A simple framework for setting priorities when you’re feeling overwhelmed
It’s no secret that running a company, team, or community is no easy task. Managing your own personal priorities is hard enough, let alone setting them for an entire team. I’ve had to learn quite the lesson in prioritizing for my side project, A Song A Day, where I manage 45 curators sending hand-picked songs to listeners’ inboxes daily.
I’m definitely not alone. In interviewing founders for our Secrets for Scaling Podcast, I found that prioritizing and getting a team focused around goals is one of the biggest causes of company inertia in the early days.
Fortunately, I get to work with a team of people at Geckoboard who excel where I lag, especially in terms of organization, goal-setting, and prioritizing. Over the holiday break, I applied much of my learnings from Geckoboard to my side project. I was ready to start with a clean slate and define a clear vision and mission with actionable goals. But first, I had to overcome my decision fatigue — my overwhelm.
Below are the steps I took to focus and set our action plan for Q1 of 2017. In a way, these steps are a framework for setting priorities and getting focused. I hope they will be useful to you if you’re experiencing overwhelm.
Step One: Realize you can’t do it alone
This step was originally named, “Find an accountability buddy and build a support network” but the first real step is to ask for help when you’re overwhelmed. That can mean simply talking through things until you have a clear sense of what’s overwhelming you. This will help you avoid becoming like a hamster on a wheel, going nowhere, fast.
I’m lucky enough to have an entire community of volunteers supporting A Song A Day. A handful of these people have become mentors, advisors, and accountability partners. It’s important to have a support network when starting a company, but it becomes much more effective when you add some structure and consistency to it, so I learned.
I reached out to my friend Laura Gluhanich about needing an accountability buddy and she proposed bi-weekly check-ins. Though they originally focused on a specific project, now we take 30 minutes to discuss work things, life things, projects, and sometimes just vent. They’re two-way, therapeutic, and have become something I look forward to every other week.
Though those sessions are helpful, they didn’t prevent me from reaching peak fatigue when juggling way too many decisions around my personal life and A Song A Day.
(I’m going to pause here to say that I am very grateful for a stable professional life — I wouldn’t be functioning without it.)
I needed to talk to someone who was familiar with but not tied directly to the project, or invested in how I spend my personal time. My friend Selena Vidya stepped up to the plate.
She listened and walked me through each decision I was facing. She tied all of them to the overarching end-goals of A Song A Day and the things that make me happiest. The result was knowing exactly what I needed to focus on over the holidays and making the decision to move across the country.
The point is, therapy is great but if you can’t afford it or make the time, having structured meetings or calls with friends or acquaintances where you can walk through your issues with someone will be immensely helpful to gaining clarity and avoiding burnout.
Step Two: Create clarity around your priorities and get your to-dos in order
At this point, I was feeling better about the decisions weighing on me. However, I was still overwhelmed when thinking about my to-do list or smaller, every day decisions. And as a result, I wasn’t getting anything done.
This time, I turned to my friend and technical advisor to A Song A Day, Matthew Ström. He was kind enough to help me prioritize.
Essentially, he was able to say, “you first have to do X in order to build a sustainable foundation for Y and Z.” He helped me gain the 1,000-foot view of what I was trying to accomplish, rather than being stuck in the weeds. The result was the same list of tasks, now prioritized in order of most to least important.
This reflects the “One Thing” concept. I wrote about this for Trello a while back, but the general idea is that everything you do should help get you closer towards the one, most important thing you’re focused on. (Big thanks to my friend Sofia Quintero for making me read The One Thing a while ago.)
For organizational and accountability purposes, I use a personal Trello board for my to-dos. It has all of my freelance work, Geckoboard tasks, A Song A Day tasks, and personal tasks.
It’s not perfect but this board keeps me focused and sane. And if something sits in to-dos for two weeks, I either remove roadblocks or archive it because clearly, it’s not getting done. By keeping myself focused and organized, I’m able to be focused and organized with my teams. I categorize my tasks with labels representing different clients, A Song A Day, and personal items.
Step Three: Bring it all back to your goals
I now know what’s most important for me to focus on. But why? What are all of these activities working towards?
A Song A Day is unique in that it launched by total accident and we’ve been “figuring it out” since. The mission was clear early on and we developed goals and objectives at different stages of the project but they were never formalized, and rarely put on paper.
It was time to take a step back and really define our vision, mission, goals, and objectives. I highly recommend making this step one — but for me, it’s way down here.
I put together a doc (that’s still a work in progress) with eight main parts:
> Vision and Goals
> Business Model
> Music Industry Landscape
> Funding Options
> Next Steps and Timeline
We’re going to focus on just the first section: Vision and Goals. In that section, we answered three questions:
- What’s our long-term vision?
- What’s our mission?
- What are our OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) for Q1 of 2017 (broken down by month)?
We kept our OKRs in this section because it’s critical that they tie into our mission — which is our number one goal. I have Geckoboard and Simon Whittick to thank for introducing me to OKRs. They’re a framework popularized by Google to help you set, track, and execute aggressive goals. They’ve revolutionized the way our marketing team focuses and collaborates. Simon shares more information on what OKRs are and how we set them at Geckoboard here.
Essentially, the idea is to set three to four aggressive objectives and identify three to five key results that will help you reach each. The result is an actionable list of responsibilities that will help you reach your most important goal. Pretty effective, right?
Step Four: Create actions for your OKRs
With my OKRs defined, it was time to build structure and foundation for action. I turned to Trello again because it’s where I organize everything else and things get lost in Google docs.
OKRs are meant for short sprints, but long enough to see results. Three months is perfect for setting measurable goals because it’s enough time to get stuff done, and short enough time to measure, assess, and iterate on what’s effective vs what’s not. That way, you’re not wasting half a year on something that’s not getting you closer to your most important goal.
In A Song A Day’s OKR Trello board for Q1 of 2017, each card has a key result with the objective identified by the label.
The next step is to attach a deadline and owner to each card (or key result) to create accountability and make sure that it’s done. From there, Matt and I will create a task list for each, detailing what actions need to be taken.
Most companies probably don’t get this detailed with their OKRs but because A Song A Day is a side project, I needed a clear view of what needs to be done and how much time it will take. From there, Matt and I can assess the likelihood of it happening and refine our OKRs to be more realistic if need be.
Step five: Keeping focused by measuring your progress
So now that we know what we’re working on in Q1 and where it’s supposed to get us. But how do we measure our progress? Well, with a TV dashboard, of course. :) Naturally, I’m biased, but Geckoboard (or your TV dashboard app of choice) is a powerful tool for staying focused and accountable for your progress.
I’m someone who cares much more about emotions than I do numbers, but numbers allow us to make progress. They keep us on track towards having an impact and growing our teams, projects, bottom lines, companies. Numbers keep us motivated. That’s why I am kind of obsessed with the metrics dashboards we use for the marketing team and entire company at Geckoboard. There’s never a question on what I need to be focused on or how much work I need to do. So I figured I’d try one out with A Song A Day.
For example, with our dashboard, I can see that there’s clearly something wrong with our daily open rate (many of our users open all of our emails weekly), which presents a product opportunity.
On our dashboard, we have simple metrics that keep me focused on the most important tasks. They’re a constant reminder to not get distracted by the shiny objects I am so drawn too. :)
Refining the framework to work for you
This process isn’t going to fit perfectly for your company or goals. The essential take-away is that prioritization can be simple. If you ask for help, define the goals that are most important to you and your company, and break things into manageable tasks, you’ll be in a good spot. One in which you can breathe and maybe even delegate some of your to-dos. :)
I can honestly say that because of these steps, in just a month, I booked two benefit shows, wrote most of my business plan, hired an intern, booked my flight to move across the country, and now have a simple, actionable plan to work towards in my free time!
One last thing — and this most certainly isn’t applicable to everyone — but for me, the trick to productivity and happiness is dumping my life into one big old bucket and prioritizing everything together. I often times work on the weekends and travel during the week. It just works for me. But of course a different rhythm will work for you. The trick I think is to not overthink it.