Circa 1998. I’ve been working as an analyst at this Internet startup for a couple of years. When I was hired, I was employee No. 47, as I recall. It’s gotten a lot bigger since then. My last boss has moved on to another firm, and a high-energy woman from a world-famous software company has been hired to create a new department which, I’m told, will include me. I’m nervous. My actual position has never been clearly defined (typical startup) and I really liked my last boss.
Mary, the new department head, sends me an Outlook invitation to lunch so we can talk. Here we go.
To keep track of all my projects, I had created an Access database a few months back, and had been giving my previous boss a regular report, so I’m ready. Every entry has a task description, start date, deadline, priority level, recipient, current status, history, and next step to be taken.
I print out the report in priority and deadline order. Then I go to meet my new boss for lunch.
We walk to a nice Indian restaurant near the Bellevue, WA, office. Mary orders, since I don’t know much about Indian food. The table cloth is white. The water is served in stemware. Now I’m really nervous.
After a few bites, she says: “I’m not very clear on what you DO. What are you working on?”
With a brief verbal intro, I hand her the report. She stops eating. I try to swallow. She reads the first page and then starts flipping through the rest of it, probably 25 pages, all told. The whole review takes about sixty seconds: one whole minute to decide where to pigeonhole me and set my new career path.
She looks up at me from across the naan, curry, lentils, and tandoori chicken. She shakes her head.
“You’re doing way too much,” she says.
I’m not sure I heard right, so I keep listening.
“This is impossible. There’s no way you can get to all of this,” she continues, flipping through the report again. She takes out a pen and starts marking stuff. “Okay, I want you to do this one (circles it)…and this one (circles it)…stop working on this one (crosses it off)…and, actually focus on THIS one (big circle, #1). If you have time after that, you can work on the next few…but everything after this one here, take off your plate. Don’t do them. I’ll talk to anyone who needs to know why.”
I’m flabbergasted. I think Mary notices.
“Look,” she says; “you can do only so much–probably just your top three priorities. And you should always know what those are. The way I see it is, if you can’t tell me your Top Three, then I’m not doing my job.”
She meant it. It was awesome.
Over the next year or so, I was more productive, more motivated, and more satisfied at the end of the day than ever before. I learned to turn down tasks that didn’t rate as high as my Top Three.
Mary backed me up on that, too–even against herself. If she burst into my office with some new thing (“bursting in” was standard), I listened to her rapid-fire description of the highly urgent, gotta-have-it task and then I said: “I’m working on this, this, and this: which one do you want me to move?”
It was not unusual for her to think for a second and then say: “None of them. Never mind.” Otherwise, she’d tell me which one to replace or where to shift priorities. Then she’d be out the door.
It was great to feel like I was always working on something valuable, something important, something necessary, something DOABLE. If I didn’t feel that way, I would review my Top Three with Mary.
She never failed to do her job.
These days, I’m my own boss. Do I know my Top Three? I always feel better when I do.