever eat or sleep, because working on SETT would be more important.
One of the keys to high efficiency (which translates directly to high productivity) is knowing what you're doing next. The biggest indicator on whether or not I'll have a productive day is whether or not I know exactly what I should be working on. When there's one big fix that needs to be created or one big feature that needs to be built, I have no problem putting in a 12-14 hour day. On the other hand, when I have ten low priority things I could work on, I tend to get much less done.
These deliberations happen outside of SETT, too. If I have a good block of SETT work to do, should I skip my daily blog post? What if a friend invites me to tea?
Without a clear hierarchy of priorities, it's easy to succumb to decision paralysis. I might start a paragraph of a blog post, but then when it's not coming together well, go answer some emails. To combat this, I decided to take the time and write out my micropriorities. Here they are with notes:
1. Critical SETT bug fix. If there's a security issue or if SETT is down, I will drop everything to fix it, always. This includes going to bed on time and eating meals.
2. Things I've committed to. I believe that it's extremely important to follow through with what I say I'll do, and to do so in a timely manner. I will actually compromise other high priorities for this, because I believe that reliability is part of the bedrock that makes me a productive and trustworthy person. So if I tell someone that I'll bring them to the airport, I'll be there on time to pick them up rather than work. Because keeping SETT is an agreement I have with all of our customers, though, it will override an agreement I have with a single person to keep SETT running.
2b. Reading after midnight. Once midnight comes around, reading until I sleep overrides all priorities except for things I've committed to and critical SETT stuff.
3. Meditation and working out. Both of these activities create cumulative benefit that affects many areas of my life. They build my willpower and my health, which improve everything else on this list. Unless I've committed to do something that conflicts (like lead a trip in Japan), I will get these two done.
4. Consuming two healthy meals and one pot of good tea. Like meditation and working out, good food and tea provide cumulative benefits. They are slightly lower priority because I enjoy them and will seek them naturally, so I'm not as worried as breaking the habit.
5. One blog post a day. This blog is read by thousands of people and the feedback I get tells me that it's been an important factor in a subset of those reader's lives. It's also been a really positive factor in my life, allowing me to become a better writer, connect with some really great people, and create a body of work. I've been writing for eight years now, making it the longest running project of my life, so I do what's necessary to keep it going.
6. High priority SETT work. I divide SETT work into different categories because it's the background of my day. If I didn't allow certain other things to override certain classes of work, I wouldn't be able to keep myself healthy and mentally sharp. High priority SETT work includes bugs where stuff isn't displayed properly, new features that will have a big impact, RSS issues, user account issues, and issues that are preventing bloggers from publishing posts. There's also a subjective element to this, where features I'm really excited about might be bumped.
7. A few hours of socialization per week. I play poker with a friend for a couple hours on Mondays and Fridays (but won't go if he's not going), and I have tea with good friends almost every week. The first 5-10 hours of this are at this priority, but they drop off after that to the point that I won't really schedule them.
8. Some Travel. Up to a few good trips a year, I will prioritize travel. It broadens my perspective, helps me build language skills, and allows me to visit and make friends all around the world. Lots of high priority SETT work will prohibit me from booking any trips, but lower priority won't.
9. One masterpiece per week. Every week I try to experience one masterpiece. I define a masterpiece as a great work (musical, opera, symphony, art exhibit, ballet, speech) or just being in nature. This is to keep my own standards high and to inspire me. When I see something that required a great amount of effort to produce, it motivates me to continue to put great effort in on my projects. I don't actually keep track of this, but I try to average roughly one a week.
10. Email. Not all email is prioritized equally, and the amount of time I have available to me also factors in. If I have a lot of time and a bunch of low-urgency emails, I'll probably skip them for the day in favor of a good block of SETT work. On the other hand, if I have an hour of spare time and some urgent stuff in my box, email might get bumped above my daily blog post. On average, though, it's right around the same level as low priority SETT work.
11. Low priority SETT work. It may seem strange that the bulk of SETT work is my last priority, but actually there are thousands of other priorities below it. I never get to those priorities because there's always low priority SETT work to be done. Non-SETT priorities above this level are all limited (two meals, 5-10 hours of socialization, one masterpiece, 2-5 trips per year), so they can't fill my time.
A couple interesting things to notice here:
Habits get bumped
I made the conscious choice to prioritize habits over other really important things. I believe that a habit that is followed consistently is worth much more than a habit that is followed inconsistently, so making sure I follow through is a matter of efficiency. Sticking to hard habits also creates willpower and discipline, which are traits that carry over into my regular work. I believe that I'm actually able to produce more high priority SETT work by bumping it for meditation, diet, and (maybe) exercise.
When I'm on top of my habits, which is probably 90% of the time, I also feel more effective and confident. This keeps me in a positive and proactive mood, which helps me stick to my priorities.
Inspiration over Low Priority
My goal is to be doing as much high priority SETT work as possible. Critical work probably means that I've screwed something up, and low priority might mean that I'm not properly inspired (although sometimes it just means that some slogging has to be done).
For months I couldn't figure out a good way to have infinite indented comments, which was something that was really important to me. I remember exactly when I came up with the idea that is now implemented-- I was riding my motorcycle on the way back from the Legion of Honor Art Museum in San Francisco. Maybe it was a coincidence that I came up with it after admiring Van Gogh and Monet's paintings and Rodin's sculptures, or maybe experiencing greatness put me in a mindset conducive to producing my own little masterpiece.
Travel and social interaction are also forms of inspiration. Since getting really serious on SETT I've become brutally restrictive about who I spend time with. I meet up with good friends, people I find inspiring, and people who are introduced glowingly from a friend. When I travel I make an effort to seek out masterpieces (best Oolong in China, Macchu Picchu in Peru, etc) and to immerse myself in the culture.
It's an interesting experience to articulate your micropriorities and to see them stacked up on top of each other. Combatting indecision becomes a lot easier when you can scan down the list and see what you haven't done yet. I've meditated today, and have scheduled my workout and meals, so once I finish this blog post, I'll move on to high priority SETT work. There's no real decision making to be done because I have this blueprint for my days.
Your priorities are probably much different than mine, so my list may bear no resemblance to yours. That's a consequence of having different macropriorities. The important thing is to know what those macropriorities are, and to design micropriorities that support them.
You mention taking 2-5 trips a year. On average, how much time do you spend on each of these trips? Days, weeks?
I love these posts and really look forward to them appearing in my in box! I'm realising that I don't plan enough and often over commit to the wrong things. Things that matter to me and are really important (meditation, excercise, diet) often suffer. It's interesting to read how you plan activity, view the world and develop positive habits. It is balanced and realistic and it is definitely helping me improve my approach. Thank you!
Something that's been bugging me: what is SETT short for?
My guess: it's the four letter domain you happened to be able to get?
Also: could you write a post on the technical stack of SETT and your design decisions?
I'd also like to know what SETT is short for. Interesting theory, Random :)
I've been trying to tie down some sort of daily schedule where all my habits and priorities are laid out sequentially. Often the schedule gets thrown off because not every day is clean and perfect. I think that having a descending list of micropriorities is a much more elegant way to go about this. I can still keep a schedule structure, but if something gets thrown off, all I have to do is check back on the micropriority list and get to work on the highest priority that hasn't been filled yet for the day.
Thanks for the inspiring post!
New reader, realizing I'm sharing several of your prioritations (except of course your SETT prioritation). Keep up the good work, love reading your blog.
It's always better to look at actions than words. If someone says that they're committed to being healthy, but then they order a fat stack of pancakes... well, maybe they're not so committed after all. Recently I've been thinking about this truism in terms of goals and priorities. Your priorities are what they look like.
When you ask someone what his goals are, especially a young person, you'll probably end up hearing a bunch of talk about making money, traveling the world, getting healthy, learning some big skill, or contributing to the world in some way. Great goals. But if we examine people's actions, do they line up with these goals? Sometimes, but very often they're directly contrary to their goals.
The average person eats unhealthy food, spends a lot of time at a job he doesn't like, engages in junk entertainment like TV or video games, maybe drinks some alcohol, and then goes to sleep. Is he getting closer to his goals? Is he getting farther away from them? What can we conclude about the intent behind his goals?
Maybe the most interesting question would be: what goals is he moving towards? I'd say that he's moving towards comfort. Not decadent comfort like a hammock on a pristine beach, but the comfort of not having to think or exert himself. The comfort of mediocrity. And to be clear-- if someone says that comfort is his only goal, I'd have no criticism of these actions. I have different goals, but even I'm not arrogant enough to judge someone by my own goals rather than his own.
It's particularly challenging with tasks that require intense bursts of time and energy. Coding, writing, inteking strange new behaviors and worldviews. These are things that require intense focus, energy, and enthusiasm and just the right mental state. That can be very hard to maintain, and in fact, is often not even beneficial to maintain in other areas of your life that you have a higher degree of mastery and require less arousal to reach your optimal performance. So I think it's natural to fall into and out of this "high-energy" mode, which many of us associate with exponential productivity.
But there are some easy traps to fall into here.
One of the biggest is ignoring the skill of putting yourself in this mode at will. There is not actually a magic genie in your walls. You need to be able to say, tomorrow morning I have time to write, and I will write, and a part of that is getting yourself into "the zone." If you are failing to get yourself into "the zone," then you need to step back and work on that skill independently. Maybe that means re-awakening your original inspiration (thinking about all the people you will help with this book) or maybe it is preparing your vessel (low-fat, high fiber diet the day before, 6 hours of sleep, wake up, run, then get right to work... or whatever ritual ends up working). But these are factors that need to be evaluated.
I think another big one is denial. Thinking that you can maintain this state longer than you can, physio/psychologically or just within the constraints of the rest of your life. It's important to "pump yourself up" to the very high levels necessary to achieve your goals. It's also important to deal with the realities and interruptions and diversions of life as they come, then be able to return to that state.
Anyway, with regard to myself and my major goals, this week was largely a wash.