After writing "Advice for interacting with busy people", I was asked to write a follow-up on advice for newly busy people. So, here's a quick list of tools and mental models that help me prioritize.
This list is by no means comprehensive. It's just the tools I know and have loved. Take what's useful, and drop what doesn't fit your brain and life.
1. Prioritizing between projects
a. Apply the Tomorrow Rule.
When someone asks you to join an exciting project that's due half a year from now, it is very, very tempting to say "yes". You'll immediately have a vivid imagination of the shiny outcome, while the workload is far enough in the future to not cross your mind. To mitigate this tendency, it makes sense to apply the Tomorrow Rule. It goes as such: "Am I committed enough to this that I'd clear up time in my schedule tomorrow to make it happen?"
b. If things get too much, do a Productivity Purge.
If you already have too many projects on your plate and can't make reasonable progress on any of them, you might want to go through a round of Cal Newport's productivity purge algorithm. The steps:
- "When it feels like your schedule is becoming too overwhelmed, take out a sheet of paper and label it with three columns: professional, extracurricular, and personal. Under “professional” list all the major projects you are currently working on in your professional life (if you’re a student, then this means classes and research, if you have a job, then this means your job, etc). Under “extracurricular” do the same for your side projects (your band, your blog, your plan to write a book). And under “personal” do the same for personal self-improvement projects (from fitness to reading more books).
- Under each list try to select one or two projects which, at this point in your life, are the most important and seem like they would yield the greatest returns. Put a star by these projects.
- Next, identify the projects that you could stop working on right away with no serious consequences. Cross these out.
- Finally, for the projects that are left unmarked, come up with a 1-3 week plan for finalizing and dispatching them. Many of these will be projects for which you owe someone something before you can stop working on them. Come up with a crunch plan for the near future for shutting these down as quickly as possible.
- Once you completed your crunch plan you’ll be left with only a small number of important projects. In essence, you have purged your schedule of all but a few contenders to be your next Theory of Relativity. Here’s the important part: Try to go at least one month without starting any new projects. Resist, at all costs, committing to anything during this month. Instead, just focus, with an Einsteinian intensity, on your select list."
2. Prioritizing between people
At some point in January/February, I felt pretty lonely and decided to make a list of all the lovely people I know and spend too little time with. After writing down the names of 40 people in Berlin alone and more in other cities, I realized what was the problem: I fully optimized for creating loose ties, for getting the spark of novelty and knowing what's going on in my various communities. Meanwhile, I didn't commit enough to anyone as that I'd know who to call when I'm feeling low.
So - you might want to create two networks simultaneously, which work by different rules:
- A large network of loose ties. These people are there for uncommitted play, for exchanging knowledge and occasional favors, for having as many people as possible in your life who know somebody who knows somebody who happens to be really skilled at that particular thing. Treat them with kindness and integrity, but don't hesitate to say "no" if your heart isn't in it.
- A core circle of 1-5 close friends. These are the people you should build your life around. Be there for them when they need you. Make room for quality time with them as often as possible. Show up to their invitations. Celebrate your successes together, and be there for each other when things get rough.
3. Prioritizing with people
My holy grail for prioritizing together with people I'm already committed to is the Decide10 rating system. If you are unsure whether or not to do something, both of you give a number between 0 and 10. If your numbers add up to 10 or more, do it. The full glossary is in the article, here's a teaser:
- 5="Yes, if you want to go for this as much as I do, let’s do it."
- 6="I would love to do this and will provide the energy / momentum / engagement boost to make it happen."
- 4="Mm, I could be chill with going along with this, but I’m not as excited so somebody else will have to drive the energy."
Three perks of this system:
- It is clear who you are actually doing something for. Are we going to the concert of your favorite band because you really really want me to know them? Or, because I'm super curious to hear them for the first time, while you already see them for the fifth and are generally a "meh" on another concert?
- It removes the eternal dance of: "I would sort of like to stay home and watch Adventure Time with you, but it's also okay for me to go out to our friends' party if it's important to you." - "But I don't want you to compromise! Let's stay home." - "No, I know how much you miss them! Let's rather go? It's really just a slight preference." - [...]
- It makes transparent when favors in a relationship tend to flow into one direction. Not all relationships have to be symmetrical all of the time. However, if I often vote high numbers like 8 or 9 that make you do things even if they're costly to you, and you rarely vote high numbers, that might indicate a problem we should to talk about before it damages our relationship long-term.
4. General advice
a. Think for at least five seconds before saying "yes" to something.
If your schedule gets too full, you will inevitably drop things and disappoint people by being flaky. Instead, you may want to say "yes" rarely but trustworthily.
b. Saying "no" to a certain activity means saying "yes" to myself and our relationship.
When you propose something and I say "no" to it, I'm simultaneously saying "yes" to our relationship. Because when I say "yes" while I'm actually a "no", I slowly accumulate resentment that poisons the connection between us without you being able to do anything about it. And, you will inevitably sense when I said "yes" to something but my heart is not in it. Having been on both sides of this, I know how awkward that feels.
So, the moment when I start to really feel comfortable around someone is when I heard the first "no" from them, and when saying "no" to them has become something casual for me.
"No" is actually a very, very precious gift. Let's treat it as such, and encourage one another to give it more often.
c. Apply the "yumminess meter".
If we have trained our system 1 well enough, it is an extremely valuable resource. It knows our values and priorities better than our explicit self-concept does. And, it has accumulated an immense amount of experience we can draw on for making decisions.
So - if something feels interesting and exciting, do it; if not, drop it.
Important: If you have big decisions to make, only use this like a focusing prompt, while you have some time for your mind to roam freely. Consider the whole situation first, for example by using other decisionmaking tools like the Productivity Purge, Internal Double Crux, or Goal Factoring.
The yumminess meter may not be a wise pick as an emergency exit when you are acutely overwhelmed. Because in those situations, your brain tends to lose the view for the big picture.