Yes, We Have No NaNoWriMo: An Exploration on Priority

At this point it may be obvious, but the whole software-version-NaNoWriMo didn’t get out of the “add cards to a Github project” phase. What might not be so obvious is this totally okay. Preferred, even, though I know that’s going to sound counter-intuitive (or even like a cop-out).

So let’s talk a bit about Priority.

Merriam-Webster defines “priority” in part as

“The quality or state of being prior” or “Superiority in rank, position, or privilege”

Merriam-Webster.com

That conjures up images of “priority boarding” or “priority projects” or “making that task a priority.” We’re moving or designating something to the head of the line. Something with or or being given priority is more important than other things, for whatever reason.

“But John–does that mean your BHAG wasn’t important enough to get to the top of your priority list?”

me, impersonating the reader

Hold on just a minute — I’ve got another definition to cover that should address this.

This time, it’s a definition for “economics.”

“Economics is the art of satisfying unlimited wants with limited resources.”

A CSCC Economics Instructor Whose Name I Wish I Could Find

While economics generally uses capital, material, labor, land, and similar such as “resources,” I think of personal resources. Time is a resource. Rest (personal energy level) is a resource. Brain power (cognitive ability) is a resource. And they are absolutely finite, and absolutely limited.

As much as I might wish to, I cannot simply make myself have more energy in a day than I do. I can maximize it with good sleep hygiene, diet, and exercise–but when I’m tired, I’m tired. I only have a certain amount of cognitive cycles in a day. I can be efficient by writing code in small (test-driven) bite-sized pieces, and protect myself from burning through them all by taking frequent breaks–but I’m going to hit a point where it takes me too long to figure out whether 2+2 and 22 are equivalent. There’s only 24 hours in each day–I can be efficient with them, but at some point the the day is going to end regardless of my to-do list.

This means I have to apply economics to my life–I have to apply the lens of Priority.

When I think of Priority, it IS about what’s important, but there’s more to it. What simply can’t go undone lends something a higher Priority score. But then again, if something will increase my personal resource pool, it might gain Priority even though there’s no explicit need to do it sooner. Will something shrink my resource pool, and can I afford to that that hit right now? It’s a loose ranking of “How much this thing helps me be my best self.”

This isn’t a new concept, doing the truly important things first. Franklin Covey talks about putting big rocks a jar; my therapist talks about prioritizing self-care. It’s a pretty fundamental concept in time management–you do what’s most important first, and the rest falls by the wayside.

While most of us are good at this within individual, well-defined buckets–we’re consistently able to put an e-mail to the client ahead of watering our desk plant, putting sleep ahead of being at the bar till close on Tuesday, remembering our spouse’s birthday and celebrating it–sometimes we don’t always apply Priority to those buckets in relation to each other. Or worse, we place items in the wrong bucket–letting us allocate resources incorrectly, leaving us unbalanced and weakened.

All of this to say…

The issue with my little NoNaWriMo challenge is it’s easy to mis-bucket. It’s a project I expressly create for my personal time; a side project. This implies it should have been easy to work in–just watch less TV, or play fewer video games, or cut out that movie with the wife. But the reality of when it needs to happen does not change what bucket of personal resources is allocated to the effort. For all useful intents and purposes, a software developer’s side projects are part of their professional life. Let me say this again, for the young devs in the back who need an answer in some tech bro’s interview:

A software professional’s side projects are non-compensated professional activities, typically undertaken in time that would otherwise be spent on self-care.

This means the personal resources I have available for these projects, no matter how big or hairy, come from the same bucket as my day job. If my day job has eaten up all or more of it’s allotted brain cycles, there are none left for the side project. If I feel drained after pouring hours of energy into sprint planning and code review discussions, there is no more energy leftover for the side project. If I worked overtime to get a functionality in ahead of a deadline, then there is drastically less time available for side projects (because without one’s other activities, one is worthless). If re-engineering a module to satisfy contradicting new and legacy requirements gives me a headache by 2pm, there’s no way there’s any brain power left in the tank for that side project.

Alternately, even if work was easy and I have plenty of excess resources: if I’ve slept poorly and need to prioritize keeping my evenings low key, there’s no room for the side project. If my spouse had a bad day with work and needs extra support, there’s no time or energy for the side project. If therapy dug up some sticky stuff I need to process, there’s no ability to work on the side project. Because balance means nurturing yourself and your support network, not just your professional life.

TL/DR:

Nearly every day in November, applying this Priority lens to my left showed me one of two things: either I’d expended everything allocated for work at the day job, or I’d been presented with an opportunity to invest into myself or my personal relationships. I refuse to view this as a problem.

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