Schedule Important Work First

A Post in The Burndown Journey.
Follow along as we build a new project management tool in the open.

Matthew Gordon
Matthew Gordon - February 18, 2022

Have you ever had a project that everyone agrees is important and valuable that's somehow never actually finished? Completing the project would significantly advance your goals, speed up development, attract more customers, etc…. but somehow another month, quarter, year goes by until all expectation and enthusiasm dies.

There's an easy way to prevent this from happening: schedule the important work first.

It's an obvious and intuitive principle, so why does important work still get sidelined?

What is Important work?

Important work makes significant, tangible progress toward your goals. For something to be Important, it's not enough to just produce more value than it costs. It needs to be big and meaningful. The kind of thing you'd put on a short list of accomplishments you're proud of.

Here's a simple test for Importance: If you only had a few sentences to explain the importance of a project to someone outside your company, what would you say? If your answer clearly relates to your goals and is easy to understand without a lot of context, like

  • double customer acquisitions
  • reduce support requests by 30%
  • increase average customer lifetime by 20%

then you've probably got an Important project.

What distracts us from doing Important work?

The real trick with getting Important work done, as Stephen Covey points out in his famous example, is that there is a lot of work that's not Important. The distractions come in two flavors.

Urgent work has a real deadline: there's a point in time where the value of doing the work dramatically decreases. After the deadline, there might be a penalty or it might not worth doing the work at all anymore. Urgent work might be Important, but there's usually a lot of Urgent work that's not Important. Examples of Urgent work include filing your taxes and the umpteenth LIMITED TIME OFFER email in your inbox.

Chores are the kind of work that maintain the status quo. It's not going to noticeably or permanently improve anything, or accomplish any goals, or show up in a presentation designed to impress the board. In a normal business, there are a lot of chores. Examples include answering support questions and upgrading software libraries. It's real work that provides real value to the business, but there's nothing to write home about.

Obviously we want to do Important work instead of letting urgency and chores consume us, but we still get knocked off course. How does that happen?

Never Scheduling The Important Work

In Tim Urban's TED talk on procrastination, he starts by talking about procrastination as it's often talked about in public. You put things off until the last minute, you panic and work much harder than is good or reasonable for a short time, the deadline arrives and you deliver your (poor quality) work, and finally you're relieved and can stop panicking.

Later in the talk, he brings up a much more sinister - and more widespread - kind of procrastination. What if there is no real deadline? Maybe you made one up to motivate yourself, but you know you can change it if you need to. Or want to. If there's no deadline, then there's no panic. If there's no panic, you can just keep putting it off for forever.

People and teams that are vulnerable to procrastination often get pushed around by urgency. A situation presents itself and there's a limited time to capitalize on it, so work starts happening. It's especially easy to fall into this trap when it's difficult or impossible to grasp the big picture. It's usually easy to understand the benefits of doing urgent work. If it's hard to understand the benefits of not doing that work, urgent work tends to rule the day. In this case, Important work often never even makes it on the schedule. You're obviously busy, so you'll definitely do these other things later when the urgency has passed. But it never passes.

Munging The Schedule

Never getting scheduled is a pretty common way to miss doing Important work, but there's an even more common way: important work gets munged off the schedule. If you've never seen the word mung before, it means "a series of potentially destructive or irrevocable changes".

Here's how it works in project management. First, you schedule the important project in the near future. It's not going to start right away, but it's close enough that everyone thinks it's definitely going to happen soon. Then, other work starts competing for the schedule. This thing is urgent, so you push the important project back a little. It's still going to happen soon. Someone from sales needs a "little feature" to close a deal. Or they already sold it and the company will be embarrassed if it's not made on time. The important project slides back a little further.

This is easy to do when it's expensive or impossible to keep track of the big picture consequences of schedule changes. It's too hard to look at the big picture often, but when you do look you see the important project is scheduled to start "soon". It's only after a long enough time passes that people start to realize that "soon" looks a great deal like "never". A series of changes, each of which seems reasonable at the time, means the important project doesn't get done.

Hidden Disagreement

The last common thing that prevents us from doing Important work is not agreeing on which work is Important. Work can only be Important if it makes significant progress towards a goal. If you don't have goals, your goals conflict, or they're poorly defined then Important work can't happen. Or, if it does happen, it's by luck. Instead, everyone has their own idea of what's Important, defending and detracting projects according to their own view. The project schedule likely churns often or is ignored whenever it suits the politics of the moment.

The bad news is that a project management system, even a great one, isn't going to fix goal setting and communication problems. The good news is that a good project management system focused on the big picture will surface the existence of these kinds of disagreements and force them to be resolved.

What can you do to protect Important work?

Unfortunately, scheduling and protecting Important work isn't a first class feature of any project management tool I've ever seen. We're designing Burndown to address and prevent each of these distractions. In Burndown, it'll be easy to answer questions like

  • Are you scheduling the important work?
  • Are you accidentally pushing the important work out into the future?
  • Does everyone understand what the important work is?

In future posts, we'll show off the specific designs and features that make sure this happens.

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