Ruthlessly prioritizing


Rachit Kataria is a Senior studying Computer Science. While in Spark, he has worked on a number of committees including USC Hackers, Startup Career Fair, Founders, and TechLA. He is very passionate about the intersection of entrepreneurship and technology.

Less than a year ago, I sank down onto the bathroom floor and asked myself how it all went wrong.

I had set all these exciting, new goals to grow and improve myself. Within two weeks, they were forgotten. I wanted to learn Mandarin, but the only sentence I’m proud to know is “We are eating watermelon today.” I committed to hitting the gym each morning but the only thing I ended up hitting was the snooze button.

Were these goals really that important to me? I felt awful in the moment, but I always found a way to justify spending my time on something else. This, unfortunately, become my default mode and the initial goal soon faded out of memory.

We’ve all been there. Life goes on. No big deal, right? The problem is, without any framework to guide you, life is a constant game of tug-of-war, and you’re the fraying rope.

That’s where ruthless prioritization comes in.

Ruthless prioritization is the idea of constantly and consistently doing what is important first. It’s a marker of highly focused people and successful companies. Take it from Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg:

“I think the most important thing we’ve learned as we’ve grown is that we have to prioritize. We talk about it as ruthless prioritization. And by that what we mean is only do the very best of the ideas.

“Lots of times you have very good ideas. But they’re not as good as the most important thing you could be doing. And you have to make the hard choices.” [1]

People who ruthlessly prioritize have a clear, long-term purpose in mind. With the horizon always in sight, they tailor their actions to the short-term to attain that purpose. The path across is by no means linear — priorities shift and unexpected events arise. Sh*t happens. Nevertheless, people constantly reassess in the short-term and eliminate any bottlenecks and distractions that come in their way. In the end, it is this discipline and drive that gets them to the other side.

If you’re fed up with setting a “priority” and letting yourself down yet again, it might be time to take a step back and reset. Here are three ways to get back on track.

1) Stop and Listen to Yourself

The questions at the beginning of this article were my own not too long ago. I had set all those goals for myself at some point: learning Mandarin, reading books more often, and getting in that morning workout. Time and time again, I would get swept up in the wave of to-dos and classes and socializing and everything else on my plate. I told myself that it was fine, and I would make up for it later. But with time, later turned into never.

But, one time wasn’t like the rest. It stands out to me as an inflection point in my life and how I choose my priorities.

It was early fall at USC, and I just had a nerve-wracking day of midterms. I wasn’t too sure if I got any of that last random variables question right in my probability class and came back home feeling pretty stressed. I took a quick nap and then met up with a friend to catch up over coffee. He noticed my mood was way off and asked if he could help me talk through it. He said that one of the best ways he found to help him destress was meditation. Now, I’d been thinking about meditation for a while and had already heard a lot about the great benefits that come along with a daily session. My friend’s praise for it convinced me that it was time to commit. Meditating each morning was going to be my stepping stone to a freer headspace. I got this!

Three weeks later, I woke up late. This wasn’t the first time. I cursed and jumped out the bed, getting ready for class. I was in the middle of simultaneously gobbling down breakfast and getting dressed when I thought to myself, “Huh, I’m supposed to be meditating right about now…but I can do always it later, right?”

Pause. Rewind.

“Wait a second, I committed to this. I’m not going to give up like last time.”

“But you’re going to be late for class…”

“You can be a few minutes late. Don’t let yourself down. Just take the next 15 minutes and make it happen.”

I debated internally for a few more seconds before I stopped what I was doing, sat down, and meditated. It was the best decision I made that day.

In your moment of indecisiveness, your inner voice is a reminder. That voice is yours from three weeks ago, wondering where the commitment went. Stop and listen to yourself. Just for a second. You’ll probably hear something along the lines of, “Hey, remember our promise? We’re supposed to do that thing!” But if you keep ignoring the voice, it feels forgotten and fades away.

That voice might just be the reminder you need to keep you on your path forward. That voice is worth listening to.

2) Holding Yourself Accountable

Now what? You’ve heard your inner voice and acknowledged your commitment. How do you make sure you follow through every time?

The biggest challenge in this entire process is motivation. Letting yourself down isn’t fun. Obviously, the solution is to NOT do that! Well, easier said than done, and we often find ourselves in the same dejected position again and again.

Here’s how I keep myself going.

Your Calendar = Source of Truth

In the past, if asked why I didn’t stick to a commitment, I often used to reply with the dismal answer — “I didn’t have enough time.” Wrong answer.

Think about your day as a bucket. Given a good night’s sleep, you have 16 or so hours in the day to get things done. That’s sixteen 1-hour slots to fill your bucket with. Now, how you distribute those slots across the various commitments you juggle — work, family, physical and mental health, leisure — is up to you. But saying that you don’t have enough time to do something shouldn’t be your reaction. You have the time. It’s just that you assigned those slots in your bucket to another commitment. You should instead be asking yourself which commitments deserve your slots and how to best fit them into your day. Anything else, by definition, isn’t a commitment.

Calendars are incredible tools to help you assign slots for your daily bucket. Your calendar should be your single source of truth. In other words, if it’s on the calendar, it’s happening. Gym at 7 a.m.? You better be up and ready to go. Answering emails at 4 p.m.? Stop writing that essay and pull up Gmail.

In my case, I used my calendar to make sure that I stayed true to my goal of meditating. I get a notification each morning at 8 a.m. sharp reminding me that this is important to me and I’m committed for the next 30 minutes. No more, no less.

In the end, you’re still the one in charge of keeping yourself true to your schedule. But explicitly listing out your priorities and mapping out your day’s bucket is a great way to hold yourself accountable.

Phone a Friend

During my internship last summer, I had an amazing roommate. We hit it off immediately and found that we had very similar personalities. We were — and still are — very goal-oriented people with no shortage of targets we wanted to hit. But we shared the same cycle of two-week stints: setting and forgetting our goals.

After the summer was over, we returned to our respective colleges. We still kept in touch and felt that our goal struggles hadn’t been resolved. We made a deal to hold each other accountable. Every Saturday, we would call on the phone and discuss how much progress we had made. Doing this made all the difference.

It is much harder to tell someone who believes in you that you failed than to tell yourself.

Each day, I would remember that my Saturday check-in with my former roommate was coming up. Did I read my chapters for the week? Yes? Fantastic, can’t wait to update him! No? Then I need to get my act together and make it happen.

Having a friend that you depend on and vice versa is a great way to keep up your morale. You are both in the same situation and, as each other’s cheerleaders, push yourself to greater heights together!

3) Assess and Reassess

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, assess and reassess. Ruthlessly prioritizing is not a static framework. It relies on constant, sincere check-ins with yourself about your goals.

Every week, whether with a friend or by myself, I sit down and think about the last seven days. Did my week match my expectations? Am I happy with where and how I’m spending my time? The key is being honest with myself. If I need more time on a priority, I change up my buckets. If, after I’ve done my due diligence, I don’t think I should be spending so much time on something, that’s okay. I can get rid of it. It’s my life, and I have that flexibility. You do, too.

Again, this is much easier said than done. But, once you accept the fact that you have a limited amount of time to do an unlimited list of things, it becomes a little easier. Be intentional about your decisions. Don’t let commitments wither away without closure. Hold close the ones that you truly value, and let go of the rest.

Ruthlessly prioritize.

– Rachit Kataria