We once had a critical project nearing an important launch date. Let's call it Project Alpha. The QA team had just found a few high priority bugs in the morning, and the development team responsible for fixing the bugs was looking at them to determine if they were fixable without slipping our launch date.

I asked the development manager in charge of that team for an update on the status in the early afternoon.

"I'm not sure, I haven't checked on it yet today, I've been too busy."

"What were you busy with? This project?"

"No, I had a staff meeting, Project Beta's UX design review, and I had to write and send out Project Delta's status update."

"What is the top priority for your team right now?"

"This critical project, certainly. I've just been very busy today."

"If this project launches on time, this is a big deal right? And if it doesn't launch on time, it's a bit of a disaster right?"

"Yeah, absolutely.. but people needed me to help with other things."

"If you can't make time for your top priority project, then it's not your top priority project. Your behavior shows that you're willing to risk this project failing, in exchange for working on another priority."

"But I think my team is probably handling it ok."

"If you adding another few hours of your attention to this project increases the chances of launching, it's a highly valuable few hours spent. If this project fails because you were in a staff meeting or working on the lower priority Beta or Delta projects, that was a very poor tradeoff."

Not all of our time tradeoffs will be this obvious. However, many of us can be trapped working on urgent or easy things. This leads us to underinvest in the most important things.

What you say are your priorities are your intended priorities.

The things you spend your time on are your actual priorities.

First, you must know your priorities

If your manager asked you, "What are your top 3 priorities right now?" - would you be able to answer on the spot? Would it require brainstorming, or would you whip out your notebook and read them off?

You almost certainly have at least a vague sense of what things are more or less important, but have you tried a stack ranking exercise? Have you listed everything you care about, and decided what is the most important for you at this moment?

Keep in mind that your priorities regularly change. This needs to be regularly revisited.

This is not an exercise for the office only. Think through your personal priorities. Your own list will be different from my list. My personal list includes spending time with my kids, with my wife, exercising, writing, and other interests. If you've ever thought about journaling, this is an excellent topic to start with. I keep a personal organization scheme for my own priorities in Obsidian, but certainly any method of writing things down would help.

You can do it for home or for work. It's a great exercise to sit down, and write a list of everything you care about. Put it in order. What do you think about that order? If you spent time on nothing but that list, would you feel good about it? Is that the right way to spend your time?

Second, measure how you spend your time

There are some jobs out there which require you to account for your time. Thankfully, I haven't worked at one of those jobs in a pretty long time.

How many of you actually know how you spend your week? Do you know in detail how your time allocation matches to each of your priorities? Again, this applies to home and to work. Do you know how you spent your last weekend?

In essence, what you would optimally have is that same list of priorities, with a “time allocated” column next to it. This is not “time I'd like to allocate to this”, but “time I spent on this priority.

This is not an academic exercise. I think you should literally create a list of how you've spent your time over a week.

There are a few simple ways I've heard of people doing this.

Calendar color code. This is what I personally have done. Since my calendar drove most of my day at work, I set colors in my calendar for each of my priorities. I'd have orange as recruiting, blue as Project Alpha, purple as Project Delta, etc. Anything not on my priority list received a red color. I also put calendar blocks on my calendar when I needed to do my own work (such as writing a document), and would color code it to the appropriate project.

Logging. Every few hours in a day, write down how you've spent the last few hours. "30 minutes random work emails", "30 minutes Project A meeting", "30 minutes 1:1", and so on. You have to do this often during a day, because the little distractions in life are quickly forgotten if you wait until the end of the day to log things.

Time tracking app. There are plenty of apps in the various app stores which allow you to log your time and tag that time.

If you have any time usage which wasn't in your priority list, I'd suggest making a new category and write it down manually. For example, you may not have "Watch YouTube videos of cats" on your priority list, but you might want to log a category of "misc entertainment" to keep track of things. I might create an "administrative work" category for emails and hallway conversations at work.

Regardless of the method you take, write down your time usage. Sort it in the order of the amount of time spent. That is your actual priority list.