Five tips on how to prioritize when you’re starting something new (on your own)

This is not necessary meant for when you’re “on your own”, however, in such case it is even more important not to get overwhelmed by all the ideas. Because that’s what often happens. You have this great idea or vision. Great as in beautiful, and great as in huge. A huge amount of ideas. So many, you don’t know where to start. Or what is important.

A month ago I started on a new project. It is a tool for website makers to easily get qualitative feedback from their users. Right now it is live and I have my first customers.

When starting this project I noticed that the way I work follows the same structure every time. It is a structure which I’ve been growing for four years now. And I love it because it helps me focus and move forward. And it is easy. There is not many rules, just some tips. Pick the ones you like and I hope they can help you as well. I’d love to hear!

1. Separate ideas from next steps

This is the number one, the most important one.
Start off with an idea list and write down everything you now have in your head about the new project. All things that need to be done or just brainfarts.

Then, the hard part, pick the 3 first ones that need to be done to move a step further in the project.

You’ll keep these two lists (“ideas” and “next up”) evolving continuously as things get done and new ideas are born. But always remember to place just a handful of items in the “next up” list. And it’s even better if they are somehow related to each other.

This helps you focus on what’s important in this very moment. And all ideas are postponed for later.

Even if you don’t want to log your ideas, it is important to stick to just a few todo items (the “next up” list). This helps a lot in keep moving.

I’ve noticed that when my “next up” list grows to 6, 7, 8 items, the less likely it is that I make a next step soon. Keeping it short helps making it actionable.

2. Keep todo’s small

Which brings me to the next one. Those few todo’s that you have should be small tasks. Like 1 to 4 hours long. Again, to keep things actionable.

The actual time needed per small task might depend a bit on the nature of your project. However, prevent making them large if you have the feeling it is not good enough otherwise. It is perfectly OK to have some in-between-solution. Actually, it is better. That way you’ll have a moment for reflection. Look around, was finishing this task helpful? What would be next? Can you go on with the next one or does it need a second round?

To keep moving is easier if every step is a small one.

3. Don’t over-organize

You’ll soon notice the “ideas” list only gets bigger and bigger. You can never get things done as fast as you can come up with new ones :)

This is OK. Resist the urge to organize the “ideas” list. For example in several milestones or subprojects. It takes a lot of time, and doesn’t get you further. Focus on the now.

Don’t be afraid that good ideas get lost. Good ideas will bubble up again. Especially when you have paying customers, as they will tell you which ideas are actually needed.

4. Give priority to paying customers

If and once you have paying customers, their wishes should get preference over non-paying customers or might-be-paying-customers. Watch out for that last group!

Wishes from other people go in the same “ideas” list for me. And I label every one with “feedback” or “feedback paying customer”. Preferable those get handled as soon as possible (without getting overwhelmed by it) as it makes the people near you more happy. Happy customers generate more new customers; word of mouth.

It also helps you give direction to your project. Giving new things to the people who actually use your product gives you instant feedback and starts a dialog.

By the way: if you don’t go for paying customers, pick wishes from the people who actually regularly use the thing you make, vs the people who hop by now and then.

5. List everything, also marketing, administration, etc.

I was often inclined to skip all things only related on the side, like marketing. I did execute them, (mostly), but never wrote them down as todo. Now when I do so, it helps a lot in giving them the same importance and making sure they don’t get delayed; items in “next up” should be done before others.

I now have labeled those as “offline” and can see clearly if I do enough of those tasks next to the core of the project.

Bonus: use a simple tool like Trello

I’m doing all my projects in Trello. It helps a lot implementing these steps. And it partly co-shaped the way I structure my projects.

This is how the project I’m working on now looked like in the first few days:

Beginning of a new project in Trello

Note, the colored labels are:

  • green: important
  • yellow: kaizen (small improvements)
  • red: problem
  • black: offline
  • purple: feedback
  • blue: feedback paying customer

In comparison to the start, the lists are filled with way more ideas and are balanced with more “offline” items. And I’ve added an experimental label: light blue for actions directly related to customers. Like giving a demo.

I’m curious if this helps you. What you have to add or wouldn’t do. I’d love to hear!