The 5 Secrets to Prioritisation

The 5 Secrets to Prioritisation


When we first started out, we were wrestling with some problems on how to build our personal finance website, NerdWallet. I got some great advice from my friend Drew Houston (the founder of Dropbox).

“It’s okay to have growing pains, as long as you’re prioritising correctly and working to address them. Every company looks messy from the inside,” he told me.

Am I prioritising correctly? There’s the rub.

When I was working on Wall Street, prioritisation was dictated by the situation. Compared to growing your own business, prioritising on a trading floor is easy, because you’re always putting out fires but you know what the fires are. But knowing how to prioritise to ensure your business makes millions of rands in the next six months – that’s a more difficult task.

Here are some lessons I’ve learnt so far.

1. Beware the seduction of task-based lists.

The elements of prioritisation are simple: Know what tasks need to be done and rank them in order of priority. Stephen Covey of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People fame suggested ranking tasks across four metrics: important/not important and urgent/not urgent.

Obviously, tasks both urgent and important go first, issues not important or not urgent go last, and the rest fall somewhere in between. You’ve got your list.

This is fine, but the process can create a false sense of satisfaction: If I cross everything off this list, will I have done my best work today?

This might work for middle managers at a mature company, but for an entrepreneur this can be a Sisyphean exercise in futility. You’re never going to finish that list and would waste time each day revising it on the fly.

Galia Kerbel, founder of award winning company Greater Than PR

“Earlier in my career I worked for Marcus Brewster, who mentored me. He followed the Eisenhower Decision Principle, which basically states that what is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important,” advises founder of award winning company Greater Than PR, Galia Kerbel.

“Urgent tasks need your immediate attention, put you into a reactive mode and narrow your mind-set. Important tasks contribute to a long-term vision and mission. Operating in this mode puts me into a responsive mind-set that helps me to spot opportunities.”

2. Focus solely on themes that will drive growth.

Of the 100 things that crowd the entrepreneurial mind as things you ‘need to do’, about 98 will incrementally improve your company – but two have the potential for exponential growth. Focus on those few, and the rest of your niggling worries will take care of themselves.

A better way to think of prioritisation is not tasks but themes. What are the two or three principal things that will drive growth? You really have to understand the key drivers of your business and anything that doesn’t move those drivers isn’t a high priority.

For example, in the early days of NerdWallet, a key driver was getting the most amount of web traffic in the least amount of time. That became a filter through which we sifted every task and decision. If it didn’t meet this metric, it wasn’t a priority.

3. Forget perfectionism.

Entrepreneurs are often Type A over-achievers. It’s really hard to let things go unfinished and not be perfect. But if you’re serious about prioritisation, you need to be able to drop something midstream to focus on another task that has greater potential to drive results.

It may feel counterintuitive, but in the rough-and-tumble drive to start a company, perfectionism can be a problem. You have to be willing to do things half way just to get more done with the higher chances to yield strong results. A big ask for high performers.

4. Do the hardest thing first.

Procrastination isn’t a species of laziness, it’s avoidance – and we naturally avoid things we don’t want to do. Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, once said that the first thing he does in the office each day is the task he dreads the most.

Whatever you don’t want to do, do it first, and it eliminates the nagging dread that will sap energy away from other tasks as you postpone the inevitable.

5. Don’t plug leaky boat holes — switch boats.

If you’re spending your time spreading your fingers and toes across leaks springing up through the hull of a business venture, you may wish you had more feet and hands to cover the deck. But maybe the real problem is the boat itself.

As NerdWallet co-founder Tim Chen puts it: “Don’t spend your time plugging a leaky boat, spend your time switching boats.” Time spent bailing is time taken away from adding more profitable vessels to your fleet.

Prioritisation pressure never goes away. If things are going well in your business, something will always seem on fire. If you’ve got things under control, that’s a big red flag – it’s a sign you’re doing what’s urgent, and not what’s important.

Jake Gibson
Jake Gibson is the co-founder and advisor of NerdWallet, a startup focused on offering price-comparison tools for financial products. Prior to joining the company, Gibson did a long stint at JPMorgan Chase, where he traded derivatives and managed new automated trading technologies.