During interviews at Amazon, we allow five minutes for questions at the end. Some people ask about the team they’ll be working with, while others inquire about the technology they’ll be using.

Occasionally a candidate says, “I’ve heard Amazon can be a really hard place to work. Some people thrive and some people fail. Why is that, and how can I avoid joining the ranks of those who fail?”

This is a great question. I have heard a variation of this statement at Amazon dozens of times over the years:

I’m going to lose my mind! I have 14 direct reports and one critical project on fire, and my calendar is completely packed. The only way I can make any progress is by working after my team goes home. I’m not sure how much longer I can take it.

My usual answer to the interviewee is this:

Amazon has an infinite amount of work. The fire hose of work will never abate. No one will throttle your work for you. If you have a hard time saying no, or a hard time prioritizing your tasks, you are guaranteed to drown. You will work more and more hours until you eventually quit. On the other hand, if you aren’t terrible at your job, and you can pick the right things to work on and say no to everything else, you’ll love it here.

If you put this advice into practice, it will pay dividends for the rest of your life. You can replace “Amazon” with any modern company, a side business, or even your personal life. Your time is your most valuable resource. You can’t make more. You can’t pause it. You can only allocate it. Here’s how.

Identify your most important task

Early in my career at Amazon, I received approval to hire five additional engineers for an important project with a tight deadline. I opened the positions in Amazon’s internal system and talked to a few people about transferring. I also began writing up a project plan, creating the major stories to begin working on, and scheduling design review meetings with our engineers. I had a discussion with my manager a few weeks later, which went something like this:

Manager: How’s the hiring going? As you’re aware, you have a tight deadline.
Me: It’s a bit slow. I might have one position filled.
Manager: Are you treating this as your most important task?
Me: I’m spending as much time on it as I can, but I have a pretty full calendar. I have this critical project, my existing work, and a pretty big team. There’s a lot going on. I’ll try harder.
Manager: I assume you agree that you can’t finish the project without those five engineers. There will always be a lot going on. Trying harder is not a mechanism. If you’re not literally spending at least 50% of your time on this, you’re planning to fail. You need to spend at least four hours a day on hiring. Coffees with potential hires. Meetings with recruiting. Updating job descriptions. You can’t succeed without this. You can succeed without almost everything else.

My manager taught me a very valuable lesson that day. I was looking one level deep at the seemingly important things I had to do right then and there. But I needed to take a step back and assess whether I was allocating my time to take me to where I wanted to go. I was pedaling my bike as hard as I could, but I wasn’t looking at the street signs.

I internalized what my manager said. I recognized I was making progress in general, but not toward my most important destination. I was broadly focused on the bulk of my work, but I needed to focus narrowly on my most important work.

Realize that business as usual won’t work

A number of years ago, I was a very busy bee. I had multiple teams, with dozens of engineers and managers reporting to me. I had long-term project planning, architecture and design discussions, a couple of dozen one-on-one meetings a week, broad organizational meetings, operation review meetings, and more. My calendar was always booked with at least 40 hours of meetings a week, and I tended to spend at least another 10 to 20 hours at work per week. I was having fun, but I was also burning the candle at both ends.

I was then asked to run a massive cross-organizational planning process. I was told very clearly that this would be my top priority for the next three months. During that time, I would be expected to spend at least 20 hours per week on this planning process. The process would help determine what our organization would focus on for the next year, so it had leverage over hundreds of engineers. As is always true at Amazon, I wasn’t being taken off anything I already managed. I was just offered this important role, and expected to solve the problem.

Selectively pick a few things, and cut everything else. Work on only your most important things.

I was excited for the career opportunity, but I also had to fit another 20 hours into my 50- to 60-hour workweek.

I can still remember sitting in my office that evening with a beer (don’t judge me), staring at my completely full calendar. I started by looking for anything obvious to cut. I switched one weekly one-on-one to biweekly. Then I stared at my calendar some more. Finally I recognized that something drastic had to change. Business as usual was not going to cut it.

Cut to the bone and measure the pain

When trying to cut things out of our lives, we often ask the wrong questions. We ask whether something is important, or if we value it. It is far too easy to answer in the affirmative. Instead, we should ask these two questions:

  • “What is the worst case result if I cut this?”
  • “Is this going to get me where I want to go in the long run?”

Think of the pain you’ll experience if you cut this item/work/task/meeting. What is the worst result? Can you handle it? And, equally important, is this item/work/task/meeting related to your most important long-term goals?

That night I finished my beer and cut my schedule to the bone. I asked one of my managers to attend the weekly operations meeting, then dropped it. I asked one of my senior engineers to take charge of the architecture meeting series, then dropped it. I moved all junior employees to biweekly meetings. I moved a couple of direct employees to report to a manager. I dropped the weekly project status meeting. I dropped a couple of mentees—with apologies.

I was down to perhaps 15 hours of meetings a week. I was able to easily schedule the planning process into my calendar, and at the same time cut down my hours worked each week.

Examine results and aftermath

When I completed the planning process, my calendar was suddenly half-empty. This was very rare for those in positions like mine. I had certainly never experienced it.

First, I had completely removed some work. These meetings were useful, but not enough to justify their time on my or anyone else’s calendar. Free time back gives an infinite return on investment.

Second, I had delegated some high visibility and critical work to my managers and a few senior engineers. It was a wild success for both parties. I was delegating work I knew how to do. This wasn’t growth work; it was maintenance. I gave people growth opportunities, and they thrived. The new owners changed some processes and made improvements. They were challenged by the new opportunities, and it was exciting for all involved.

Challenging work is growth work, and by holding on to those leadership positions I had been depriving someone else of their own opportunity to grow. Delegating is a gift with two recipients. You get more time, and someone else gains valuable experience.

I expected temporary pain that I would remedy once the project was over. Instead, I had made a healthy cut, and most of the changes were permanent. I now had the time to re-evaluate what was important to me and my group in the long run, and I could schedule that work instead.

Make regular cuts

When you remove something from your schedule, you’re usually picking a single item from the bottom of your importance stack rank. You’re saying, “I need 30 minutes more per day, so I’ll drop this single 30-minute task.” It has limited return on investment, because you’re swapping one item for another.

Instead, make regular cuts to the bone with your schedule, your possessions, and the like. Instead of cutting from the bottom of your stack rank, switch your process. Selectively pick a few things, and cut everything else. Work on only your most important things.

Look at every single thing you’re doing. Determine whether you need each one to achieve your most important long-term goals. If not, ask yourself how much pain you’d feel if you cut it. Consider whether it makes sense to spend that time on your top priorities instead. Your top priorities are almost always the things that move the needle in your life, and time spent there is the most precious.


Disclaimer: I’m not representing Amazon in any way with my posts; opinions written here are strictly my own.