Dark stories, tales of whimsy and random brain droppings.

Projects vs Operations

Reading Time: 4 minutes


It’s a workaday existence where we trade time for money in the hope we’ll have enough money to make the best of the time we have. We spend most of our time at work, but most of us value our time away from work more. Career satisfaction be damned, if I won the lottery, I’d likely do something else.


So would you.

In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.

~ Abraham Lincoln

If there’s a personal reason behind workplace productivity, it’s that. Make the most of the time you’re allotted on this mortal coil. And that means making the time you spend at work worth it.

Productivity = Energy + Focus + Time Management

I was chatting with a colleague yesterday and he asked about a rubric I shared with the team for prioritizing when to do what.

In a service group like ours, we are constantly feeling torn between operations and projects. If you spend all your time at work playing whack-a-mole on the ticket queue, you’re not going to get some big heavy rocks moved that just need moving. On the other hand, if you spend all your time on project work and let the request queue build up, you’re not going to be successful. That is, designing a better boat when you’re taking on water is a bad idea. At the same time, working on nothing but incidents and not addressing the root problem is like plugging holes in a colander instead of getting a bowl.

Enough metaphors. You get it. Balance.

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Doing things right and doing the right things.

There’s a lot of borrowing in the productivity space. Lots of remixing of older ideas and presented as if they were new and revolutionary. Every couple years, there’s a new book or method. Read them if they help, but keep in mind that there are few new ideas. Just re-framing. If something clicks for you, great. But none of it is new.

Take for example the Eisenhower Matrix or the Stephen Covey Quadrants. They’re the exact same thing, several decades apart.

What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.

~ Dwight Eisenhower

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Stephen Covey’s version lays it out a bit more:

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  • Quadrant I is for the immediate and important deadlines.
  • Quadrant II is for long-term strategizing and development.
  • Quadrant III is for time pressured distractions. They are not really important, but someone wants it now.
  • Quadrant IV is for those activities that yield little in any value. These are activities that are often used for taking a break in time pressured and important activities.

You can also look at the quadrants as a way of dealing with your inbox: Do, Decide, Delegate, Delete. These actions line up nicely with the quadrants.

If you think about it, Risk Management Analysis looks the same if you equate Probability to Urgency and Impact to Importance.

It’s all the same grid.


You can even use this approach to evaluate how you communicate, consume media and spend your time. What quadrant do Facebook and Netflix live in? Do you spend a lot of time in your life doing quadrant 4 stuff?

Yeah, that chair just got a little more uncomfortable. No one is saying that those things don’t have value. But are they tombstone worthy?

Here lies Doug.

He regularly binge-watched Firefly.

Anyway, back to my colleague’s question.

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Projects are about Importance and Operations are about Urgency. Generally speaking.

Looking at a heap of work? Do the Important and Urgent stuff first. Then work on the Important stuff. Then work on the Urgent and less Important (because, you can’t ignore it forever). And do whatever you can do to drop the not Important and not Urgent. Or at least give it the squinty side-eye and ask if that’s the really most important thing to do.

I find the 2×2 a little too limiting. Numerical scoring like we do for risk management works, but seems overkill for evaluating your todo list and ticket queue. So I use the venerable 3×3: Low, Medium, High approach. It’s easy to apply and evaluate in your head. And you get to decide the threshold for what to do when dealing with the Mediums.

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To sum up:

Activity is not Productivity.

It’s really easy to derive a sense of false accomplishment from working on urgent and unimportant things. Quick hit stuff.

Urgency is a trap because it’s subjective perception. Do the important stuff. And stop letting your priorities be set by other people via your email inbox.


How you spend your time is a choice. It’s rarely about having enough time. It’s more often a willful choice where to place your attention.

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