Keep your eyes on the prize—your priorities

Picture1How to measure success? It’s how close you map your life to your priorities, says MIT Sloan Professor Thomas W. Malone. It might sound simple, but Malone asserts that few of us live by our priorities. “The success of the vast majority of people in business—and in life—can be measured by whether they worked on the things that mattered to them,” he says.

Malone is the founding director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence and its predecessor, the MIT Center for Coordination Science. He was also one of the two founding co-directors of the pioneering MIT initiative Inventing the Organizations of the 21st Century. The five-year project explored emerging ways of working, and Malone and his team documented the results in the eponymous book, Inventing the Organizations of the 21st Century.

One of the best strategies for success, Malone says, is knowing when to say no. “Think of strategy as the prioritization of efforts. So often, on both a personal and an organizational level, we tend to do what’s easy, what presents itself, rather than what we really consider a priority. We have limited time and resources and must come to terms with those limitations. We need to continually make sure that our time and resources are focused on the things that contribute to the outcome we are working toward.”

Malone recommends making a daily list, prioritizing that list, and sticking to that sequence throughout the day. When making the list, he says, keep in mind your key goals and map the list to the goals. Thinking strategically sometimes forces you to leave behind busywork that makes you feel productive but does not advance your mission.

Make a mission statement to live by

The human tendency, Malone notes, is to default to reactive behaviors that cause us to lose sight of priorities, and he confesses to being as guilty as the rest of us on that score. He says he recently realized he had been planning for years to write a book about his work on collective intelligence, but the rest of his life kept getting in the way. He then put the project at the top of his priority list, wrote a successful proposal to a publisher, and is now working on the book, tentatively titled The Age of Collective Intelligence.

Of course, many of us have a tough time finding the bandwidth to think about our priorities, but the exercise is not a luxury, Malone says. “Take time out. Go sit on a park bench by yourself to make that list of priorities—especially if you have several competing goals that require careful consideration. It’s definitely useful to take an hour or two away from day-to-day demands every now and then to think about strategic questions on a higher level and develop a mission statement for your job—and your life. Mission statements that you live and work by keep you on track.”

Learn about Inventing the Organizations of the 21st Century.

Find out more about the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence.