curtis fisher.

how to prioritize (nature inspired)

- 10 Minute Read

You're doing too much already

I've fallen into the trap time and again where accomplishing my goals seems to be a function of doing more things.

  1. Need to make more money? Take on more hours / jobs.
  2. Looking to exponentially increase profits? Work with more customers.
  3. Want to have more fun? Find some more friends to do things with...

"If I could just do more, things would be better." It's a seductive way to think. The problem with more is that it often means more in more areas than one.

  1. Taking on more hours or jobs? Well, that means more time spent working and more burnout.
  2. Seeking to take on more customers? It might increase your revenue, but you also have to factor in the additional effort managing those relationships and the marketing effort (and expense) to attract them in the first place.
  3. Trying to find new friends? That means hours spent on searching and socializing; those hours could have been used enriching your relationships with your current friends.

The pattern is clear; doing more also means doing more than you planned for.

A lesson from nature about doing less

Inventors often study and mimic nature for innovative ideas: the first glider was inspired by the albatross which eventually became the modern plane; velcro was inspired by the hooked barbs of the thistle, and sonar was inspired by echolocation used by both bats and dolphins. Entrepreneurs have a lot to learn from nature as well. In particular, the plant kingdom provides a great example.

What you can learn from the plant kingdom

Beside me is a Pothos hanging from the ceiling. At the time of writing this, it was my first plant ever. The salesman who sold it to me said they thrive in indirect light and don't need a lot of water. Purchasing it was easy; it would spruce up my room and I barely needed to do anything for it... Or so I thought.

Well, as it turns out, even though they don't need a lot of water, they still need to drink at some point; I grossly under-watered it. The leaves furthest from the window started turning yellow within two weeks. One half of the plant was completely green and healthy, and the other half was on its last leaves (err... legs).

Withering Pothos - Half Green, Half Yellow

I did everything I knew at the time to revive the dying leaves; I added more water, turned it around so that the yellow leaves were facing the sun, and even tried moving it directly to the window. Nothing seemed to work. I finally turned to the internet only to learn that once the leaves begin to turn yellow, there's practically no chance for them to recover.

Saddened for my new plant, I pruned the yellow leaves and hoped for the best. To my surprise, the plant began to perk up, the green leaves became even greener, and within a week my plant was looking more vibrant than ever before.

So what's the lesson here? For a plant, its leaves are like little green investments. Each leaf is an opportunity to capture more sunlight. Growing a new leaf is not without sacrifice, however; it takes a lot of energy from the sun, water, and soil nutrients for a plant to create one. When the investment doesn't pay off as expected for the plant, it will prioritize its energy efforts to the leaves bringing in the most sun, leaving the weak leaves to die.

As reasoning individuals, the message to be gleaned here is this—sometimes we need to prune the dying leaves in our lives so that the others can thrive.

How to effectively prioritize

We can get so caught up in being better and doing more that we neglect to take the necessary step back to consider what's already working. If that sounds like you, it's because all of us do it. Humans are wired to find and fix problems.

Tens of thousands of years ago, our need to solve problems enabled us to invent tools, create fire, and forge weapons. We developed a mechanism to advance beyond the pace of evolution, and it's what ultimately enabled our dominance in the animal kingdom. In modern-day, where most of our fundamental human needs are an afterthought, this fundamental need to solve problems leads us to create new problems where they don't exist.

The 80/20 Rule - Pareto Principle

The trick of overcoming natural instinct is realigning our priorities with the more important problems. The hard part then becomes deciding what the important problems are.

As a general rule of thumb, roughly 80% of the results come from 20% of the effort. This is aptly called the 80/20 rule, or more formally, the Pareto principle.

Pareto Principle

Researchers have found that this principle can be applied in a diverse set of contexts; 80% of goals are scored by 20% of players, 20% of drivers account for 80% of accidents, and 20% of a company's service or product offerings result in 80% of the profits. And as you can imagine, the list goes on.

The benefit of thinking in 80/20 terms is that it forces us to consider what is really driving value in our lives.

  • Perhaps a small set of your friends are bringing you the most joy. Focus on your relationship with those ones.
  • As a team leader, there may be a few standout team members that are contributing to the bulk of your team's output. Give them your attention and help them improve.
  • Or possibly, a relatively tiny fraction of the clients you work with are generating the greatest returns. Those are the type of clients you want to keep working with.

Once you find the best-performing leaves, focus your efforts on those and prune the rest.

Determining what to do, and what to delegate

Sometimes there are leaves in our life that we probably shouldn't prune. Consider accounting for example—a business owner needs to keep their books in order, and they should pay their taxes in full and on time if they want to stay in business. The energy spent maintaining the books is not necessarily creating profit for the business, but it is a necessary battle that needs to be fought. Hiring an accountant is a common path that many business owners take. It's certainly not cheap; however, when you factor in the cost of your time spent managing the books, along with the opportunity cost associated with not spending that time in profit-generating activities, the returns on that investment are often worth it.

The Eisenhower Matrix

This graph is a simple tool that you can use to determine how to execute on your priorities.

Eisenhower Matrix

If the task is urgent, but not important then you should consider finding someone else to do it for you.

If you're working in a team, for example, consider what activities you are doing that contribute most to the team, and focus on those. You may then work with another team member to delegate or trade away the activities that they might be better at or would be happy to take on. This can be a great way to align both of your priorities while also making sure the team is performing at a higher level. You can apply this same line of thinking to chores with a roommate or partner, to team sports, and even when picking who's going to be driving or navigating on a long road trip.

Increasing your Impact

We've discussed the 80/20 rule and the importance of prioritizing good leaves pruning bad leaves. To take it a step further, 80/20 applies to effort but not necessarily magnitude.

For example, a strategist negotiating a six-month contract for a Fortune 500 company produces a fare greater output than a small business owner negotiating a six-month contract. In both instances, the contracts take six months to negotiate, however, the magnitude of the outcome is vastly different between the two.

The amount of effort that you put in does not reflect the magnitude of the output.

When you really think about it, that's a crazy thing to consider! If you want to produce at a higher order of magnitude, then you can't rely on giving it more of your effort; something has to fundamentally change in the way that you do things. What is that change? The magnitude of the input.

For example, if you want to make more money on your projects, instead of taking on more projects, ask for more money on each project! It sounds simple but it's an often-overlooked approach. I've incorporated this into my own small web development agency with great effect. In the past 6 months, I've been able to double my income by simply asking for double what I was charging before. Of course, clients have pushed back, and a few have even dropped me for being too expensive. Rather than reducing the price, I instead prioritized the ones that stuck around and refocused my marketing efforts on bringing in more of those types of clients. This is a move that has paid off for me and can benefit you as well.

Build the confidence to ask for more than you've ever asked before. You need to find the nerve to say that "this project is going to cost x," without faltering on the price. It's a sure-fire way to increase the magnitude of your input without increasing the labor of your effort.

Concluding Thoughts

In conclusion, those that stand out are the ones who have learned to prioritize what's important and prune what isn't. They take advantage of the 80/20 rule to target the 20% of the efforts that are resulting in 80% of the results. They then realign their initiatives to prioritize the 20% and either eliminate or hire away the other 80%. Furthermore, those that succeed the most are those that aren't afraid to raise the stakes. They raise the price when they have too much work, or they go after bigger contracts when they're trying to increase the magnitude of their effort.

Finally, it's important to keep your priorities at the forefront at all times. There are plenty of opportunities for you to find more attractive clients, to take on more exciting projects, or to earn more from your efforts. At the end of the day though, we don't want to fall back into the trap of doing more for more's sake. By saying yes to every great opportunity, you're adding more complexity to your life, even if those opportunities will generate a profit. More is the enemy of simple, and sometimes the greatest things in life are the simple ones.