The Prioritization Paradox

Prioritization is pretty simple in theory but can be incredibly complex. Whenever I talk to someone about what they’re capable of doing with the time they have I always try to make it clear that the time is limited.

Imagine you have 1 unit. You can not do 2 things with that 1 unit. For the sake of this post, 1 unit is time. Here’s how that works.

  • Walk dog. 1 unit.
  • Read book. 1 unit.

I selected the dog and the book because I think many adults have cleaned up after a pet and probably have had to prepare something for school or work before that is important.

If you walk the dog and read the book. 2 units. Assuming each takes an hour, we’ll treat them as equal.

Basic, right?

For some reason though when we’re talking through what is most important at any given point in time people tend to think strangely about what thing to do first on a list.

People prioritize against what requires the least amount of units and forget which one is the highest value. There tends to be very little consideration to the order in which to do things. This gets wonky because things may look equal when they are actually not.

For example. If the dog doesn’t get walked then the dog will pee on the floor. There is a multiplier for the work and how much time it will take. Dog walk + dog clean up. Cost is .2X.

  • Total individual unit cost of doing this first. 1.0
  • Total individual unit cost of not doing this first. 1.2

On the contrary, there is a multiplier for the book. You have a call in 1.5 hours that relies on your ability to recite accurately what is in that book. You can not do both. If you can not recite the portions of the book you need to, you’ll lose your job. The multiplier is probably 100X because you’ll need a new job.

  • Total individual unit cost of doing this first. 1.0
  • Total group cost of doing this first. 2.2
  • Total group cost cost of not doing this first. 101.

The number of people who will take the dog for a walk for fear it will pee on the floor and screw up the call is alarmingly high.

It may not be immediately clear to someone else why you’re perfectly willing to let your dog pee on the floor and leave it for a few hours but it doesn’t have to be.

It’s good to be aware of what tertiary variables exist in any situation or work. The effects may not just be to you but to your team.

Given, if you do the work poorly there’s always a multiplier. If you don’t bring poop bags on the walk or read the wrong part of the book there are multipliers just as big so being aloof during the activity doesn’t make any sense either. If you’re going to take the time to do it, it might as well be done as well as it can be done with what you have.

1 unit. Optimize or die.