The complement of “Do the hardest thing first” is to “Do the simplest thing first.” They seem opposite, but are not. Each applies in differing contexts and a skilled individual will know when to use each to their advantage. There are four areas where this principle applies:
First: When an overwhelming amount of work needs accomplished, it is important to gain forward momentum and do something. One example is the debt snowball. The smallest debts are paid first, then the largest. This provides immediate good feelings and momentum to the group, and helps propel movement to pay off debts even faster than before.
Second: When designing a product or conducting an experiment in unknown territory, start with the smallest and least expensive version to get immediate feedback from complex markets or systems. This keeps risk to a minimum, and helps inform improvements to the next experiment or design iteration.
Third: When the risk of failure is low and/or the costs of immediate failure are high, use the simplest solution. Solutions of this type are un-sexy. If a power plant has a minor leak, should the entire plant be shut down to make the fix? No! The cost is too high. If there is a temporary patch solution available, then it should be used (assuming no major safety risks). Preparations should then be made to fix the leak properly during the next planned shutdown, but in the meantime production can continue uninterrupted.
Fourth: Do the simplest thing first when people or processes are waiting. Let’s say five people place orders at a restaurant; the first order is complex and takes an hour to prepare, but the other four orders are simple and take one minute. The chef should deliver the four simple orders first, then the complex one. It is better to please four people than to make all five wait.
References and Practical Tools for this Engineering Principle:
- The previous Engineering Principle: Do the Hardest Thing First.
- Dave Ramsey’s Debt Snowball
- Creative Confidence pg 128 “Tackle a doable piece of the problem. When there are simply too many things to handle at once, start with something you can handle.”
Real World Examples of this Engineering Principle:
- Instagram founder Kevin Systrom talked about an instance in the early days when they were running out of space on one of their servers and spent months integrating a new server architecture to accommodate an exponential number of servers. It ended up taking too long, they gave up, and decided to simply split the files at random between two servers. The fix took one night. Listen to the interview with Tim Ferriss.
- I use this principle almost every day when answering emails. Answer the simple, one sentence, reply-type emails first. This way the recipient gets an answer immediately and can take action if necessary, instead of having to wait until the end of the day when you finally get around to it. It also clears out your inbox so you can then focus of the important few emails left.
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