Five Ways To Prioritize Better

by lynettebye20 min read27th Jun 20202 comments

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This piece is cross-posted on my blog here.

I’m going to let you in on a secret of productivity.  

Those people you admire, the ones who make you wonder how on earth they accomplish so much? Those people might work more hours than you or be more talented or more passionate. Or they might not

But they probably work on better things, in better ways. 

Now, before you protest that that’s the same thing as being talented or smart or hardworking, let me unpack that claim. Working on better things means they carefully choose what’s worth caring about, and what they won’t give a fuck about. Working in better ways means they carefully choose to do the most important actions to accomplish those goals.  

In short, working on better things, in better ways is … prioritization. Prioritizing well is the common thread behind successful people. 

Because prioritizing well is so freaking important. Cumulative good choices can multiply your impact tens or hundreds of times. You can’t work tens or hundreds as many hours in a day. You can choose what to do and how to do it most effectively. 

But prioritization isn’t just following through on the actions you already know you should do -- though that’s important too. Knowing what you should do is actually hard. There’s a long gap between wanting to make the world brighter and knowing how to do it. I want to acknowledge that. 

So, bear with me a bit. This post is longer than usual because I’m trying to give you a bunch of examples to really get a taste of what prioritizing feels like. I think every one of the examples will help you understand better, but, if you have a hard time focusing for 14 pages, maybe read one tool now and come back another time for others?

I’ve organized the examples around five specific concepts that you can use to help apply the mindset more effectively: Theory of Change, Lean Tests, Bottlenecks, Ballpark Estimates, and the 80/20 Rule. I’ll start each section with some concrete stories before summarizing the concept and how it helps you prioritize. 

Note: The following vignettes, apart from the ones about me and the interview with Tara, are fictional. However, they are inspired by multiple real conversations I've had. If you find yourself thinking "this could never happen", rest assured that, though these examples are fictional, they are based on real conversations.  

I. Theory of Change

1. Career planning

Phil is telling his friend Erica about his plans to switch into AI safety. 

Phil: “So, I was thinking I’d stay at my job for another six months. I have a bonus coming then, so it’s a better time to make a career switch. ” 

Erica: “Huh, I’m surprised that your current job is the best plan for your goals. I thought you said the most important goal was building your machine learning skills?”

Phil: “That’s right, but I’m picking up some machine learning on the job, so it’s also skill building!”

Erica: “But you’re only spending a bit of your time on ML, and it’s not like all of that learning will transfer to the jobs you’re applying for anyway. Wouldn’t you learn a lot more by independently studying some directly relevant ML?”  

Phil: “Hmm...you’ve got a point. I could learn a lot more if I took a month off to just study. But that feels riskier, and I might have a hard time staying motivated.” 

Erica: “But also consider, you told me that you thought that working on AI safety was several times as impactful as your current role, at least in expectation. That means that spending six more months before switching is like wasting a whole year or more of impact.” 

Phil: “Man, you’re right. I could start applying now so I’m ready to switch right after I get my bonus. But, I don’t actually know if I’m ready! I don’t know if I have the skills I would need to get hired.” 

Erica: “Then it sounds like you need to find out.” 

Phil: “I know a couple of people I could ask, and I can look at the job posts to see what skills they’re looking for. That should help. And if I’m not ready, I’ll probably get a better idea exactly what I should study. Then I can make a timeline so I’m ready to switch as soon as I can.”  

Erica: “How do you feel about that plan?” 

Phil: “Pretty good. I think leaving my job feels really risky given how uncertain I am, and it was making me avoid thinking about switching. Investigating more without feeling like I need to commit to leaving helps.” 

When Phil worked backwards from his end goal, he realized his original plan was actually a pretty bad plan (at least for him), because it wasn’t going directly for the goal. Despite a lot of uncertainty, Phil’s best guess is that applying sooner is much better. Waiting would probably mean he’d lose a few months that could have been spent on much more valuable work. But at worst, he might never make a plan that will actually have an impact unless he stops and thinks harder -- it’s really easy to default to the status quo, even when that’s a bad decision. 

2. Publishing an op-ed

Elle wants to publish an op-ed. But she doesn’t really know how op-eds get published. So, she asks her friend Peter - who has published op-eds before - about the process.

Elle: “So, I was thinking I’d write an article, send it to a bunch of newspapers, and cross my fingers. What do you think?”

Peter: “Well, that’s probably not going to work out. You don’t just write an op-ed and send it to places; you need to really tailor the piece to the magazine you want to publish it in.”

Elle: “Huh, how would I do that?” 

Peter: “First, you should check out other pieces on the platform you’re interested in. If a venue has already published several pieces on similar topics, then it’s likely that an editor there likes that topic and is more likely to accept a new perspective on the issue. Second…”

Elle lacked an accurate model of how her actions would lead to her goal because she didn’t understand the world well enough. Creating an accurate theory of change required learning what actions would generally suffice to accomplish her goal. If she hadn’t learned how the process actually worked, she might have wasted a lot of effort without ever getting the piece published. But she had no way of knowing that until she asked. 

3. Studying for the GRE

Like many students before me, I didn’t really care if I remembered the content after the test. I just wanted to spend as little time as possible to get a GRE score I was happy with. But how to do that? 

According to test prep websites, I should have worked through a GRE prep book (preferably theirs). After all, those are explicitly designed to prepare you for the GRE. They include everything I needed to know; concept review, vocabulary quizzes, and practice tests. 

But I knew they would actually waste time. 

See, I knew that spreading my time evenly over the material was an inefficient way to learn. I’ll learn a lot more studying stuff I don’t know yet, rather than reviewing stuff I already knew. Neither the study guide nor the vocab would have focused me on just my weakest areas, so I would have spent hours rereading familiar material. 

Instead, I optimized my study for rapidly improving my weaknesses: take practice quant section tests (my weakest section), study the questions I missed, summarize the concepts behind the questions, repeat. Those three steps saved me dozens of hours.

Theory of Change

In each of these examples, the person wanted to accomplish a particular goal.  They worked backwards from that goal to find the steps that would make them likely to succeed at the goal. 

Elle figured out how the publishing world worked so that she knew what actions were likely to succeed. Phil found that a different path would allow him to have an impact sooner and reduce his chances of failing. I worked backwards to cut out unnecessary work and save time. 

Each person needed to know their goal, figure out what steps would reliably lead to that goal, and then focus only on those steps. That’s the theory of change -- this model of the causal chain of actions that lead to successfully accomplishing the end goal. You might need to investigate how the world works or go learn something if you don’t have enough information, in order to accurately pick what will have an impact.  

So, if you want to apply this tool, ask yourself -- what steps will actually make you likely to achieve your goals?

(If you want more, here’s a great post on theory of change.)

Working out your goals and your theory of change is a prerequisite step to other prioritization techniques. For example, it’s going to be hard to use the next concept (lean tests) without having a least a starting point for what you want to optimize. 

II. Lean Tests

1. Starting a business

The summer after my freshman year of college, I was hired to start a company making personal biographies.

I immediately started finding contractors to create the books, getting prototypes made, and building a website. This seemed reasonable to me then – after all, that was my job description. And I did a good job. At the end of the summer, I had a full production plan ready for when the first customer purchased.

Except, no one ever purchased a single book.

If I had started by talking with potential customers, I could have known in a month that the idea was doomed from the start. The target audience had no interest in the elaborate $10,000 product my employer envisioned. But I didn’t know that, because I created a product before I confirmed people were ready to buy it. I could have saved an entire summer of work if I had just tried talking to potential customers first.

2. Conducting research

Max is asking his friend Ellen for advice about his research project. 

Max: “Aw man, I’m super bummed -- I spent six months researching this policy area. Then when I sent my write-up draft for feedback, someone sent me an unpublished document where they’d already done part of the research! Plus, now I need to do more research to answer their questions. I feel like I wasted so much time already, and I’m not even done. What could I have done?” 

Ellen: “That sucks. Hmm, there’s a post called Research as a Stochastic Decision Process that might help avoid similar situations in the future. Want to hear about it?” 

Max: “Yeah!”

Ellen: “The really simple version is to first do the parts of the task that are most likely to fail or change what other steps you will do, rather than doing the easiest parts first. This way, you reduce uncertainty about which tasks are necessary as quickly as possible. For example, if your task has three steps and one is most likely to fail, you save time in expectation by doing that one first, because you might not need to do the other steps at all.” 

Max: “Yeah... I did the easy tasks first here. Like, doing all the research was a lot of work, but it was easy to just keep reading. Asking for feedback didn’t take much time, but it was hard. I got really anxious whenever I thought about sending the emails, and just kept doing more research, and then more research. But having that feedback earlier would have totally changed what things I choose to research. It could have saved me hundreds of hours.” 

3. Learning a new subject

Alex wanted to do some independent study to see if he would be a good fit for working on AI safety. Based on 80,000 Hours recommendations, he found a few promising math courses that he could work through on the weekends over a few months.  

Before he got started, he asked a few acquaintances who worked on AI safety whether his plan made sense. They mostly thought it did, but agreed that several of the math topics he had planned to study weren’t immediately valuable. He could safely skip those for now.

Spending an hour sending those emails cut his months of study in half.

Lean Tests

In each of these examples, the person wanted to efficiently accomplish their goal. In the first two examples, the person failed to test quickly, and wasted time or failed entirely. In the third, by quickly testing their idea, the person exposed flaws early so that they could rapidly correct them or move on - increasing the proportion of their effort that actually made them succeed.

I spent an entire summer on a project that failed entirely because I didn’t test it early enough to change it into something that could succeed. Max could have saved hundreds of hours by asking for feedback upfront. Alex did save hundreds of hours by checking his plan before he implemented it.  

Each person could have broken their tasks into chunks to iterate on, getting feedback each step of the way, rather than risk wasting time by investing a lot of effort without feedback. 

Lean methodology is about continuously doing small tests to check that you’re on the right track. This allows you to iteratively making lots of corrections that move you towards your goal, even when you’re not sure what is required (or when you are sure but are wrong.) 

By finding the flaws early, you can change course early, minimize wasted time, and reduce the risk of ultimate failure. Better to know a project will fail before you put in months of effort that could have been spent on a project more likely to succeed. You could get feedback from more experienced people, your target audience, or the thing itself.

So, what is the first quick test you could create to get feedback and iterate? 

III. Bottlenecks

1. Anxiety

Anna is early in her journalism career. She’s talking to her partner Dan, a fellow writer, about her draft of a piece on factory farming. 

Dan: “Hey, did you pitch your idea to your supervisor today like you planned?” 

Anna: “No… I just got too nervous and couldn’t make the words come out. I think I want to keep working on it before I talk to her.” 

Dan: “Anna, your piece is great! You’ve been working on it for a year already. It’s not going to get better without feedback. All of your hard work won’t matter until someone sees it.”

Anna: “Yeah, you’re right. But I just feel so scared when I try. My chest gets tight and it feels hard to breathe.” 

Dan: “Anna, maybe it’s time to consider talking to someone about this. What do you think?”

Anna: “I’ve actually been thinking about it for a while now, and I think you’re right.” 

2. Procrastination

Mary had meant to get started on her final presentation for her internship two weeks ago. But she felt a wave of dread whenever she started to think about it, so her thoughts slid away to something less awful each time. Now the presentation is in a week, and the feeling has risen to panic mode. Yet she still can’t make herself even look at her research.

This isn’t a new feeling for Mary. She’s six months overdue on a write-up from her former research position. But whenever her former adviser sends an email asking for the report, a pit opens in Mary’s stomach.

Mary started coaching to tackle her persistent procrastination. Over the next year, Mary and I worked together to build up her ability to make better plans, set up habits to reduce distractions, learn to ask for help early and often, and find commitment mechanisms that work for her. 

After a year of working on this big bottleneck, she feels confident in doing her work by her deadlines. That work was an investment in herself that will pay off over the rest of her career.

3. Fatigue

Sometimes one issue will dominate everything else in regard to productivity, often a physical or mental health issue. In my case, it was fatigue. When you need to take three naps a day, you get less work done regardless of what other productivity tools you use.

So, it was worthwhile investing a bunch of time and effort to improve this. I tried a parade of experiments and tracked all the factors that I thought might influence my energy levels – including sleep times, sleep duration, hydration, exercise, medications, melatonin, doing a sleep study, temperature, naps, and nutrition. I tracked my energy levels and a changing subset of variables for 3-6 months, then compared the odds ratios for each variable.

Here, a bunch of small things cumulatively broke the bottleneck, primarily sleep duration (which was fixed by a consistent sleep schedule), exercise, hydration, and finally an antidepressant. 

While I still have issues with fatigue, it’s no longer the key thing holding me back.

Bottlenecks

In each of these examples, the person needed to get past one bottleneck that was holding them back from succeeding. Each bottleneck eclipsed other tasks, even valuable tasks, until the problem was addressed. 

Anna needed to work on her social anxiety before her hard work would ever see the light of day. Mary found she could accomplish several times as much once she got her procrastination under control. I had the energy to start a blog after I reduced my fatigue. 

Originally, bottlenecks referred to the “rate-limiting factors” that slow down the entire production line. In our examples, the bottlenecks are the tasks, beliefs, or problems that slow down or stop you from accomplishing other tasks. Each person made progress by identifying what was holding up other steps. Once they took care of the high-leverage factor, everything else went much faster. 

So, what are the one or two things you could change about yourself or your environment to accomplish twice as much?

IV. Ballpark Estimates 

1. Choosing projects 

Will is talking with his PhD supervisor, Kate, about feeling overwhelmed by too many projects. 

Will: “I think I just need to choose one or two to focus on, and put the rest on hold for now. But I want to work on all seven.” 

Kate: “Well, to start with, which ones are most important to work on?”

Will: “That’s the problem; they all seem important! Papers 1 and 2 have a good chance of being published in a good journal, which is important if I want to continue in academia. Paper 3 has a good collaborator, and I don’t want to let them down. And papers 4 and 5 are exciting. I think those ideas could really be impactful. Arrg...I just feel overwhelmed when I think about it, like I need to do them all.”

Kate: “Okay, let’s try a thought experiment. How much would you pay to have each of these projects magically completed? If it’s hard to think about paying with your own money, how much do you think Open Phil would pay to have the project completed?”

Will: “Argh, thats hard.” *15 minutes of brainstorming later* “Okay, paper 4 could be really big if it goes well, and 2 and 3 are maybe most important for my career. So I think I’d pay like $1000 each for papers 1 and 5, $1500 for papers 2 and 3, and $5000 for paper 4. But these are super crude, I’m really just guessing here.” 

Kate: “Crude numbers are fine. You’re really just trying to get a better sense of how you intuitively value each of these. Those numbers help clarify the ranking and rough magnitude of difference between the projects. Sounds like paper 4 is the best, and then 2 and 3 are a bit better than 1 and 5, all else equal. Now, which projects do you expect to take the least time?” 

Will: “Paper 3 for sure. My collaborator is doing a bunch of the work, so it’s probably half as big as the other papers. Between the others...really hard to say. Um, so maybe I’d sort them 3, 1, 4, 5, 2 from least to most time, but I’m really guessing here.”

Kate: “Based on value and time required, it sounds like you should spend most of your time on paper 4, plus some on paper 3.” 

Will: “But all of these are estimations! I’m not confident, and I could be really wrong.”

Kate: “You’re not going to be confident. Things are uncertain and will be uncertain no matter how long you think about it. So you have to make your best choice despite your uncertainty. Estimates are a way to try to make that choice as well as you can. And you should absolutely spend more than 5 minutes thinking about them. So, take a few days to think about your estimates in more depth. Maybe ask a couple of advisors. But, when you’re done, go with the highest expected value and stop worrying about it. You can change your plan if you get new information. For now, you’re doing the best you can, and that’s good enough.” 

Will: “I...think...I can do that. Thanks, Kate.” 

2. Learning a new skill

Lyra is talking with her coworker Mike about her plans for independent study to improve her coding skills.

Lyra: “So, I’m debating between spending a bigger chunk of time to really understand computer architecture or doing several small learning projects around things that came up in my job. I’m having a hard time making progress on either idea because I keep flipping back and forth about which seems most important.” 

Mike: “Can you try calculating the time required for the learning, and the time saved afterward, to calculate which is better?” 

Lyra: “So I tried doing that earlier. I estimated the architecture learning would take me fifty to a hundred hours to do, and save maybe twenty or thirty hours a year. On the other hand, one of the smaller projects would only take five or ten hours, and it would save me a few minutes a day, which adds up to ten or fifteen hours a year.” 

Mike: “That sounds like the smaller project is clearly a better deal - it would pay for itself within one year, while the bigger project would need more like three years to break even.” 

Lyra: “I know, but the bigger project feels important anyway. I think... the bigger project isn't just about saving time. I care about it because it also opens up the option to do new things that I can’t do right now. But I’m not sure if that benefit is big enough to make it worth doing.” 

Mike: “Could you run an experiment for five hours or so to see if it seems like you’re able to do new things?” 

Lyra: “Yeah, that sounds good. If it looks like I’m not, then I can go ahead with the smaller project since that’s better for saving time.” 

Even though Lyra didn’t follow her numbers exactly, they were helpful for clarifying the decision. 

3. Job hunting

Mark has just graduated from university, and he wants to complete an ML masters to be an engineer at an AI safety org or earn to give if that doesn’t work out. 

However, the programs cost between $15,000 and $24,000, and Mark isn’t comfortable going into debt. So his plan is to get a job now, apply for the masters’ programs in the fall, and save up money until he starts the following year. 

Mark’s previous summer job has offered him a full-time role for $15 an hour. However, his undergrad thesis supervisor encourages him to look into software engineering jobs, which the supervisor thinks he’s qualified for. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have enough time to take the summer job while also applying. 

Mark isn’t sure about it, but his supervisor convinces him to look into some job postings for local positions. So Mark puts together the following estimates.  

Based on those numbers, he decides it’s worth delaying starting at his previous job to spend a couple of months applying to engineering roles. If it works out, he’ll earn a lot more. If the job hunt doesn’t seem promising after a few months, he can go back to the other role.

Ballpark Estimates

In each of these examples, putting numbers on the uncertainty helped the person prioritize. Estimating didn’t cleanly decide their priorities, but it reduced uncertainty. It revealed blind spots, such as missing important considerations or thinking two things were comparable when one was actually way more important. By quantifying, ranking, or crunching numbers, they were able to make a better guess at what should be prioritized. 

Quantifying his expected value and time required helped Will increase his expected value per hour of work 2x compared to working on one of the papers at random. Quantifying return on investment for her time learning helped Lyra identify what factors she was overlooking, so now she can evaluate whether the project is worthwhile. Mark decided to apply to more ambitious jobs based on his numbers, and got a role making >50% more after three months of applying. 

Classically, Fermi estimates are back-of-the-envelope calculations intended to quickly approximate the correct answer, usually when the real answer is difficult to get. Here, people estimated values and costs of different options, so they could approximate the return on their investment and compare opportunity costs. 

Since we’re frequently prioritizing amid uncertainty, even moderately reducing that uncertainty improves decisions. Often you have some data easily available even when you feel uncertain. Sometimes this is just making your intuition concrete. Sometimes it is actually gathering data and crunching numbers. You should take care not to be overconfident in your estimates, but even totally made up numbers can sometimes be useful, such as when you want to make a decision between competing intuitions. 

So, what returns do you get on the time and effort invested? How does this compare with your other options?

V. 80/20 Rule

1. Working hours experiment

Bill was frustrated by a consistent dip in energy each afternoon. He felt less motivated during this time, and sluggish and slow even when he forced himself to work. 

Working out in the afternoon helped him feel more energetic afterward, but taking a forty-five-minute break made him feel like he needed to work late. 

He knew that subjective experience doesn't always match actual output, so he tried quickly recording how many words per hour he wrote for a week. Bill also noted how he subjectively felt during that time. At the end, the data suggested that his output dropped by nearly half during that period, and only gradually picked back up over the later afternoon. 

He kept recording the data while he took some workout breaks. Although the data was noisy, he found that he got about as much done on days when he worked out and days when he didn’t. 

Given that, he decided to work out each afternoon without feeling obligated to work late.  

2. Optimizing school

Sarah is a college freshman asking Alice, a senior who works in the same lab, for tips on how to succeed in college. 

Sarah: “So, what are the most important things you do to get good grades?” 

Alice: “Umm, I plan each day the night before so I know exactly what I need to do, and then I set aside a couple of hours when I turn off my phone and study without any distractions. That’s big. I usually do the most important task first so that I don’t risk running out of time. Oh, and I have a question in mind while I’m doing research, so that I don’t lose too much time going down rabbit holes.” 

Sarah: “Is there something else that helps you reliably manage your workload?” 

Alice: “So, I start my planning by looking at which projects are worth a lot of a grade or that I care a lot about learning, and I choose which projects deserve the most time and which to just do the bare minimum. For example, going from an okay paper to a great one takes a lot more work, so I’ll only do that if I really care about the paper. Otherwise, I’ll wait to start the paper until the day before it’s due, and then race like crazy. It forces me to get the paper done without spending too much time on it.” 

Sarah: “Thanks, Alice. That sounds helpful. I’ve been feeling really overwhelmed by taking three really hard classes, and I really want to get As in all of them. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, I know.” 

Alice: “It’s great that you’re asking for advice, Sarah, that will probably help you figure college out way faster than I did. But I want to ask, why do you care about getting good grades?” 

Sarah: “Wha-what?”

Alice: “Why are As the thing you’re aiming for right now?” 

Sarah: “That doesn’t even make sense. Grades are just what we’re supposed to do here. Wait, I’ll try to work out the reason… Because in school, grades are how we know we’re doing well or where we need to improve. And how future employers or grad schools know that we’re good.” 

Alice: “That’s fair, but it’s only a small part of what people will care about in the future. You’re only a freshman, but you’re already working in this lab and your research seems really promising. You obviously love doing it. But you’re only doing five hours a week here because you say you don’t have enough time to do this and study. If you instead spent a lot more time on research and did really cool things there, I bet both grad schools and future employers would care about that more than a 4 point GPA.”

Sarah: “Hmm.”

Alice: “I mentioned earlier how important it is to decide which parts of a project deserve more time, and which to just put in the minimum. Well, it’s even more important to carefully choose what projects or classes are worth a lot of time, and when it would be better to do the minimum you can in some classes, so that you can invest heavily in others.”

Sarah: “I need to think about this. What you’re saying kind of makes sense, but I’m worried that if I’m doing the bare minimum, my grades will drop too much.”

Alice: “Good things to consider. I’m applying to med school, so my grades matter. But I chose to take easy classes for my gen eds and electives, so that I can put in a lot of time here at the lab without damaging my GPA. That’s the right decision for me. I’ll bet it’s worthwhile for you to spend some time thinking about what you want to be perfectionist about.” 

3. High-value rest time

In my interview with Tara Mac Auley, she advised trying a bunch of leisure activities to decide which are most valuable for you. 

“If you take time to rest and you come back, and it doesn't feel better then probably the ways that you've chosen to rest aren't in fact the most restorative things you could be doing. And so I would suggest trying a lot of different things: a lot of different types of social activities, or physical activities, or intellectually engaging activities. 
I did this a lot when I was in my early 20s. I picked a random event from meetup.com every day for about two months, and I just had to go to whichever thing came up. And then I would write down beforehand whether I thought I would enjoy it and feel drained or refreshed from that activity. And then I would compare afterward what I actually felt and, I don’t know, that was really informative and good for me.”

She used this type of process to identify the activities that best leave her rejuvenated and rested.

“Being near water and swimming, but not in a swimming pool, it has to be natural water. Being in nature. Reading a book, especially reading a book in a park or by a lake or something like that. Spending quality time with close friends or family just having a conversation for an hour with no particular goals, I find really rejuvenating. And eating a really nice meal; one where I can kind of savor all of the different tastes and textures….I go out dancing a lot on my own, to go and see music artists that I enjoy, and I just dance like a crazy person until I'm really tired and then I go home, and that's amazing.”

80/20 Rule

In each of these examples, the person wanted to prioritize the most valuable subset of possible actions. By identifying the higher-value actions, they could get more done for their effort. 

Bill did an experiment to find out which hours of work provided the most value, so he could make better decisions about when to work. Sarah prioritized the highest value work to get good grades, and started thinking about how much more valuable that effort would be if she prioritized the highest value goals to begin with. Tara experimented to find out which activities were the highest value fun for her, which she can now exploit 80/20 style. 

Based on the idea that 80% of an output comes from 20% of the input, the 80/20 rule suggests that the value per unit of effort varies a lot across different actions. Because outputs vary so much, explore more can unearth dramatically better options. So, similar to Tara, you need to try many actions first in order to effectively identify the top-performing subset. Once you’ve identified which actions are most valuable, you can narrow your focus to just that subset. Then your output will increase significantly for the same effort. 

So, what gives you the most value for the least effort? What can you cut with minimum loss so that you have extra resources to put toward what’s most valuable?

Conclusion

All of these stories are of how people tried to identify the most valuable actions they could take to accomplish their goals. They reduced uncertainty, said no to other actions, and made choices based on their best guesses. 

You might be tempted to say these examples don’t feel important. That choosing which skill to learn or overcoming anxiety can’t change the world. And maybe you’re right, if you only look at that one step. 

If you put all of these together, you have a mindset that searches for the most valuable goals, builds models to effectively accomplish them, iteratively tests assumptions against the world, logically weighs the opportunity cost, and judiciously spends time and effort to get the most impact possible. That mindset touches all your decisions. 

And that’s prioritization. 

Because prioritization isn’t something you do once a month. It’s not a magical ability that lets you do everything - quite the opposite, in fact. It’s the gut-deep sense that your time and effort are limited and you need to choose what to do, because you can’t do everything. 

But when you do that? When you put all of your reason and tools to the task of choosing the most valuable goals? 

Then we have a chance. Choose important goals, and you could save lives from dying of malaria or build a future where pandemics don’t wipe out hundreds of thousands. Accomplish those goals, and the world becomes better. If you need to take care of your own mental health or build skills first, then do it. You’re still nudging the world in the right direction. 

And if you don’t? ...Then we’re still right where we are now. We’ve lost out on some of the goodness and wonder the world could have had. There’s the sense of being so close and just missing what could have been. 

That’s why I want to convey the mindset of what it feels like to prioritize. 

So, here are five questions to take with you. Use them to make the world better.

  1. What steps will actually make you likely to achieve your goals?
  2. What is the first quick test you could create to get feedback and iterate? 
  3. What are the one or two things you could change about yourself or your environment to accomplish twice as much?
  4. What returns do you get on the time and effort invested? How does this compare with your other options?
  5. What gives you the most value for the least effort? What can you cut with minimum loss so that you have extra resources to put toward what’s most valuable?

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