November 9, 2023

Prune from the pile


Cantor, the eminent nineteenth century mathematician, claimed there were two forms of infinity.

Absolute infinity cannot be held as a completed totality. The number is bigger than any conceivable or inconceivable quantity. It’s so big that it’s ineffable and beyond description, like god or the divine or the universe.

On the other hand, functionally infinite things exist as completed totalities without contradiction. We can describe them and even work with them, even though their colossal size is incredibly overwhelming and makes us feel like they go on forever.

Like working at a fast growing startup. Take one look at any random employee’s to do list, and there are, functionally, an infinite amount of tasks to perform.

Everybody’s busy. Everybody’s got a million things to do. When you don’t assume that going in, you’re setting yourself up for a word of anxiety.

In my experience, the most effective tool for navigating this intimidating experience is solid pile management.

Starting with your attitude about the pile. You acknowledge that the pile exists, rather than being in denial about yours and other people’s bandwidths. You have compassion for the seemingly inexhaustible mounting of tasks, rather than beating yourself up for not reducing the pile faster.

And when people dump more things on top of your pile, don’t resent them for doing their job.

Next in pile management is setting healthy boundaries. Knowing that your task list is functionally infinity, you decide ahead of time what your minimum and maximum viable execution is.

What’s the smallest amount of output you have to create in order to feel you’ve done your job well? What’s the most amount of effort you’re willing to invest before calling it a day?

Figure out these two extremes as early as possible, and it will do wonders for your sanity. Hell, I’ve worked at hyper growth startups that who were hiring new employees faster than they could find desks to sit them at.

You want to talk about functional infinity, try working for an organization whose headcount increases by twenty percent each month. The pile is so high, you can’t see out of the window.

All the more reason to set healthy boundaries. Because you could put in sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, and still not get everything done, so why kill yourself?

May as well do what you can to move the pile forward and then knock off.

Once you’ve calibrated your mindset and boundaries about the pile, now it’s time to get tactical.

Starting with pruning. Getting brutally honest about what’s realistically going to get done, or worth doing at all.

Fried, the irreverent founder of everyone’s favorite project management software, riffed about this pruning process in his book:

Backlogs are a big weight we don’t need to carry. Dozens and eventually hundreds of tasks pile up that we all know we will never have time for. The growing pile gives us a feeling like we’re always behind even though we’re not. Just because somebody thought an idea was important a quarter ago doesn’t mean we need to keep looking at it again and again.

What do you need to prune from your pile?

Perhaps the feeling of infinity would be less overwhelming if you cut a bunch of clutter off the top.

Another tactical recommendation that’s been helpful for me is leveraging. You try to kill as many birds as you can with as few stones as possible.

As a writer, this comes naturally to me. Anytime I create a piece of content for my team, whether it’s an internal or external facing asset, I immediately find ten other ways to use it. This repurposing is advantageous for pile management. The leverage you’re able to create for yourself knocks out multiple tasks in one fell swoop, or at least reduces production time down the road.

That way, you’re never starting from scratch.

Ultimately, the pile is part of life. Functional infinity is no joke. But it’s not ineffable. It’s not beyond description.

Whitman’s words come to mind, we contain multitudes.

May you tap into the great universal storehouse of infinite intelligence and join it. May you call upon the infinite depths in yourself to manage the pile.

When somebody on your team dump a load of responsibility onto your lap, how will you keep the pile from burying you alive?