I don't know where I picked up this technique, but I've found it to be a powerful method for assessing the priority of a situation, or conflicting situations. Let's just start with an example of how it would apply to a real-world scenario, and then talk about it.
I'm close to finishing up work for the day — let's say around 4:45pm — but I see I can start a new task that I anticipate will take around 30 minutes to complete. That means I'm going to work until after 5pm (around 5:15pm). That also means I'll delay leaving my office and going to eat dinner with my family.
Now, I could do this task the next day, but it's also Friday, and I'd really like to wrap up this task before heading into the weekend.
What do I do?
But first, a tangentially related analogy. We do team retrospectives at Differential where our Product Teams get together at a regular cadence to talk about what's been going well, and how we can improve. We follow a format called the "Lightning Decision Jam" where we identify problem statements, vote, reframe those problem statements into "How might we…" questions, vote, write solutions, and then determine the best solutions to the highest-voted problem (or "How might we…") we will tackle.
What does this have to do with the initial proposition? I know, I know. Stay with me.
One of the key methods to the "Lightning Decision Jam" is reframing the problem statements into the "How might we…" question equivalents. This is because the simple act of rephrasing can drastically impact our interpretation and, ultimately, response.
Pull Requests take far too long to get approved.
How might we speed up Pull Request reviews?
I imagine you, like I, have a drastically different reaction to these two statements. One is framing a problem, and the other is rephrasing an opportunity. Problems and opportunities, by definition, are seemingly opposites.
A "problem" is defined as "a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome". And an "opportunity" is defined as "a set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something".
"to be dealt with" vs. "makes it possible." This is why the phrasing of an opportunity instead of a problem is so powerful. I'm sure you've heard the expression about "looking at the situation a different way." This is the simplest way to do that. Take the problem and rephrase it as an opportunity. It opens up everything. There are now possibilities where, before, there were limitations. We can now tackle the challenge appropriately.
Okay, now back to the original problem of trying to decide if I should wrap up this task before 5pm, or just call it and go eat dinner with my family. The format of the question we need to ask ourselves goes like this:
When I look back on my life, will I think I should have [option 1] OR [option 2]?
Before we try it, a little advanced advice: we want to extrapolate the fill-in-the-blank spots to phrase it as if it were a repeatable pattern of behavior. For example, in our case, it would be about working later vs. spending more time with family.
Okay, back to it…
When I look back on my life, will I think I should have worked later OR spent more time with my family?
When you say it that way, the answer seems pretty obvious, doesn't it? I will absolutely think I should have spent more time with my family — or at least I hope I don't say that because I'm making wiser decisions in the here-and-now. But we can only do that when we face the choices in front of us, and decide how we should prioritize our time.
Let's try another example, but this time, let's go with something a little less obvious — i.e. the choices are more comparable. I'm in the same position of wrapping up work at 4:45pm on Friday with the one 30-minute task left. But this time, I don't have the conflict of dinner because my family is on vacation. Wait, are they trying to get away from me? Why am I not on vacation with them!? Focus, Drew, focus.
So now the question is different because there isn't an entirely direct conflict. However, if we think about it, working later on this task does conflict with not working; or taking a break; or going to read. So, at some level, we can still weigh priorities here. Let's try it.
When I look back on my life, will I think I should have worked later OR spent more time for myself?
That's obvious! I would want to spend more time for myself. So we can still objectively look at the competing priorities for our time — and ascertain what will provide the most value — even when the choices may seem equal by comparison.
Time is the single most valuable and finite resource we have. We need to use it wisely. We need to spend it on the essential — activities that directly correlate to the highest-value activities we want to partake in: spending time with family, reading, drawing, being outside, etc. The lists we all have are endless (Yeah, I'm talking about you, too! You over there. No, not the red shirt… the blue. Yeah, you.). The only thing we can control is how we use our time. Because there's no stopping time. It's relentless.
Time is going to run out before we know it. Don't waste it. Make smart decisions about the priorities in your life. Use a method like this one — and surely many others — to easily decipher which behaviors, activities, and choices provide the most value and joy.
You know why? Because life is too short for anything less.