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Sand vs. Boulders: How I Set Priorities

by Krissi Xenakis Sand vs. Boulders: How I Set Priorities Illustration by Iris Sprague

“Is that sand or a boulder?”

That’s the question I routinely get from Shake CEO Abe Geiger during our weekly meetings when I rattle off my list of projects.

As a designer, it’s easy for me to get caught up in the small things: finessing typography, obsessing over brand details, and analyzing the product’s visual intricacies. It’s even easier at a small company, since part of my job is to put my eyes on anything that has our logo on it. But when bigger design duties pile up I wonder how I’ll get everything done.

I find that the simplest way to prioritize is to categorize tasks as either sand or boulders.

Sand is my siren. It tends to comprise smaller tasks that I can do by myself.

Sand is my siren. It tends to comprise smaller tasks that I can do by myself. Sand takes less time, makes more people happy (particularly marketing) and I get to check off a bunch of to-dos, giving me the false sense of being incredibly productive. “Look at all these website updates I made. LOOK AT THEM!”

Boulders are hard and heavy. For me they are multi-part projects that require research, wire frames, input from stakeholders and close collaboration with team members. They are time-consuming and difficult to start. “You want me to design a new way of importing agreements into the app? Umm sure—when do I have 8 hours to scope that out?”

So here’s my formula: I try to move at least one boulder a week. In my job, this typically starts with a user story, such as, “as a User I want to be able to import my agreement from Box into Shake.” From there, I try to create a simple flow that will dictate how many screens I have to design. This usually gives me enough pieces to talk through with stakeholders and see if we can push it into production.

Moving a boulder doesn’t mean I will have a pixel perfect presentation ready for my product meeting. I can’t remember the last time I got to do anything that was pixel perfect.

Moving a boulder doesn’t mean I will have a pixel perfect presentation ready for my product meeting. I can’t remember the last time I got to do anything that was pixel perfect. But, in startup land, done is better than perfect, and “good enough” goes a surprisingly long way, although it makes my heart hurt. (I’m always asking, “We can come back to this later, right?”)

Oh, and what about the sand? It still needs to get done. People need business cards. And images. And product videos. And blog posts! In the sand vs. boulder analogy, the sand should fall around the boulders and fill in the gaps. I find that the most productive way to deal with falling sand is to put those tasks into a to-do list, and once there are are enough I’ll spend a half-day pushing through a pile. To make this possible sometimes I have to be the bad guy who says, “not right now,” and “I need a week’s notice” — because sand needs constraints.

But, at the end of the day, I guess all boulders are just giant piles of sand, right?

photo of Krissi Xenakis
Krissi Xenakis

Krissi is Shake's Head of Design. Prior to joining Shake, Krissi developed and designed iPhone and iPad apps for National Geographic Magazine and Fast Company. She has also worked as a visual journalist, multimedia designer and freelance art director for companies such as Adweek, Good Housekeeping, The Denver Post and Virginian-Pilot Media Companies. Krissi holds a degree in journalism from Michigan State University and received her MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art.

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