Priorities

A former colleague of mine used to take great pleasure in saying "Poor planning on your part does not make it an emergency on mine". People would take offence when they heard it and often argue the point. The colleague, however, would not back down. He'd outline very quickly why he couldn't drop everything to immediately get to work to ensure someone else's arbitrary deadlines were met and, more often than not, he would win. As the most senior person in the department, he had final say about what priorities he worked on. Unfortunately, as the junior developer in the room, I was often asked to "step up" and help out as best I could. Sometimes this worked out, often times it failed. The problem wasn't just a lack of time, but more a lack of understanding. Not enough thought went into asking what the problem actually was before starting down the road to a solution.

People have likely seen this pattern play out time and again throughout their careers regardless the field, and it's something I've tried to mitigate with my own priorities over the years. This is generally done with a paper To Do list, a handful of A5-sized notebooks, and a trio of pens. When I'm given an assignment — by a manager, a colleague, or myself — the first step is to articulate the problem as clearly as possible on paper. Despite what people might think when they see the heavily worn keyboard on my computer, writing on paper is — for me — superior to tracking issues in an application. The forced deceleration encourages more thoughtful expressions and offers the time necessary to look at different angles. The lack of rigid structure afforded by paper makes it easier to draw arrows from one idea to another, or sketch basic concepts, or simply create a mind map to better understand the issue. More than this, by putting the issues on paper, I find it much easier to pick up where I left off regardless of how much time might have passed. The page is structured like the thought process that went into generating it.

As the final working week of the year gets started, I'm seeing a number of colleagues scrambling to get other people to complete their work while having very little written down to explain what problem needs to be solved. There is simply no possible way some of these supposed priorities will approach anything even remotely resembling completion. Perhaps with a little better planning and a semi-structured set of documents, people could save a great deal of stress and get the solutions they deserve rather than the ones that get rushed out the door.

That said, with just two working days remaining on my calendar1, just about every request for help will need to be put off until 2020. I have enough "emergencies" of my own as it is.


  1. The other days will be tied up with meetings discussing next year, which takes a serious bite out of real work.