I know. The tyranny of the urgent is everyone’s nemesis. You can’t get the important things done when you’re trapped in the ‘urgency vortex’. I get it.
So you put off what’s ‘important’ in order to keep ‘urgent' monsters in check. And those important but less urgent tasks just sit there. And sit there. You put off meeting with that new client so you can go out on the shop floor to get a shipment ready because . . . . it’s more urgent. You put off cleaning up from dinner the night before to rush the kids off to hockey practice because . .. . . it’s more important. You cancel the staff meeting so you can quickly type up a letter to move that commercial financing forward because it’s more consequential.
These are all important. And in themselves perfectly fine. They probably are more important than what was at-that-very-moment competing for your time. So you find yourself constantly putting out those fires and all manner of tasks are smouldering on the sidelines.
Lawyers get tempted with the procrastination bug. We get files that aren’t time sensitive - mostly things like Wills or Contract reviews, or reporting on deals that are substantively complete. Nobody is pounding down the door or putting the pressure on us to get those files done. So they can sit. When they sit too long, we call them ‘dog files’. They sit there and sit there and we just feel more squirrelly inside every time we pass over the file to work on another one. So we move the file; out of sight out of mind. Or it gets lost in a file stack.
So what's the secret? How do you ever get everything done? Start a fire - create urgency - elevate in your mind those mundane, non-time sensitive dog files to the status of a raging fire that you need to put out. Light a match to it and get ‘er done! That’s it. Simple really. But how do you do that?
Here are three steps that will help you do it right:
1. Realize the value: most of those tasks that we relegate to the dog file heap, or think are less urgent than something else, really ARE important. In fact, they may even be more important than anything else you could be doing at that moment. Here’s one example: I’ve had new staff come in to our office that refuse to learn our document assembly system. They just have to get those real estate documents done. So they assess it this way: "it will take me half an hour to figure out the system, and another five or ten minutes to figure out the templates. I figure I can just type from a blank document or type over an existing document in less than half that time.” Maybe true - this time. But think of it this way: what if that 40 minute investment meant that you’d save five, ten, even twenty minutes every single time you did the task in the future? And that task is something you’ll do perhaps hundreds of times. Do the math. What’s more urgent? Getting that one set of documents out by hook or by crook? Or learning the efficient system and saving literally hours or even days of your life!? Easy.
"Well, let's say you can shave 10 seconds off of the boot time. Multiply that by five million users and thats 50 million seconds, every single day. Over a year, that's probably dozens of lifetimes. So if you make it boot ten seconds faster, you've saved a dozen lives. That's really worth it, don't you think? "
- Steve Jobs (on the urgency of making the Macintosh boot faster).
2. Realize the pain: most of those tasks that we put off become embarrassments. The dishes don’t get done and someone just pops by for a visit - and you’re mortified. Or the simple phone call follow-ups are shelved and you hear later that a client dumped you because he thought you forgot about him. Or you put off that boring file until the client calls and fires you - and tells five others about his experience. The results of procrastinating oftentimes are painful. Extremely so. We just don’t see it in the moment. Or we don’t want to see it. One of the most painful results of procrastination for me is that all those things that I put off just pile up. I hate that. They don’t just disappear. The dish piles keep getting bigger. So a 5 minute task if done immediately (and repeatedly), becomes an hour long catch-up task. Ouch. Urgency can be calculated and a fire can be kindled under those tasks we keep putting off - if only we understood the pain we'll have to endure if we don’t get them done.
3. Realize the joy: studies show that most procrastinators put tasks off if they perceive them as boring or too hard. If seeing the value inherent in the task or realizing the implications of not doing it doesn’t work for you, try to make it fun. Boring things are often boring because they’re not very difficult: so become a check-box person. See how many tasks you can complete in the next hour and reward yourself if you do 5 or ten. You’ll be seeking out more boring work to do pretty soon. Or if the task seems too hard, bring your spouse or best friend into the picture and do it together - studies show that working together on projects can be both rewarding and socially fulfilling. Or, if you’re more energized by solitude (and coffee), literally block off time, head to Starbucks, buy that glorious pumpkin spice latte, and get to work. You’ll soak in the atmosphere, savour that latte, and be done that arduous task way too soon. Sigh. Back to the office you must go.
So don’t stop being terrorized by the urgent - embrace the urgent. Just make sure that all those tasks that are being put off today, become urgent in your head tomorrow. And they’ll get done! Viola!
We'll talk about prioritizing too though - as Michael Hyatt has said, "You can do anything you want. But you can't do everything you want."