The Happy Engineer Podcast

108: Create Peace and Compound Progress with True Priority

In this episode, discover the secrets to effective prioritization and how that can multiply peace and progress in your engineering career.

I’m going to dive into two major problems hindering prioritization: lack of clarity, and surrendering to others’ priorities.

We will implement practical solutions for you right now, including my “two by two” tactic for daily wins, and the art of saying “no” strategically.

By taking control of your priority and embracing courage, you can and will unlock your full potential for success.

So press play and let’s chat… it’s time to crush comfort and create a life of purposeful prioritization!

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The Happy Engineer Podcast




Previous Episode 107: 1000% Advantage to Reach Your Dreams with Manuj Aggarwal | Founder of TetraNoodle Technologies






Please note the full transcript is 90-95% accuracy. Reference the podcast audio to confirm exact quotations.

[00:00:00] Zach White: Happy engineer. Welcome back. Zach White here, your host, and it’s just the two of us today to go deep on an area where I see engineering leaders getting stuck all the time, and that is around a key pillar of all the coaching that I do, which is your priority. I wanna tell you about an amazing leader named Elena, who came to me in a coaching session with a huge amount on her plate.

Expand to Read Full Transcript

[00:00:31] She was describing what was going on in her world, and maybe you can relate to a situation like this. She said on the call, Hey Zack, I have an offsite with my team this week. I’ve been asked to deliver the strategy for the next year for our team on this new product that we’re developing that has big implications for the organization.

[00:00:54] Our team is virtual, and this is one of the few times that will actually be face-to-face, so I need to commute to. This onsite location where we’re gonna be meeting, it’s an hour and a half to commute to get there, and I’m gonna be doing that every day, back and forth. Plus, I have all of this work to do to prepare for the event, deliver the event, and then debrief the event.

[00:01:18] Oh, and by the way, I have a doctor’s appointment this week. I have accountabilities with my kids. I’m trying to manage my home. I have workouts that I want to get in. There is way too much going on and I have no time to join the coaching sessions that we have planned for later this week. There’s too many priorities.

[00:01:42] Have you been in this situation? if you’re an engineering leader at any level, beyond day one, my guess is you have. here’s the thing. We need to shift. First, I’m going to tell you the truth about priority. There is no such thing as equal priority.

[00:02:02] You see, what happens in our mind is we begin to take all of our to-do list and the pressure that comes with it across every domain of our life, work, home, health, family. All these different commitments, all these different areas where we wanna see results. And we make them all the top priority.

[00:02:26] Everything has to get done. There is no option to say yes to one thing and no to another. We let everything converge to the top of that urgency and importance. Matrix that Eisenhower matrix or the Covey quadrants, depending on where you first heard about it, where we look at time management and say, well, we, we need to box these out into box one, box two, box three, box four.

[00:02:50] What’s urgent? What’s important? Well, We’ve all heard that maybe you do need to revisit that simple tool. I’d encourage you to, but the fact is, even when you know that tool, sometimes in life, we get into a place where everything feels both urgent and important, everything becomes a top priority.

[00:03:11] Everything becomes equal in priority. But the truth is there is no such thing. As equal priority, there is only a lack of priority. And when we get into this mindset that everything has to get done, that everything is our top priority, just that mindset alone amplifies our own anxiety, amplifies our own sense of, dread about how, how could I possibly get this done?

[00:03:43] And then, let’s be honest, we don’t perform at our best when we’re anxious, when we’re stressed, when we’re overwhelmed. there’s two big problems at play, two big problems, and I want to give you two big solutions. First, the problems. Problem one is that we don’t have clarity on our priority.

[00:04:03] When you are uncertain, when you are unclear as to the true rank of what’s most important for you within your whole life. Right. We’re not just talking about work here, and within the various projects and accountabilities of your job, we’re talking about the priorities for your whole life, the vision that you have for the life and career you want to build.

[00:04:27] If we don’t have clarity on our priorities, both in our whole life and within our work, then we’re gonna feel this constant sense of uncertainty and anxiety around getting everything done. And then the second problem is that your life is built around other people’s priorities instead of your own. This is incredibly common, especially at work when we relinquish responsibility for our own priority to our boss.

[00:04:59] Or to a project manager or someone else in the company. Maybe it’s all the way to the senior leadership. We, we point to them and say, well, they are the ones who get to choose what my priority is, and I just receive the instructions and I’m accountable to deliver. Okay? And I get that. I understand why you might feel that way, but it’s extremely important that we don’t build your life around other people’s priorities.

[00:05:27] So these are the two big problems, a lack of clarity and building your life around other people’s priorities. I’d like you to assess your situation right now. Are you struggling with one or both of these two areas right now today? Do you have complete clarity on what your priority is right now?

[00:05:49] Do you know your priority? If not, you have a lack of clarity. You want to be able to answer that question at any moment in time. And top performers, people who are known for high performance and live a high performance life, seek clarity and are able to answer that question at any moment. And when you can’t, you pause and get to that answer, make that decision quickly.

[00:06:17] The second piece, are you struggling with building your life around other people’s priorities? Now, how can we assess this? Just ask yourself honestly, who chose, who decides who’s actually in control of what you are choosing to do every day? Is it you or is it someone else? Are you waiting on your boss?

[00:06:34] Are you waiting for someone else? Are you taking the direction of other people? Are you constantly saying yes to things that you don’t actually want to do or that are not moving the needle on your highest priorities? When was the last time you said no? If you have not said no in a long time, odds are you’re not living by your own priority.

[00:06:54] So let’s go through some solutions to these two problems because priority is a critical pillar to your success in your career, and there’s no such thing as equal priority. There is only a lack of priority. So first thing, if you’re struggling with clarity, I wanna give you a simple tactic to begin right now.

[00:07:17] We’re going to win the day with the tactic I call two by two. I got this from a great friend of mine named Rob a long time ago, and I’ve been using it anytime. I need to get quick wins and quick focus around my priority for the day. It’s called two by two. Here’s how it works In the morning, first thing, before you start your day, you’re going to choose two things.

[00:07:43] That you are committed to accomplish by 2:00 PM two things by 2:00 PM. Now, why do we do it this way? Two things, because everybody struggles with just picking that one. I love the book, the one thing, but we often have maybe something personal and something professional or multiple projects. And so giving yourself two allows you to go for a little bit more, but it’s also still a really small number.

[00:08:11] All right? Make sure that you bite off things that you can chew, and that’s why we have the 2:00 PM target because if you plan your day, Around a perfect flow, 100% utilization of yourself as a resource. You’re not accounting for the realities that things vary. Things get out of control. Sometimes you’re going to get distracted or get derailed by something unexpected, so don’t set yourself up for five things by 5:00 PM or you will not finish that.

[00:08:44] Too often you’re gonna get distracted or something will pop in that you were not able to predict. Well, one of those tasks is gonna take three times as long as you expect it, two things by 2:00 PM quick and easy, around your highest priority, and you’re committed to getting them done by 2:00 PM so that you have a win for the day.

[00:09:04] Now, Let’s be honest. Winning the day is not all that it takes to maximize your career success. To experience the lifestyle of your dreams, we need to win the week, win the year, and win your life. And so if you want to go deeper on this, if you really do need help with creating clarity in your vision and breaking all of that down, then let’s talk about getting you into our Lifestyle Engineering Blueprint program where we can do that deep coaching and support you every step of the way.

[00:09:35] But this is a quick way to begin, two by two. Test it out, try it out. And here’s how I like to do it. Write those two things on a sticky note and just put it right there on your computer monitor so it’s front and center in your environment, and hold you accountable to getting it done. And when you’re finished, throw it away.

[00:09:52] Have that little celebration and get on with the day. If you’re struggling with your life being built around other people’s priorities. The first thing is a mindset shift. I just want you to know you are responsible to choose your own priority. No one else. No one else is responsible for that. Now, your first reaction might be, yeah, but Zach.

[00:10:18] My boss is the one who decides which projects are the priority, not me. So how can it be my choice when someone else gets to make that choice? That makes no sense. Well, I know. I know. Relax. Okay. Here’s the thing. You are still responsible for your decision. You are responsible for your priority, your stakeholders, like a boss.

[00:10:45] Like a spouse, like another loved one, a child like project managers, colleagues, people in our world, we have a lot of people influencing what might be our ultimate decision, but you own the decision. Just because your boss says something doesn’t automatically make it true. And even if it is true, you still need to take that direction and own the decision for yourself.

[00:11:15] If you’re not clear on why that direction makes sense, take responsibility to go get clarity on that. If you don’t agree with the direction and the decision, take the responsibility to go have a one-on-one with your boss and have the hard, courageous conversation about that disagreement. Ultimately, it may be your boss’s decision, and then it comes back to you.

[00:11:39] How do I want to decide moving forward? Am I going to accept that direction and choose it? Or do I want to go another direction? Here’s the thing. You don’t have to choose what they say, but every decision. Creates a consequence. And if you choose something different than what your boss says, you may not like the consequence, but it doesn’t relieve you from responsibility for the choice.

[00:12:05] Now, that’s a mindset shift. Here’s a quick action for you to practice. If you catch yourself giving other people the priority in your life, instead of choosing and living it for yourself, simply practice saying no. Practice saying no. When you do that, it creates a powerful shift into agency, into choice, and into being the one responsible for your own priority practice.

[00:12:39] Saying, no. It’s easy to say yes. It is hard to say no. You become a good engineering leader by saying yes. I get it. When you start your career, you’re gonna say yes to a lot of things because you’re just learning. You’re getting to know what’s out there and what’s possible, and you’re expanding your skills and you’re growing in so many ways.

[00:12:59] So you say yes to everything, and you take on all these new challenges and responsibilities, but you become a great engineering leader. By saying, no, you become good by saying yes, you become great by saying no, by focusing on less and getting the priorities right. So practice saying no. And here’s what I want you to think about here.

[00:13:22] No, does not mean that you just flat out use that one word no. Some colleague comes up to you, asks for a favor, and you simply say, no. It’s not that blunt. No can be. A not ever. Hey, that’s not a priority for me. It could be a, not me. Hey, that’s not something that I can help you with, but I bet Sally can, right?

[00:13:47] That’s not something that I’m able to make a priority today, but maybe Billy can. It may also be a knot. Now, hey, I’d be happy to help you with that, but because of the other priorities on my plate right now, That’s not something I can get to until later. So here’s the starting point. If you struggle with saying no, simple tactic for you is to step away from thinking about the two letter word no, and simply create a buffer.

[00:14:21] Create a buffer between the ask and the response. So here’s the situation. You’re at work. Somebody walks up to you or hits you on Slack or in whatever virtual tool teams that you use, and they say, Hey Zach, would you be able to blah? Right? And they give you a request. In the past you might have said, yeah, let me see what I can do.

[00:14:46] Or, yeah, happy to take care of that. Or, hold on just a minute. Let me get to it later today. And you would say Yes right away. All we’re going to do instead is create a buffer. Create space and it would sound something like this, yo, hey Zack, would you be able to do blah by this afternoon? Or would you be able to get me blah report by tomorrow?

[00:15:08] Instead of saying, yes, I’m going to say, Hey, thank you for the request. I understand what you’re asking for, but I have other urgent priorities on my plate already. So before I answer that, let me assess the situation and see what I can do. That’s it. We’re going to create a buffer between the ask and the response.

[00:15:35] Alright. So let’s say, uh, my team member Max reached out to me with a request. You know, Hey boss, would you be able to check, uh, this marketing material that we’re prepping for happy hour next month? I wanna make sure that it’s ready to go before we schedule the email. If today that is not my priority, then I’m gonna say to Max, Hey, I’ve got the request.

[00:15:59] Thank you for letting me know. Before I get to that, I’ve got some other urgent priorities that I’m working on. So let me get back to you with when I’ll be able to take that on. Let me assess the situation. I’ll see what I can do. All right, I’m just creating a buffer now in that example. What Max is asking for is something that’s important to me.

[00:16:24] So I’m gonna assess my priority for the week, and I’m gonna schedule time to do that review in a way that makes sense with my other priorities and the things that need to get done. But instead of saying yes immediately, without actually making a decision, I’m going to create a buffer. Once you’ve created that buffer, now you have a chance to come back with a strategic no, if that’s what you need to do.

[00:16:47] And again, it might be not ever, you know, Hey Sally, I hear you that that’s something that you need. But right now my boss has me focused on X, Y, and Z priorities, and that’s where my focus lies. So I’m not gonna be able to take that on at this time. It’s a no. It could be a, not me, you know? Hey, Sally, that’s not something that I can help you with right now.

[00:17:07] But have you asked John, he might be able to help you. Or a knot. Now, Hey Sally, I’m happy to take that on and support you, but it’s not something that I can get to today or this week because of the priorities on my plate. Is it okay if I get that to you by next Tuesday? So we’re giving an alternative and we’re suggesting a different time.

[00:17:29] All of those are forms of no, that put you in the driver’s seat, that put you in the role of responsible for your priority. All right. I hope this helps win the day with two by two. And start creating a buffer so you can practice saying no. If you will do those two things, I promise you that it’s gonna begin to shift the energy around priority in your life and in your career.

[00:17:58] And remember, this is a life conversation, not just work. You can use these same tools when someone from the volunteer organization that you love and support reaches out to you and they wanna ask for your time this Saturday, but you’ve already committed your time, or maybe you really just need to rest and your priority is to rest and recover from a challenging week.

[00:18:20] Even though you love that group, you might need to say no. Well create a buffer. Don’t say yes immediately, and then you can come back with that strategic no or a yes if that’s what’s aligned with your priority. There’s no such thing as equal priority, only a lack of priority. Be honest with yourself.

[00:18:42] Where do you need to step up? Take that responsibility, create clarity, and say no. If you need any support on this at all, I want to hear from you. Shoot me an email, [email protected]. Reach out if we can get you information about coaching and sport and tools that you need. Anything at all. That’s what we love to do here at the Oasis of Courage.

[00:19:04] And as always, crush comfort. Create courage, and let’s do this.