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Prioritization and How to Get Better at It

Season 1, Episode 8 Transcript

This transcript has been edited for clarity

So recently I've had some really cool opportunities to talk about prioritization specifically within the context of SEO-- search engine optimization. For my day job at HubSpot, I am a search optimization product expert, which is a really long title for basically saying if our customers have a question about our search optimization tools that our customer service team can't fix or can't answer for them, then it comes to me and I answered those questions, fix the problems, or send it to engineers as a bug so that they can fix it.

The other part of my job involves being a resource for the company when customers reach out with SEO strategy and process-based questions. If you're not familiar with SEO, it's a really broad topic.

There are so many facets and ways to approach search engine optimization that it's often really hard for businesses, especially small businesses where just one or two marketers have to wear multiple hats, to be able to prioritize and be able to understand how they can have the best impact and do the best work in their roles.

I promise this isn't going to be an entire episode about SEO, but it has gotten me thinking about prioritization a bit more, and the ways in which I've been able to coach customers and coach support reps through thinking about prioritizing search engine optimization. It really bleeds over into so many other parts of our lives.

And I wanted to start by just giving a quick overview of how I always tell people to prioritize their SEO work. First and foremost, when you're doing search engine optimization, the number one thing that you need to focus on and be concerned with is considering the impact that the decision is going to have on your audience.

Now, there are a lot of SEOs out there who would probably disagree with me. Maybe they prefer to get more in the weeds with technical SEO or site speed or UX or content, but in my opinion, every single SEO action  needs to come back to having a positive benefit for your target audience. That means you're either answering questions for your audience, solving their problems, creating a resource for them, or entertaining them. All along the way you're making that experience really enjoyable by having a fast site that's easy to use and you're not bombarding them with pop-ups and ads and interrupting their experience.

Anything outside of that, and there's a lot outside of that in SEO, that you can do anything outside of that, it's kind of a way to go above and beyond. But even with those extra activities, if it's not clear for you, how something's going to make an experience better for your audience, then it's , probably going to be a wasted effort. You might end up putting a lot of time and energy into something that's ultimately not going to pay off for you very well.

I'm sure it doesn't make me very popular among other SEO consultants-- cause that's one thing that I do on the side for a couple of clients-- but, you know, one of my biggest pieces of advice that I give on a frequent basis is if you're paying an agency or a consultant to help you put together an SEO framework, if they're telling you to do something, that's not immediately clear to you how it's going to benefit your audience push back on that, get them to clarify, get them to help you understand why it's going to benefit your audience.

And if they can't, then there's a good chance that what they're advising is going to be a lot of work with limited payoff. And, you know, I, I've got some conferences coming up that I'm speaking at on this topic and helping nonprofit leaders and marketers put together a framework for better understanding SEO prioritization.

And as I've been putting together, those presentations, I realized that one of the things we don't really talk about enough is what it actually looks like to prioritize in other areas of our lives.

Prioritization is such an important skill, but it's one that we don't do very well with at all. You know, our, our culture really encourages trying to do everything.

And when I say our culture I'm being a little bit ethnocentric. I'm speaking about, and speaking to other folks, here in the U S with me. If you're outside of the United States, then you know, your culture may have a different expectation. And I apologize that I'm excluding you. I wouldn't be using this language, but within American culture, there's a really strong emphasis on wanting to be able to do everything.

And trying to do everything and multitasking, and we praise people, especially within places of employment who take on any challenge that comes their way. if you ask them to do something, they will add it to their to-do list. And these aren't the people who set those boundaries and say, no, I don't have the bandwidth for it right now.

These are the people that say, yes, I can handle it. Whatever it may be and whatever is already on their plate. Some people have adapted to this way of thinking and they can manage that process fairly well. You know, I would say I'm one of those people who has a tendency to take on too many things if I'm not being critical about prioritizing prioritization.


It can be helpful. Oftentimes that can help you stand out in the workplace, especially, but at the same time, it's a double-edged sword. It ends up leaving you feeling burnt out and oftentimes resentful; resentful toward the situation that you're in, where you did end up with so many things on your plate and your life starts to get out of balance.

And you're not taking enough time for yourself and, exercising, eating right, sleeping well, keeping up with your housework, spending time with friends and family. All of that starts to slip and your focus becomes this laundry list of tasks that never gets any shorter. Every time you knock something out, someone else is there saying, "Oh, by the way, can you help out with this? Can you do this?"

Or you're seeing things online or reading about things other people are doing and telling yourself, "Oh, I need to do this. I need to do that. I need to be able to check off all of these boxes since I can see that's what other successful people are doing." And it's ultimately just not healthy.

It's not a great way to live because of that burnout factor. But as I've also talked about a lot, both in this podcast and in content I've created on the SelfHimprovement website, it's also just not very effective in general. When you have that spread out, multitask, do everything approach, you kind of end up doing 10 things at 10% effectiveness, rather than one thing at a hundred percent effectiveness.

You might be able to get it done, but it's not really going to be stellar in terms of outcomes, or it's not going to be something where you really have an opportunity to go deep and expand your own knowledge and understanding. And I think that we really do ourselves a disservice when we embrace that kind of low depth, wide breadth approach to life.

And especially in terms of our individual journeys for finding fulfillment and figuring out what that looks like for ourselves, there's a time and place for trying out a wide variety of things. If you're not really sure what fulfillment looks like for you and you have some curiosities you want to explore and flush out, that's totally fine.

But I think once you have a firm understanding of your core values, and you're working on integrating those into your daily life, if you're doing that to a very small extent and 15, 20 different ways, you're not really going to see the same payoff you would as if you were focused on just a couple of things and really investing and making progress in those just one or two areas.

So how do we prioritize? And what does prioritization look like? I think, all too often, we think of prioritization in terms of a numbered list. So let's say there are 10 things we want to do. If I said, okay, prioritize what you're going to do. There's a really good chance that if you're coming from a United Statesian mentality, your response is going to be to put those 10 tasks in order from what you're going to do first to what you're planning on doing the last.

And that's the framework with which you approach prioritization-- is everything is still in that list. It's just ranked or ordered in a particular way. And I think that's an idea of prioritization that we need to break away from.

I think, honestly, if we're going to effectively prioritize, we don't just order the list one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10. We do that. And then we stop at three. We say one, two, three. That is it. That is the only priority. You know, there's a, an exercise that's often attributed to Warren Buffet, though I don't know for sure if we can verify that because it's one of those anecdotes that's been passed around from self-help guru to self-help guru to, you know, want to be entrepreneur.

But it's essentially along the lines of,  in this antidote anecdote, Warren Buffet says something to the effect of make a list of your 25 top goals that you want to accomplish in your lifetime. And then he tells the person to cut it down to just five. And those are the only five that matter.

Everything else is thrown out and. It's one of those anecdotes where we kind of hear it so often in the personal development sphere that it really loses a lot of flavor and a lot of impact. And I'm sure it lost even more when I just kind of gave you the highlights and didn't set up a narrative and break it down, and, convince you that if you want to be a multi-billionaire investor, you've got to do this exercise.

That's my impersonation, by the way, of a self-proclaimed self-help guru, um, talk like this and, you know, very animated, all aboutbeing a self-made billionaire... cause it's so easy to anybody could do it.

So if you want me to do more impersonations, please let me know. I've got a wide repertoire, but anyway, in spite of that, in spite of the fact that it's really become a cliche and a very mundane exercise to recount, I still think it's quite useful. And often when I'm not really feeling like I have a sense of direction, like when my mind is just a little bit frazzled, it's one of the things that I'll do to help get myself realigned.

I'll just open my journal and write down some of the goals that I have for myself and then say, okay, I'm feeling frazzled. My mind is going in a million different directions. Here are all the things I could be doing right now. If I have to pick just one of these things to focus on what is it going to be? And that's, that's what I do.

I either circle it or go to the next page in my journal and write it down and write about why I'm picking that one. And I use that as a compass, that tells me what my true North is for that given day. In the Warren buffet anecdote, I think it's more of a like lifetime accomplishment size goals, but in my opinion, scaling it down to do day at a time or a week at a time can also be a really healthy framework for keeping yourself on track and making sure that you're staying motivated in the moment and in the present.

One of the problems by the way, with long-term prioritization and goal setting is that we often conceptualize those goals exclusively in the longterm. So we say, you know, in five years I'm going to be fully self-employed and also have a passive income stream of $65,000 or whatever. And we leave it at that five-year timeline without backtracking and saying, okay, so if I'm getting here, then in four years, I need to do this in three years. I need to just have done this in two years. I need to have done this in one year. I need to have done this in six months.

I need to have done this this month. I need to do X. It's so, so tempting to just keep that timeline long and not bring it to the present. And as a result, a lot of people end up setting really lofty goals and ambitions for themselves, but never really making any progress toward them to be able to define those shorter term goals.

And make significant progress towards your big picture goals. If I can borrow verbiage from my book, Big Picture Living: A Guide to Finding Fulfillment Even When Everything Sucks, available at www. Nope. Wow. I messed up the URL. I was trying to go into like my really fast sales pitch and I got the URL completely wrong.

Shame on me. It's https://shop.selfhimprovement.com. How dare I mess that up. So sad. Also available as a hard cover at Barnes and Noble.

Anyway. Okay. With my faulty sells pitch and the one that I will allow myself for the podcast episode out of the way, prioritization, getting back, getting refocused:

When we're working towards big picture goals, it's really important to take a step back and look at what those baby steps to get there are going to be and prioritize how we can get there. So in terms of getting started, thinking about how we can prioritize, I wanted to have a little bit of story time and read to you from the book, Change Maker: Turn Your Passion for Health and Fitness into A Powerful Purpose and Wildly Successful Career by John Berardi PhD.

So John Berardi is also one of the co-founders of Precision Nutrition, and in other episodes, I've mentioned that I'm currently enrolled to become a certified personal trainer. In addition to that personal training certification, I'm also working towards a level one nutrition certification through Precision Nutrition.

So that was my entry point for learning about John Berardi. But in this book, he has an entire section on ruthless prioritization. And this is one of my favorite books that I've read recently. Definitely recommend checking it out, even if you're not looking to become a personal trainer or a nutrition coach.

If you're just wanting to do something entrepreneurial, it's a really good book for you to check out, especially if you're going to be involved in any kind of coaching or consulting. But regardless with this particular section on prioritization, I'm going to read you just a couple of paragraphs from it, because I think John sets us up a really nice framework for thinking about how we can prioritize and not just why we should prioritize.

So, again, this comes from change maker in a section called ruthless prioritization.

When it comes to building a great career, your first priority is to learn how to prioritize. Whether we're talking about your professional projects or your social life, recreational activities or entertainment choices, there will always be more options.

Then you have the resources to pursue. Let's say you started a new business and have identified, attracting new clients as your big opportunity. That's great. But how do you go about attracting them with print or online ads and expensive marketing campaign asking for referrals? Appearing on TV, something else with limited time, attention and money, it'll be difficult to try everything that could work and impossible to do it all.

Well, this means you'll have to decide which one or two things to try choosing based on cost, time requirements, skills needed, and probability of success from there, you'll have to prioritize those one or two things, even over the long list of other things that feel important, but can't be invested in right now.

You'll know you're doing this right? If you occasionally experience regret and the fear of missing out shouldn't I also be working on X, Y, and Z. It's this idea of doing X even over Y that makes prioritization so important yet difficult, because it means constantly saying no to a host of good opportunities to make room for the few great opportunities truly worth doing now.

I remember early in my career, I dreamed of the day when I had access to more resources when I didn't have to prioritize so ruthlessly, when I could do everything that felt important. Then I started consulting with companies like Apple Equinox and Nike, and learned an important lesson after a board meeting in which an Apple executive talked about his big frustrations with resource constraints, it hit me.

If executives at the biggest companies in the world still complain about resource constraints. Those limitations must never go away. So instead of dreaming of a day without constraints or complaining about not having enough resources, I'd be better served to get really good at prioritizing as a way to use my resources more effectively.

This applies whether you're a co-founder of a company in executive at that company and employee of that executive or an independent contractor, we all have never ending lists of things we could do. Facing these long lists can feel frustrating and demoralizing. If there's no criteria for figuring out what's important to do next.

Some folks try to handle this problem by thinking in terms of efficiency, they look for ways to get more done in less time. However, even if you're busy knocking off to dues at an alarming pace, you won't be accomplishing anything important. If those two dues aren't worth doing all your time, energy, talent, and unique abilities will be wasted.

Of course efficiency is important. It's always great to use resources well, and to get more done with the same amount of time, money and team members. However, if I had to prioritize between efficiency and effectiveness, I'd pick effectiveness, doing the right things every time.

So again, credit where credit is due, that comes from maker by John Berardi PhD. I definitely recommend checking out the book and checking out Precision Nutrition if you're at all interested wellness coaching, but let's talk for just a couple more minutes about that passage I just read. In particular, the parts that I think most of us get wrong it's that we try to prioritize in a way that we don't have to exclude some activities, but often the best prioritization is going to function as a binary.

So if you choose A, you're not choosing B. If you choose B, you're not choosing A. It's not, you know, choose A, but also consider doing B. Often, when we start to feel those  emotions that John talks about, of missing out or guilt about not doing something, it often brings us to a halt.

And we think, okay, if I'm feeling this, it's a sign that I need to be doing this other thing. And that is such a big challenge to overcome. One of the best things, in my opinion, that you can do to overcome that challenge is to embrace a similar principle to what I teach people about search engine optimization.

Like I said, I teach clients that if you don't understand how something is going to pay off for your target audience, it's not worth doing when we're talking about prioritization in general, it's so important to have a really clear understanding of how each individual activity is going to benefit you in the long term, and being really critical with yourself and taking time to write down and think through your goals and the actions you need to take to reach those goals is super, super important.

It's so hard for us to think this way, because when we are making slower progress, intentionally, it's so easy to think this is going so slow. I'm getting nothing done. What's the point? But at the same time, when we invest in small incremental changes that build up and have an exponential effect over time.

That's when we're going to be in a place of sustainable growth and longterm progress. And that's something that I really just, I want to preach from the rooftops. I want to scream at people that long-term progress is so much better than short term wins.

If we expand the scope and think even in terms of the economy, right within my lifetime, the fluctuation of the economy has just been a series of booms and busts and booms and busts. And, you know, we go up and then we have a recession, then we go up and then we have a recession and then we go up and we teeter on the edge of a recession for a while. And then we have a recession. It's so frustrating because on the one hand, when we start having those booms and people start seeing their retirement accounts going up and the stock market going up, we want to cheer and we want to say, yay.

And if we're a part of the political party that's in power at that time, we say, look, we're doing so good. We're so much better than you. The economy is on its way up. And then in a couple of years, it just busts again. How much better would it be if rather than focusing on short-term wins, we focused on creating a system of structures that encouraged slower, but long-term growth?

So rather than having this like one decade cycle of booms and busts, what if it was a lot longer on the up and up, you know, our retirement accounts might not be huge within a couple of years, but they would still be growing at a steady pace. It would still be going up and moving in the right direction.

And if we didn't have booms and busts, think about how much progress we could make. If we weren't having to reset every few years, I think if we focused on that kind of stability and incremental growth at this macro level, we would eliminate a lot of the turmoil and thrash. That leads to so many problems on the micro level.

And the same thing is so true within our lives. If we focus on creating growth, that's steadily you on the up and up and accounts for several years at a time, rather than going into things with the mentality of I'm doing this, I'm doing it right now, we would be so much better off so much healthier. It's so much more stable, but doing that requires being ruthless about how we prioritize and just focusing on the few tasks that are going to be big wins for us, where we're at now.

And then as we get mastery over those tasks, focusing on layering and pulling in new things and never focusing on this like widespread, horizontal approach to our goals, but going deep and continuing to go deep and slowly, but surely moving from one deep task to the next deep task to the next deep task.

So,that has been my long ramble about SEO, the economy and ruthless prioritization.

Before I close out, I do want to give just a couple quick notes about how to prioritize that I think often gets overlooked, and if you keep a journal, this is something I definitely recommend journaling about on your end.

When you are prioritizing between tasks and setting goals for yourself, it's really easy to go with gut instinct and think, "Oh, my gut said this first. That probably means it's the most important." What I would challenge you to do is spend a few minutes breaking down each of the goals that you set for yourself and thinking about, okay, If I focus here, what's going to be the short-term gain? What's going to be the long-term gain? And how can this impact other areas of my life?

And don't, don't skimp on this. Don't rush through this really take time to flesh out the details here. What I want you to do is get a clear understanding of the possibilities and opportunities of each of these goals and what the downstream impact of that would be. When you do this, it can really help reframe what actually is most important for you.

I had a coaching client a while back who was talking through some of the challenges he faced in his startup. And at one point he made essentially an offhand comment where he said something to the effect of, "You know, I'm working on this control center dashboard, where I can just see all of these tasks at a high level overview and see what's blocked and moved on. And, you know, I'm hoping to get that done eventually. But right now I'm really stuck on bla bla bla bla bla."

I can't get into the specifics because client confidentiality. But one of the things that really stood out to me was that this control panel idea that he had seemed to really touch a lot of these other areas that he was currently spreading himself between and spreading himself quite thin, really.

And so I asked him, I said, "okay, tell me a bit more about this control center idea that you have. What is the function of this, this dashboard you mentioned, and what's that going to do for you?" And he broke it down and explained it. And essentially he had, or he was in a process of working on building a system of integrating his various, project management platforms that his teams collaborated in, and was pulling or wanting to pull all of this data into a single screen where he could essentially have a Kanban board to see where each of these different projects was at, what was stuck, why it was stuck, who was working on what, and really get a really high level overview so that at a glance he could identify where his attention needed to be on any given day.

If a project was all green that was a sign for him to let that keep running. If something else was in the yellow, that was a sign that he should probably look at it. If something's in the red, definitely focused on that first.

And the more we talked about it and the more I got him to clarify the purpose of this dashboard and what it would enable him to do, he came to the realization that if he had this dashboard together, he wouldn't have to spread himself so thin. The downstream impact of getting it together would have such a positive ROI on his business.

But in his personal life, it would also free him up a lot of time to spend more time with his girlfriend, get back into a workout routine and generally spend more time outside of his office. And at the end of that conversation, he was like, "wow, I didn't realize that I was prioritizing these other tasks over this dashboard because they seemed more urgent to me when really this dashboard would make everything less urgent, right?"

So the more he examined those goals, the more he realized that his sense of urgency and his priorities needed to be flipped. And we can do the same thing in our own lives. When we take time to really reflect on our individual goals and processes and what the downstream impact of those various goals and processes are going to be.

Now this time I have officially ended my rant on prioritization, SEO and all the good things you can do with the journal. And I've gone over time a little bit from what I usually do about a 30 minute episode. We're currently at 36 minutes. So I'm going to go ahead and shut up. Lay down on a yoga block and realign my hip bones. Have a great day, everybody


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