The problem with our human-built scheduling and prioritization systems is that the world neither knows nor cares about them. You might have your week carefully carved into five-minute intervals, only to have a supplier say they can't meet a deadline or a kid come down with Covid. Then your minutely planned schedule is thrown into the salad spinner of life.
One obvious solution is to build more slack into your workdays so you can better deal with disruptions and uncertainties. But if you're a busy entrepreneur, then there are limits to how much downtime is feasible (and very few limits to how much craziness the world can throw at you). To truly chaos-proof your schedule so you can keep your focus despite the unpredictability, you need to actively plan for the unpredictable.
How do you do that? In The Observer Effect, a popular newsletter that features VC Sriram Krishnan's lengthy interviews with high-profile CEOs and founders, Mike Cannon-Brookes, co-CEO of $100 billion software company Atlassian, shared his approach. The remarkably simple system was inspired by a guy who held perhaps the most chaotic and overwhelming job in the world, former president Barack Obama.
Obama's 4Ps prioritization system
"I inquired a long time ago about how Obama prioritized. I found that it was basically a simplified form of Kanban in a world where he did not control what was actually happening," Cannon-Brookes tells Krishnan. He goes on to explain that the former president divided all his tasks and responsibilities into four priority levels, or Ps.
P1s came directly to Obama. These were the most important issues he was working on at a given time.
P2s also came straight to the president, as he needed to be the one to make decisions on these issues, but they were less urgent than his P1s.
P3s were the issues Obama needed to be informed about and advise on but which were handled by others such as his chief of staff or cabinet members.
P4s similarly mostly stayed off the president's radar day to day, but he wanted to track progress and maybe offer some general input.
All of that sounds simple enough, but the magic in the system was that Obama (and no doubt his world-class support team) allowed himself only a fixed number of each priority level on his plate at any given time. "He could only have two P1s and four P2s simultaneously to prevent decision fatigue and being overwhelmed," Cannon-Brookes explains.
Of course, this being the most stressful job in the world, global and national crises regularly forced the president to reshuffle priorities. When a new super-pressing issue came up, Obama knew that if he was going to make it a P1 task, he would have to demote and rearrange the other tasks in his system. Things could not simply pile up, nor was it ever unclear which tasks should take precedence.
"Without this, he would not be able to think clearly amidst the chaos of his office," Cannon-Brookes comments. "He, as president, couldn't control his inputs. Though he had many issues that he wanted to tackle--Obamacare, for instance--he allowed himself two big issues and four small issues to work on simultaneously. Everything else was passed to other people down the chain."
Making the ex-president's system work for you
Thankfully, business people don't have red phones that ring in the night to report a war has just broken out somewhere. But Cannon-Brookes insists this Obama-inspired system is useful for just about anyone working in an unpredictable space with a jam-packed schedule. He concedes keeping to the 4Ps system isn't always easy, but claims it's been key to his ability to keep his focus amid the craziness.
"I have P1s, P2s, P3s, and P4s that I move around. There's a whole chain underneath that reassigns tasks automatically. When I say that P2 is now a P3, my chief of staff and EA know exactly what that means and take action accordingly," he says. "It's a useful mental model as I can only really focus on two big things and four small things."
Maybe you don't have a chief of staff and a chain of underlings. But that doesn't mean you can't have a whiteboard or a set of sticky notes with your own 4Ps written down. Getting clear on what exactly you should be focusing on and getting real about how many priorities even the most accomplished human can handle should help chaos-proof just about anyone's life.