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Prioritization when things get Busy: Critical Path

Full Disclosure, over the last 2 weeks I have not written a new post. This is a first, since the week this blog was created last September I have written 3 or more posts every week. I have written on business trips, vacation, after work in the dead of night, and first thing in the morning before the kids awake. But the last 2 weeks have been different. I got very busy and I was forced to prioritize other things. At least the topic of this post was inspired by that dearth of writing, today’s post will touch on prioritization.

Why was I so Busy?

So what caused this exceptional 2 week period? Well it was a combination of many small things that took precedence, not one large one. In some cases the prioritization decision was not my own. Sometimes events happen either planned or surprising where you have a legal, family, or moral obligation to handle them first. A handful of these occurred over the last 2 weeks:

  • Our 5 year old completed his final year of preschool. Transitioning to being at home/camps for the summer certainly causes disruption. It can also mean more time needed by my wife to entertain kids until those camps start. Next week the kids are off with grand parents before the following week heading to a camp, so this is a temporary time squeeze.
  • My wife was in a minor car accident about 2 weeks ago. She is fine and no one else was in the car. However, this meant one of our cars was in a shop for two weeks. Dealing with insurance agents and shops to repair the car, replace the car seats, and help in their incident investigation was expected after the incident. It was also something we had no choice to prioritize.
  • I was sent to California for yet another business trip for one of my projects. The trip was not optional should I intend to stay employed and nor was the time I spent on the plane to get there. However, as we’ll discuss in a moment some of the after hours entertaining I did was a choice.
  • One of our children had a bit of an accident while I was away requiring a few stitches. Calls to the little one reassuring him Daddy would be home soon were not optional.

Prioritization does not equal Unproductive

Still despite these busy items on top of work, there was still plenty of other hours in the day to get things done. In fact I’ve written multiple posts in Shanghai on business while still managing to talk to my little ones. I also wrote posts in the short period where my child did not go to day care/preschool. The car accident meanwhile was a few hour annoyance, but also it did not cause me to miss writing. No I missed writing because I prioritized other things over writing. The first thing to note is usually no matter how busy you are there is choice in how you spend at least some portion of your time. You are in control for large portions of your time, and if you tell yourself otherwise you are likely hurting your opportunities.

What did I prioritize?

So what else was I doing? Well in my case a few things:

  • While in California I spent a lot of time at business dinners. I was working on building relationships to help with some future projects. Time spent drinking, eating, and talking can make my job easier the next time I need something done. This is especially true where I work where the key driver of execution is relationships.
  • When I returned from California I spent a considerable amount of time helping my wife with her contract work. Installing software to help her produce her deliverables, acting as a sounding board for ideas, and generally helping her get things off the ground.
  • Finally I spent some time with my kids this past weekend beyond even what was normal. I was away for them for a week for work and they are leaving for grand parents mid week. I know my oldest will start missing daddy if I didn’t spend some time this weekend, so I concentrated some time there.

Prioritization and the Critical Path

As a program manager I do a lot of prioritization in my job just like I do in my life. The key to prioritization is finding the critical path and prioritizing the items along it. What is the critical path? There is a concept in Project Management that there exists a sequence of items that define the minimum time needed to execute a project or program. Delaying any one of them will delay the overall project. There are many other ancillary deliverables that if you delay will not impact your end goal. So in prioritizing for any goal you need to choose the items along this path.

To determine your critical path simply map out your activities related to a goal including the time it takes to execute them and their dependencies. Then analyze each route through the activities to determine which route is the longest. That is the critical path.

Choosing Between Goals

Of course a humans life holds more than one goal. They are kind of like a spiderweb of different projects, each containing different critical paths. At the easiest level prioritization just involves choosing the items from each of these critical paths. In my last 2 weeks this is what I did. At their root my goals are financial, family, health, and happiness. The items I prioritized are each on the critical path to ensuring I achieve one of these goals.

Blogging is on the happiness route, but here is the thing. I wrote ahead when I first started my blog. Based on my current situation I won’t miss posting if I don’t write another thing this summer. That won’t happen, but that also means writing a blog post is not on the critical path. As such it was not the priority these 2 weeks, which is why there was a draught.

Conflicting Critical Paths

But what if you have conflicting critical paths? I will first say I have found that usually some non critical item is in my way, not a critical path item. When I really sit down to think about when I have a goal issue most weeks it’s because of misuse of time. At that moment I usually remind myself I control my time and get things back on track. However, it does sometimes happen that I have to choose between critical paths. In those cases it comes down to the priority of the goal. In my case family trumps all. As such in a conflict of critical paths the family critical path wins over all. Thankfully most weeks this is not a question for me.

Items can Become Critical Path

Now that things have settled down I’m back to my normal writing schedule. Which brings us to the last point. Non Critical Path items can become critical path if you let them slip for too long. If I stopped writing until September, and I truly value posting weekly on this blog, then it would become the critical path. The critical path changes over time and should be evaluated regularly. You also shouldn’t neglect items of value just because they are off the critical path.

When I have to prioritize items I go through this process either explicitly or implicitly. I look for those items tied to my goals, whether they are not the critical path, and where they fit into my overall goals. The better you prioritize the more you can get done.

How do you prioritize?

14 Comments

  1. I’ve done a lot of working on prioritization lately. I used to be very good at getting everything that needed to be done completed on time, but then I would waste a lot of time instead of getting ahead on tasks.

    Writing is a great example. You had a backlog of articles written because you were able to do more than necessary when you had the time. I am usually good at writing my two articles for the week, but then I have a tendency to stop writing for the week instead of getting ahead. This means that when I have to prioritize other things, I end up missing posts. I recently missed a bunch of posts in a row when I had to travel for funerals. I don’t regret prioritizing my extended family over everything else at that time, but I do regret not getting ahead when I had the time in the preceding weeks and months.

    • fulltimefinance@fulltimefinance.com
      [email protected] June 29, 2017

      Its definitely a constant labor to keep on task. It can pay dividends though. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Kevin @39months.com
    Kevin @39months.com June 28, 2017

    Funny, in my life and line of work, I do a lot of project management, so the critical path theory is something I embrace and utilize a lot.

    What’s funny is how you’ve managed to do it in your home life as well. Congratulations!

    [email protected]

  3. Leo T. Ly
    Leo T. Ly June 28, 2017

    When it comes to prioritizing, I often separate my tasks into two buckets. The ones that I need to work on and the ones that I want to work on. More likely than not, the tasks that are in the need to work on bucket is often on the critical path and the ones on the want is not the n the critical path. It’s always a struggle to choose or prioritize the tasks and I often have to balance them. Always working on the need to do bucket will never motivate me.

    • fulltimefinance@fulltimefinance.com
      [email protected] June 29, 2017

      Need versus want is n ok way to prioritize in short bursts, but as you denoted you lose motivation if you use that as your sole method for long periods.

  4. John Wedding
    John Wedding July 1, 2017

    That’s a lot of stuff happening. I’m glad that things have settled down and the “excitement” has passed; any one of those things in the “why was I so busy” paragraph is a big deal!
    In the grand scheme, two weeks’ silence is a blip. I’m glad you got a post out of the blip 🙂 but in the large majority of cases, it’s OK to not even mention that life got in the way over a short period of time. It’s peachy-fine to just post again without explanation, and everyone will be glad to see you back.

    • fulltimefinance@fulltimefinance.com
      [email protected] July 2, 2017

      If it we’re a case of post or family emergency I agree. People would definitely understand. Thanks for swinging by.

  5. Mustard Seed Money
    Mustard Seed Money July 1, 2017

    I usually create a task list and running through my list. I try then to figure out what the most important task is and run from there. So writing it down and reviewing things really helps out for me. Plus I love crossing through my list and see what I’ve accomplished for the day 🙂

    • fulltimefinance@fulltimefinance.com
      [email protected] July 2, 2017

      I do something similar at work with short term items on postits. How do you choose the priority?

  6. DC @ Young Adult Money
    DC @ Young Adult Money July 2, 2017

    I’m constantly creating and updating to do lists. I group them by “area” like “work” (my 9-5), YAM, Finance Startup, Home, etc. and then number things by priority. I also have found it useful to define what I need/want to get done today tomorrow, or this week.

    • fulltimefinance@fulltimefinance.com
      [email protected] July 2, 2017

      Not a bad strategy. Do you use paper or some sort of program to organize your list?

  7. Pat the Shuffler
    Pat the Shuffler July 2, 2017

    This is a great post. Prioritisation is key.

    Usually when people say “I don’t have the time” what they are actually saying is “it isn’t a priority for me” and making them say it like that can get them to re-evaluate where they are spending their time.

    For example “There’s no time to exercise and stay fit after taking care of work, the kids, cleaning etc” vs “Exercising and taking care of my health isn’t a priority for me”.

    I also like how you have essentially pre-prepared blog posts to manage the ebbs and flows of your time through normal life.

    Cheers

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