How to Referee Your Project Cagematch (and Unveil Your Values and Priorities)

Working through a project cagematch reveals which projects, goals, values, and priorities actually matter most to you.

While most of us dream of some idealized time and place where we can work on just one project at a time, the persistent reality for most of us is that we’re continually working on a few projects and goals at a time. Because projects take longer than we think they will and/or life intervenes, we’re also continually having to re-prioritize and recalibrate which of our projects and goals are most important.

There’s a natural tendency to want to sort projects and goals by most important to least important, but it’s often hard to do so. Over the years of working with folks, I’ve used an exercise called the creative (or project) cagematch to help people get really clear on what matters most.

The idea is simple, but some background is probably helpful for people who haven’t watched enough professional wrestling to know what a cagematch is. Unlike normal matches with side belts and open areas outside the ring to run around, cagematches occur in a steel cage to eliminate interference and keep the action focused.

The winner of your project cagematch is the project/goal that manages to beat all of the others and be the last project/goal standing, as it were. Yes, I realize that from the whole world of experiences to choose from, I could’ve chosen something other than pro wrestling, but it has stuck, it works, and it’s fun. Plus, I grew up in wrestling’s heyday. #OohYeah!

Here’s how to work through a project cagematch:

  1. List the projects that are on your mind. Remember that personal projects still count as projects — weddings, vacations, moves, graduations, and so on count because they’re going to require time, energy, and attention to see through.
  2. Compare the relative strength and pull of each project with others. Most of the time, people have a pretty strong sense of which ones are going to lose quickly or get thrown out of the ring before the match even starts. If you can quickly eliminate them now, you can bet that they’re not going to make it once displacement happens and multiple days gang up on you at once.
  3. Choose a project that seems pretty strong and compare it to the other projects remaining in the match. Which does it beat? Which one beats it? At this stage, you don’t have to articulate why one project beats another — go with your gut.
  4. Rinse and repeat until you get a rough sense of order of project strengths.
  5. Assess what made the projects particularly strong, starting from the top project and working your way down.

This is where I remind you of three things: 1) simple ≠ easy, 2) you’ll probably get emotional throughout this process, and 3) our free planners force a bit of a cagematch by design.

What About the “Compelling but Not Strong Enough” Projects in the Middle?

What inevitably happens when someone is honestly working through this process is that a project that is “supposed” to be really important finds itself in the middle of the pack. These kinds of projects tend to be the Quadrant II (important but not urgent) projects and goals, and above them are three different kinds of projects:

  1. Urgent projects (of both the unimportant and important stripes)
  2. Projects other people want or need to be done
  3. Projects that tie into non-negotiable (but often unarticulated) values and priorities

Of the three, I find the third kind to be the most interesting, useful, powerful, and underappreciated. For instance, many parents place importance on projects that support their kids or the type of parent they want to be, but don’t articulate these priorities and thus feel torn (in the moment) between being productive and being a good parent. (Reminder: being a good parent is being productive.) In other cases, the strongest projects are ones that tie into breadwinning and security because the person values financial security (for herself and/or her family) more than adventure.

The benefit of working through the project cagematch is not that it shows which projects and goals are most important, but that it shows which values and priorities are most important. (Tweet this)

The corollary of Gandhi’s “action expresses priority” is that the projects that lose in the cagematch aren’t as important to us as the ones that are higher up.

For most people, it’s those projects in the middle area — important enough to be contenders, but not important enough to actually win the match — that cause the most frustration, regret, and tension. As much as I wish I had a secret answer here, the best that I can share is that your biggest wins are going to come by breaking the tyranny of the urgent and by drawing better boundaries around other people’s priorities. My goal (for now) is to illuminate patterns around this middle bunch of projects rather than provide concrete ways to get them to the top o’ the heap.

Project Cagematches Work Even Better for Teams

If you’re in a team-based environment — whether you’re the leader of the team or a member of it — it can be extremely constructive and illuminative to do a project cagematch with your teammates. The process is the same, but you’ll inevitably notice that people will disagree on the relative strengths of the projects.

And just as with your own personal project deck, your team will inevitably have to triage some projects in favor of others. Doing the project cagematch thus allows you all to get on the same page with priorities and values, makes it easier to preventatively drop or punt projects, and makes it easier to recalibrate and triage when necessary.

A team will also find itself with that middle bunch of “important but not strong enough” projects. The key differences will be that the team may have various strategies for working through them that will be in tension with team inertia, and those projects may lack a champion who’s responsible for them. It’s easy to push for the urgent and important projects to get done, and there always seem to be enough to keep a team busy; it’s much harder to let something that’s smoldering but not on fire stay that way while you work on preventing other fires in the future. (High-performance teams focus on the latter.) And yet, we all know that there are some things we can and must let smolder and there other things that cause much more damage if they catch fire.

Time Is the Ultimate Cagematch

The cycle of time is the ultimate cagematch because it’s continually creating temporal cages to place our projects in. At some point in the future, you’ll be looking back on today’s project cagematch and seeing which projects won.

But today, you get to decide which of your projects will win and which need to be let go of now so they don’t take down others with them.