How To Prioritize 101 (With Help From Dwight D. Eisenhower)

How one CEO grew a startup to a company valued at $40 billion by focusing on what was most important—a task much easier said than done.

Tien Tzuo, my Salesforce colleague and the founder of Zuora, told me a story about a friend of his who moved to a startup after working at a large Fortune 500 company. There, he’d overseen an army of people and spent his days tracking 50 separate “top” priorities.

“But now I’m in a startup,” he’d told Tien, “and I know I can’t get all 50 things done.” So he’d narrowed down his list to the 10 most important things. Soon, he discovered that even making progress on just those 10 items was beyond his abilities. He realized he only had the bandwidth to focus on two—just two.

“It was the hardest thing to let go of items 3–10,” he said, “because I knew that things were going to fall apart.” Systems would break. Customers would get mad. “But that’s the nature of a startup,” he said. “You have to focus on the things that are going to get you from Point A to Point B.”

Tien’s friend was right. There is so much coming at you in a startup that it’s easy for you to get distracted. And if you get distracted, your people will get distracted. Then it’s just a downward spiral. So you need to “keep the main thing the main thing.” Be ruthless in your prioritization. Here are some principles and practices I use to keep my priorities clear:

• Use the Eisenhower Decision Matrix. This has different names, but it dates back to Dwight D. Eisenhower, the top US general in Europe during World War II (before becoming the twenty-fourth US president). Eisenhower knew what it meant to make decisions under pressure. His system is very simple:

• Stuff that is neither important nor urgent? Scrap it.

• Stuff that’s not important but urgent? Give it to someone else.

• Stuff that is important but not urgent? Schedule it for later.

• Stuff that is both important and urgent? This is your area of focus. It’s the “main thing.” Make a decision, or at least start working on it.

• Keep a running to-do list. I use Evernote and Notion, and I keep them synced on all my devices: computer, phone and tablet. I revise my list several times a day because everything is always changing. Other equally great tools include Box Notes, Dropbox’s Paper and Google Keep.

• Be stingy with your calendar—very stingy. Question every meeting request. Ask yourself: Does the meeting actually need to take place? If so, do I need to be involved? If so, does it really need to take 60 minutes, or can we tackle everything in 30? Be particularly wary of recurring meetings. You’re probably not needed at most of them. (Every 30 or 45 days, I go through my calendar, and delete all new recurring meetings that other people have added me to. Then I wait to see how many people send me those invitations again, after they notice I’m not attending. Spoiler alert: very few.)

• Control your email; don’t let it control you. Email is what other people want you to do. Ignore most of it. A lot are just FYIs. If you’ve hired great people, you don’t need to follow the play-by-play. Maggie Wilderotter, the former CEO of Frontier Communications, told me that she deletes every email that has more than two people on the “To” line, as well as every one where she’s cc’d. “Then what bubbles up to me are the really critical decisions or ones where I need to move something forward or course correct,” she says. “Otherwise, I trust the people who work for me to get the job done.” Another tactic: I block off two hour- long sessions on my calendar for email: one in the morning and one in the afternoon or evening. Usually, by the time I get around to whatever burning issue has been sitting in my inbox, it’s already been resolved.

• Keep your people focused. Your team will come to you and start talking about five different things. Make them decide what their top two most important things are and then talk about those. When my team starts wandering, I bring them back and ask them: “What’s the main thing?”

• Ditch your 1:1s. Most managers hold regular check-in meetings with their direct reports (often called one-on-one’s or “1:1” for short). But Zuora’s Tien Tzuo says he doesn’t do them. Ever. Let me repeat that: the founder and CEO of a $3 billion company doesn’t have regular 1:1 meetings with his senior executives. Tien estimates that such meetings can quickly consume 80 percent of his week, which he doesn’t think is the best use of anyone’s time. “I just tell my executives, ‘If you need me, call me. And if I need you, I’ll call you,’” he says. Which makes sense. If you hired great people, why wouldn’t you trust them to do a great job running their groups? Plus, Tien says his approach actually makes Zuora work more effectively. The 1:1 system ends up producing what he calls a “hub-and-spoke” approach to solving problems. “Everything is brought to you instead of your leaders working out issues among themselves,” Tien says.


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