The list of things I'd love to complete in my life is pretty big. I'd love to complete even half of them, but I must be realistic with the constraints I live with. But those items I know I won’t put effort into haunt me; they exist on the margins of life distracting me. When I settle down to focus and work towards something I know I must have undivided focus and attention towards that one thing. I know that but it's still hard. I know that if I'm distracted I’ll suffer from decreased efficiency and effectiveness. I need to know exactly what I’m going to do, why am I doing it, and how do I know my efforts are making the right progress. This requires a bit of investment before starting and scheduling several points along the way to stop and evaluate progress. Without those moments to stop and reflect, it’s easy to get lost in the weeds and fall into the Sunk Cost Fallacy.
Ask, “Why is this the most important thing to do?”
There are a lot of things that we can decide to do. We can do nothing, too. Sometimes doing nothing is the hardest thing to pick because sitting still is exceptionally difficult. Most of the time, though, we decide to do something. It’s important to look at how you come to that decision. Was it a gut feeling? Was the goal decided because it aligns with a larger mission? Without asking the questions before this, the clarity of the goal suffers.
It’s important to be able to draw a very clear path from where you came from, where you are, and where you want to end up. You may not end up there, but having a clear map is critical to making relevant progress. It’s also to impose constraints on the goal. You can’t do 3 things at once. Or even 2. There should be one specific goal per plan. While you can parallelize some plans, each plan that doesn’t strictly adhere to one primary goal will suffer from dilution and as time goes on, the people doing the work will be forced to make compromises between their two masters.
Understand why this goal is important the most important requires knowing how that goal was chosen. That becomes a beacon to rally around, as people work best when they clearly understand they’re working towards something bigger. Engagement will drastically increase.
Ask, “What is the exact benefit?"
Doing any work should yield a benefit. If it doesn’t, that is wasted effort. The outcome should have a benefit, and each step that we take should clearly move us towards that final outcome, and we should be able to categorize each step as either value-add (something getting us materially closer to the goal) or internal work (effort required but not directly creating progress).
Obviously, the bulk of time should be on effort that directly adds progress towards the final goal. We don’t live in a fantasy land, so there will always be internal work that must be done. It’s important to be honest about that work, categorize it accurately. This will help fight against doing work that isn’t strictly tied to that outcome. It doesn’t mean that important internal work won’t get done, if it’s truly important it must be. There is an opportunity cost to everything, so choose wisely.
Ask, "Who benefits the most if we succeed?"
Just as we categorize what type of work needs to be done, we should be aware of who benefits from our work. The better we can describe the customer, whether it’s an internal customer (including yourself) or external doesn’t matter. In categorizing who benefits, describe them closely and make good estimates as to the size of the group that benefits. This is useful in prioritizing work that may conflict, and also doing each reflection point and in analyzing success.
It's not uncommon to battle the feeling that your gut simply knows the answer to this. You just know that some group of people will love this feature or product, but who benefits the most. Henry Ford doubled wages so his production lines didn't stop. He knew high turnover was the most important and urgent problem, so he doubled the salary if people adhered to standards set by a Socialization Organization. Who benefited the most? Henry Ford and his company! Some say he did this so his workers could afford his cars, but that isn't the real reason. Henry Ford and his company benefited the most because he was an expert at investing time up front to learn and focus on specific goals.
Ask, "What are we doing that is not necessary?"
This question is entirely about wasted effort. Goals will naturally grow in scope. Suddenly an email client needs to land on the moon. That's fear of failure making requests, not ambition. At every step of the way we must look at exactly what really is getting us closer to our goals and what is feasible, within our capabilities, at the moment we are building. We must ruthlessly throw away great ideas that do not directly add value and progress to our specific, current goal. There are many opportunities in the future to improve this process, but now is not the time. Maybe tomorrow.
Once all the distractions are weeded out, we still have some work to do to eliminate wasted effort. Now it's time to plot the most direct course, and build in several points to evaluate progress. The biggest danger after starting work is thinking that we will remain on the right course without stopping to check our bearings.
The only way to do adequate course corrections is to stop, closely examine where we are, and where we should be. Correct as necessary. The sunk cost fallacy can make this very difficult at times, because it may mean we have to take two steps back in order to make genuine progress. Don’t compromise, back up until you can get back on the right path.
Ask, "How will I know if am succeeding?”
Now that you have more clarity, it’s significantly easier to measure progress in a meaningful way. This should be as quantitative as possible, and measure real progress against the identified benefits. Are you able to show your work in progress and get feedback from who it benefits? Great! Do that, and have scores for how well the target audience understands the concept, can describe it back, and eagerness to use it or purchase the product.
This doesn’t have to be entirely product focused, either. These same questions can clarify and improve a blog post by asking an early reviewer to read it, and receive feedback to ensure the message is what you are after. The technique can transform meetings into quick, painless, decision-focused conversations. Everything we set out to do can benefit from this. Discover those moments and stop, reflect, evaluate, and course correct.