Are you sensing a rush coming as we complete midyear career discussions at Microsoft and head into the stretch toward annual reviews? Worried about keeping up with your peers when you already have far too much to do and far too little time in which to do it? Feeling lost already? Please. Get a grip and get a map.

When you have to take an urgent trip somewhere, you don’t drive off without knowing where you’re going as if you are on a carefree vacation. So why the heck are you overwhelming yourself with tasks without having a personal plan?

“But my manager says I’ve got to do all this stuff!” Grow up! Think! What really matters? What will your manager talk about in calibration this summer? Focus on the few things that matter most, and manage everything else so it doesn’t get in the way. How? Read on.

Eric Aside

Focusing on the few things that matter most is one of those principles that apply to everyone and every project regardless of level or scope. It’s just as important to an individual engineer as it is to an engineering director or division president.

But that’s not important

Step one for knowing where to focus is to differentiate between what’s urgent and what’s important. Urgent tasks can fill up your day if you let them. A year will go by and you’ll have accomplished nothing important. That’s a problem.

Work with your manager to scope your responsibilities so that you have time for what’s important as well as what’s urgent. Naturally, your manager will want urgent work completed promptly, but it doesn’t have to all fall on you. Usually, urgent work can be shared across the team. Important work demands ownership and responsibility. That’s where you want your focus to be.

Not much to say

How do you determine what’s important? That’s easy. What business are you in? Who are your customers? What portion of the business does your team own? Tie those things to what your leadership team, your manager, and your skip-level manager care about, and you’ve got what’s important.

Let me put it another way. During review calibration, you are compared to 50 to 100 peers in similar roles across your organization. Even in a four- to eight-hour calibration meeting, managers only have about five minutes on average to talk about each employee—not a lot of time. Your manager can only discuss a few things you’ve focused on in your work.

Keep in mind, your manager will prepare and take your entire year into account. Out of that, she will pick out key work you’ve accomplished and how you accomplished it. What are the few items you want her to bring up that best represent your efforts—that will stand out as valuable among your peers? That’s what’s important. That’s what you focus upon.

Eric Aside

For more on calibration, please read Out of calibration.

Trust, but verify

“But what about all the other work that needs to get done? I can’t get away with doing just a few things all year.” Actually, you can if those few things are important, but I know what you mean. There’s a ton of work that comes across your desk and inbox each day. People count on you to be responsive and a good partner. You don’t want to let them down, and sometimes small items can turn out to be important.

First and foremost, know what few important things you are focused on currently—don’t lose sight of them. Never let noisy urgency distract you away from being laser-focused on what really matters.

As for the rest of what gets thrown your way, you’ve got a few options that I described in Don't panic:

  • You can ask for clarification—this delays the task and sometimes causes it to resolve itself.
  • You can do it or defer it based on priority—this keeps you focused on your important work.
  • You can entrust it to someone else—this gets the task off your desk and quite possibly to someone better positioned to handle it.

What do you do if an important request arrives, but you can’t prioritize it ahead of your other important work? Entrust it to someone else, but keep track—stay on the mail thread and verify the request is being resolved. (I keep a special email folder for work I’m tracking.) Trust, but verify. That way, you ensure the important work gets done and you are able to scale.

Two to tango

If you only need to have a few important accomplishments per year, plus be responsive to day-to-day requests, how many important things should you work on at once? Two.

As I mentioned in “Time enough” (chapter 8), people are most productive when they are working on precisely two projects: a primary project, where they focus most of their time, and a secondary project to fill-in when the primary project is stalled or they need a change of pace.

You should handle mail and ad hoc requests as you reach nice stopping points during the day. Don’t disrupt your flow.

Eyes on the prize

As you consider what you’ll be working on for the next six months, clarify which important projects you’re responsible for delivering—the ones you own. At any given time, know which project is primary and which is secondary.

It may sound strange to focus only on a few important projects, but that’s what makes the difference between busy work and achievement. Focus delivers experiences instead of disjointed sets of features. Focus keeps people aligned and in sync instead of falling into dysfunctional chaos. Focus achieves your goals instead of simply keeping you occupied.

It’s never too late to get focused. Understand your business (that’s the purpose of those all-hands meetings). Know your customer. Work with your manager to determine where you and your work fit. Then focus on a few important deliverables. Achieve that and you’re sure to give your managers something good to talk about at calibration—something that makes you proud.