5 Task Prioritization Strategies for Getting Out of the Weeds

When faced with an overwhelming number of tasks, that feeling of being underwater, out of air, and on fire all at once is a paralysis that can affect any of us, at any time. But with a few task prioritization strategies, and some very basic Dos and Don’ts, you can collect yourself and get out of the weeds.

While in the weeds is a phrase that seems to have its origins in the game of golf, it’s been co-opted most often by the service industry. Although I haven’t worked in a restaurant in a long time, my mind frequently wanders back to it: Table 3 has asked where their food is (you forgot to ring it in), new tables haven’t been greeted yet (you didn’t even know they were there), the chef is hunting you down for the Gluten-Free ticket you entered (soy sauce what?), and more than just being “in the weeds”, you feel like this situation could be more aptly named “OMG EVERYTHING IS ON FIRE!”

I’ve learned, as an engineer at Revelry, that these wait-mares from my time in the service industry have actually helped to prepare me for the moments it feels like I am crashing and burning in glorious fashion. And this usually occurs when I have a lot of various tasks on my plate.

Five Do’s and Don’ts to Escape the Hell of Overwhelming Tasks

1. Don’t Blindly Run Faster

Picking up the pace in order to dig yourself out of a hole, whether that hole is a hungry party of 8 or a backlog of bug tickets, will only lead to more mistakes that will come back to burn you later.

You’re more likely to trip and drop an entire table’s worth of food or create a massive new bug for someone else to discover when attempting a quick drive-by fix.

Do Slow Down

Get your shit together and regroup. The first step to getting out of the weeds is to lay out everything you need to accomplish and decide upon the order these tasks need to happen. Task prioritization in GitHub is a good place to start.

Look at all the issues or tickets assigned to you, order them by the time they were last updated, and copy that URL. Set an early start to your workday to check that URL to determine what’s waiting on you. This provides a nice ‘at a glance’ look at your responsibilities and how long you’ve been dropping the ball.

2. Don’t Be a Superhero

You can’t do it all at once. If you have more than one ticket “in progress” at a time, I call bullshit. You physically cannot be working more than one issue at a time. Sure, there are certain situations where you could be addressing two very similar or related issues at the same time.

This is most likely a product of “Uhh, I can’t (or don’t know how) to fix this right now, so I’m going to try to get this other thing out of the way instead.” This is bad. The danger here is that the thing that you put off can easily fall between the cracks and get left behind as you move onto other things once you complete your replacement ticket.

Do Ask for Help

If you are blocked, asked for help. It is very likely that there is someone on your team who can help you get over that first hump and appropriately close out your ticket. Just as there’s usually a fellow server who’s got time to polish glasses, another teammate probably has a spare moment to take a look. A second pair of eyes goes a long way to get the ball rolling toward a solution.

3. Don’t Procrastinate

Don’t let the mind wander and succumb to the pressure of having a lot of things to accomplish. We all do it. It’s very easy to procrastinate when you know you have a lot of stuff to do. How many times have you cleaned your desk instead of doing whatever you sat at the desk in the first place to do?

Do Just Start

“Starting is the hardest part” holds true here. Once you do start, and you get the first ticket off your plate and those engineering gears are turning, the next ticket should not seem as daunting.

4. Don’t Just Pass the Buck

You can’t just pass the buck and move on. In a restaurant, asking someone else to do something for you will often come back to bite you: they might forget, do it wrong, or fail in some other spectacular way due to lack of context. You can always ask for help (see #2), but passing the buck doesn’t relieve you of your responsibility for the task.

The same goes for development responsibilities. Sure, we all like to think that we can rely on each other to get done what we say we will get done, but sometimes everything does not go to plan. The person who agreed to help you could get called away to work an urgent bug that’s crashing another app. Someone could bring in office tacos and all is forgotten in the ensuing chaos.

Do Follow Up When Delegating

If you do have to punt a ticket into someone else’s court, make sure you follow up with them regardless of how confident you are that they will deliver. As a checks-and-balances of sorts, always be sure to follow up:

  • Did it get done?
  • Is this a good and valid solution to the problem?
  • Has it been tested?
  • Did this new code get pushed to where it needs to go?
  • Does the client know that this issue has been solved?

5. Don’t Pretend You Don’t Smell Smoke

When it’s on fire, it’s on fire. Don’t pretend it isn’t burning down. This is bad. You will not have a good time.

Do Enjoy the Game

Those things right up there? Do them. GLHF.

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