Task Prioritization at an Early-Stage Startup

overwhelmed-by-tasks

About me

I’m a Partner Manager at Builtfirst where I manage relationships with SaaS partners like HubSpot, Zendesk, Brex & more. I participated in (& organized a meetup for) a startup apprenticeship program, Praxis.

You can find me at a park playing sports, a concert, or wine tasting.

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What’s the best use of your time at an early-stage startup? Do you know at any given moment what your highest priority is?

The answer isn’t always clear. You’ll often need to go beyond your typical responsibilities if a need arises. This can be stressful but gives you the opportunity to learn quickly. 

There are many popular task management methods out there, but not all of them fit startup work. This is because your priorities can shift multiple times per day based on new insight or a new strategy session. 

In the first month working for a startup, I found myself struggling several times to move from one task to another with efficiency.

Starting with a Basic Framework

To start, let’s establish a simple approach to task management. It’s known as the ABC 123 method. This has been utilized by my team at my business, ICHRONstudio for web design work.

To start, list out all of your tasks for the week. If you’re using paper, leave some space to the left of each task.

Do a quick hourly time estimation on each task, starting at 1-hour minimum (even if it’s shorter) up to 3+ hours. If a task takes substantially longer than 3 hours, consider breaking it out into several smaller tasks. 

Then, prioritize the task with a letter based on how soon it needs to be completed:

  • If the task needs to be completed by EOD (End of Day) today, it’s an A.
  • If it needs to be completed by EOD tomorrow, it’s a B.
  • If it needs to be completed this week, it’s a C.
  • If you don’t need to complete this task this week, organize it into an “overflow” section.

Once you’re done, it might look something like this:

ABC123-example

Now you have a list with a bunch of numbers and letters. Cool. Now what?

Organizing your list

This is where the magic starts. You’re going to create a few buckets based on what you’re looking at:

  • Start with everything labeled “A”, or that needs to be completed today. Then look for what’s going to take the longest (2-3+ hours). This is your primary project for today.
  • All the other A’s are your secondary projects. 
  • Your B’s and C’s will be addressed tomorrow or another day, don’t even worry about it for now.

If you’re organizing this on paper, it might look a little like this:

Week-start.png

Strategizing your time

By focusing on how and when the task is completed rather than the task itself, you take a step back and your list no longer seems unmanageable. 

You’ll want to start with your primary project, working on it for a set amount of time (i.e. 30-60min). Once your time is up (or you become bored), it’s time to take a break and then switch to a secondary project. 

If you’re a fan of the popular method “Eat the Frog”, your primary project is your Frog. For those unfamiliar, “Eating the Frog” is based on a quote from Mark Twain that goes “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning.”

In your work, this translates to knocking out the most difficult, time-consuming, or daunting task first. Then moving on to other tasks. If that’s your preference, go ahead and knock out your A2-3+, taking a few breaks throughout. With the stress of a difficult task gone, you’ll easily be able to knock out the A1’s and A2’s. This can also apply to a task that has a higher priority than everything else, where you must address that first even if it’s not the longest task of the day.

Applying this framework to a startup

This sounds good, but how well does this apply to working at a startup? What if new tasks come in throughout the day? What about the rest of the week? Don’t worry, we’ll get to it. I promise it’s not a “C” priority. 

Wow, that was bad.

Anyways, as priorities shift be sure to write with your pencil and not a pen! Or, in your favorite task management system, you should be able to relabel times and priorities, as well as add new tasks throughout the day. Bear in mind that in this working environment, you’ll be spending more time than most people on managing your tasks than most. You simply won’t get as much done, but you’ll get more done being organized than sitting there scratching your head on what you’re supposed to be doing right now.

As an example, below is a screenshot of my tasks for this week in my documentation. I’ve gone overboard with a lot of columns to the right of my task:

Week-4-task-breakdown

  • This first column is a time estimation, and you can see at the bottom there’s a total of 9 hours estimated for this project. I’ve left a primary task blank as the subtasks add up to the total for the task.
  • There’s both a “date” and “priority” column just to show how you could utilize either.
  • I’ll also note that rather than a simple ABC, I have “High”, “Medium”, and “Low” priorities, but they mean the same thing.
  • I also have a “Status” tab to highlight certain tasks that are incompletable without first completing other tasks. These are sometimes referred to in project management tools as “dependent” tasks. Optional but gives clarity if you have a long list of tasks.

Let’s say you’re like me, both behind and an overachiever, and decided to create another piece of documentation (this one). Let’s add that and see how we go about adjusting the other tasks:

Week-4-task-adjustment

You’ll notice the new task, “Create task prioritization guide”. Let’s pretend this list is my job and this just came in. I’ve now pushed back other tasks to tomorrow as I don’t think it’ll be possible to make substantial progress. Note my priorities shifted as well. Consolidating docs is no longer “High”, it’s “Medium”. 

I’d recommend “queueing” tasks rather than allowing them to interrupt your entire schedule, but this isn’t always possible. In my case, I’d rather have all of my documentation complete before consolidating and publishing, so “Creating a task prioritization guide” comes first.

Moving throughout the week

As you get into your second or third day of working, undoubtedly new tasks will come up overnight. Go ahead and list them out!

Did something happen and you weren’t able to complete an “A” priority task yesterday? I hope you still have your job. If you do, then it’s an “A” again today, and maybe you should “Eat the Frog” and do it first. If you’re gleefully self-employed like I am, then be sure to kick yourself before writing it down a second (third?) time. Again on paper, this might be how you approach your second day:

day2

Best Practices & Ongoing Tasks

I often make the mistake of jumping on a task immediately without documenting it at all. Unless you’re working on an ongoing task like “check emails”, this can become a problem. You need to document everything to prove just how valuable your work is (or explain why you still don’t have a landing page published). 

If you often find yourself working on ongoing tasks that are more reactive as opposed to individualized, planned work, make that your primary project for the day. I’d be more diligent about blocking your time on your calendar in this case, where you spend one hour triaging support messages, then 30 minutes working on a side project, then another hour triaging again. In these cases, relying on a CRM or similar tool (depending on the type of work you’re doing) is more valuable than a project management system.

If you ever find yourself overwhelmed by tasks, simply start this process over, retiming and reprioritizing everything you’re doing. Do this especially if you get bombarded throughout the day, which can certainly happen at a startup. 

Lastly, if you’re finding there’s too much to do in a day (or a week), consider reshaping your own (or boss’s) goals/deadlines/expectations. It’s easy to say “this will be done tomorrow!” when in reality it’s not a high priority and will be far less stressful for it to be done at the end of the week. Setting realistic goals and expectations is something I’ll be covering in another post. Until next time, “C” you later!

… I’ll see myself out.

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