How do you tackle ankle-biters?

Something I’ve been thinking about for a minute. It’s busy at work (which is a great thing!) but not all tasks are created equally. Sometimes what seems hyper-urgent isn’t super strategic. And with limited hours in the day, I’ve noticed that if I jump to every distraction that comes up, I run out of time to do the big strategic thing that I was supposed to be doing.

Current job calls those distractions ankle-biters. And they tend to get me if I’m not careful. E.g. it’s easier to tweak reports than it is to write an article (for me, at least) so sometimes I do the easy thing over the valuable thing. E.g. #2 — it’s more fulfilling to answer teammates’ product questions in Slack than it is to muscle through a gantt chart for my 2H 2019 commitments, so sometimes I do the thing that makes me feel better over the thing that’s harder to complete.

I’m trying to come up with a rubric for prioritizing competing priorities, so I can ignore the ankle biters and stick to the big valuable things. Something like this:

High value tasks tend to be:

  1. Something that would un-block other people or projects.

  2. Something that delivers significant scope of work.

  3. Something that improves a whole workflow.

How do you guys pick the best task out of a whole bushel of urgent tasks?


I also suffer from this, I guess a lot of us here do. I find it particularly tricky in my current situation where

  • I’m supposed to be planning things which will keep the team going without getting blocked
  • I find I get that sort of work done best in the first half of the day
  • there are people in a timezone to the east of me from whom work shows up especially in the mornings (questions, conversations, meetings, pull requests, …)

I don’t think I’m very successful at this, but here’s some things I’ve tried:

  1. Allow a fixed period of time in the morning, then use the “snooze” feature to mute slack. Currently I don’t actually do this after a fixed time, but I try to mute it “ASAP”. If you think you need to you can remind people they can poke through the slack mute if they’re blocked.
  2. Prioritize ankle biters by your first criterion: is somebody, or some work, blocked?
  3. Because meetings also eat my morning hours: Watch for incoming meetings and try to get whoever planned them to write something down up front. Not because I want to have an immutable agenda, but because transfer of information by reading it out in a meeting is a really bad way to achieve that: reading text works better for that, meetings work better for conversations. Currently everybody thinks that reading things out in meetings is Just What You Do.
  4. Something I heard on the “Focused” podcast – this is not just a mental picture really for what you describe: it does tell you what to do about it too: imagine your day/sprint/whatever is a jar. You have some big tasks that are important: they’re rocks. You have small tasks that might be urgent but less important: they’re sand. Put the rocks in first. Otherwise, it’ll fill up a bit with sand, and then the rocks just won’t fit.

I’ve also noticed that I think I “train” people to expect quick responses in slack, and I think that’s itself a bad habit of mine in this kind of situation.