No time management system is worth much if it doesn’t tell you what to do at 9am on Monday morning. Suppose you have a list of all your tasks and projects. Which one should you work on first?
My answer is that you should work on the task that you believe will yield the greatest long-term payoff until true urgency requires that you switch. But of course many people do the exact opposite. They begin their workdays with the little stuff that’s easy to dispatch, such as email, checking web sites, and other routine tasks. Certainly in some urgency-driven jobs, this is important, but for most intelligent knowledge workers these tasks are not the core of one’s productive output.
In theory it shouldn’t make any difference if you do the little stuff first and then the important stuff each day. Delaying the important stuff a few hours can’t hurt as long as it gets done, right? Maybe if you get all that little stuff cleared out of the way, you’ll be better able to focus on the big projects. You wouldn’t want those unanswered emails hanging over your head all day, right?
Lies, Lies, Lies
You know well enough what really happens. You never get to the important stuff. The little stuff multiplies. Pretty soon it’s 4pm, and you haven’t done a thing that’s going to matter five years from now. But you’ve checked your email a dozen times, had three coffee breaks, caught up on the latest news, read some trivial forum postings (and possibly made a few of your own), refilled your printer with fresh paper, replaced your empty tissue box, and cleaned your computer monitor. You’ve been busy, but you’ve accomplished nothing of enduring value to anyone. Your whole day was sucked away by unconscious habits instead of conscious action.
Doing little stuff first is one of the most insidious forms of procrastination because it seems like you’re being productive. You rationalize that you have plenty of time to handle the big stuff. And eventually you’ll get to the big stuff when the time pressure becomes great enough. But if that never happens, you may simply never get it done at all. And there’s a lot of big stuff that never becomes urgent until it’s too late. Opportunities won’t wait for you forever.
The truth is that many of us today have far more items on our to do lists than we can possibly complete. This is certainly true for me. It would take me at least two years just to complete what’s on my list right now. I know I’ll never be able to do all of them. Something has to give.
Every day I have a choice between working on pointless little tasks or big meaningful projects. On days that I choose the former, I end each day feeling I’ve accomplished very little, even though I’ve put in a lot of hours at my desk. I’ve kept up, but all I did was spin my wheels for another day. But when I chose to do the important stuff first, I feel great, knowing that I’m on my way to producing major results.
All tasks are not equal. Some tasks yield an enormous payoff for the time invested into them. Other tasks yield virtually no benefit. With more tasks than time, there’s no choice but to procrastinate, so the key is to procrastinate consciously. Put off those tasks that produce little or no value as long as possible, and invest the extra time in the real winners.
Despite being fairly organized, I’m constantly procrastinating on low-value tasks. I needed a haircut about a month ago, and I still haven’t gotten one yet. I delay most accounting work to the last possible minute. I still drive a 1994 Pontiac with 157,000 miles on it because I barely want to take the time to shop for a new car.
I don’t pay my bills late or put off tasks which will have serious negative consequences, but if the negative consequence of a delay is negligible, then I will usually put the task off as long as I can.
As many people know, sometimes procrastination pays off. Often those little tasks will simply die. Something changes, and they no longer need to be done at all. Other times new resources will appear that make the task easier to complete. And a little time pressure can make it possible to complete a task faster than when time is abundant. Sure I’ve gotten some bad haircuts now and then because I favor speed over quality, but I can’t say it’s ever mattered in the long run. This approach seems to work well enough for Bill Gates and Donald Trump.
Email is one area where I consciously procrastinate each day. I could pat myself on the back for doing a great job responding to all my email, but the truth is that I’m lousy at replying to email. This is by choice, however. I always handle the truly important communication promptly, and I’ll be the first to admit that some real gems come via email now and then, but I’m fairly brutal in how I define what’s important enough to warrant a reply. I typically limit my email processing to about 15 minutes per day. That’s totally unreasonable considering the volume of email I receive, but I’m willing to accept poor performance in that area in order to boost my performance elsewhere. By declining to reply to a lot of emails that seem like they deserve a reply, I’m able to devote more time to non-urgent tasks. For example, yesterday morning I took my two-year-old son out for a few hours of one-on-one time, and later that day I went to an improv comedy workshop to improve my humor skills (next week I’ll be performing in my first live show). I’ve also been spending time this week teaching my daughter to read. I’ll never get a “round to-it” that tells me I must do these things right now, so I have to procrastinate on urgent, low-priority tasks, often to the point where I simply don’t do them at all.
The world won’t spin off its axis if I don’t reply to every piece of legitimate email. But there will be significant negative consequences if I blow off my kids, my personal growth, and my health to answer “just one more email.” So if you’re one of the thousands of people who emailed me and didn’t get a response, now you know why. I’m sorry to say you’ve been triaged. I like you. I care about your growth. I’d love to be able to support you one-on-one as you requested. Unfortunately, the price is just too high.
My point isn’t that you should blow off email but that you should make a conscious choice about which activities are truly important to you and which aren’t. This is easy to say but very difficult to practice. I struggle with it every day. Staying conscious is indeed a challenge, especially when so much of our world is designed to drive us back into unconsciousness (where we’re more easily programmed to buy stuff we don’t need).
I find the best way to use conscious procrastination is to extend my time perspective 5, 10, or 20 years ahead. In a matter of seconds, I can sense the long-term significance of any choice. It’s clear to me that being great at replying to email can never justify the time cost. If I spend 2 hours a day on email (like many others in my situation would), that’s 3650 hours over the next 5 years, the equivalent of 91 40-hour weeks. Now I don’t know about you, but I can think of quite a few things to do with 91 weeks that would produce more benefit than answering email. And if I project 10 years ahead, well, … you get the idea.
How many weeks of your life have you already thrown away doing low priority tasks that in the long run just didn’t matter? Where would you be now if you blew off the least important 50% of your email over the past 5 years? The least important 80%? 95%? Are you in need of a conscious reassessment of your true priorities?
You see, when you don’t use conscious procrastination, you end up with regular procrastination by default. And this means that you’ll be making some huge judgment errors, putting far too much emphasis on urgent tasks that are staring you in the face, like unanswered emails or unread newsgroups, instead of investing in long-term, high payoff tasks that seldom become urgent. This includes starting your own business, finding a fulfilling relationship, improving your diet, and educating yourself.
When I think about the things I would have had to give up in order to answer 1000 more emails over the past year, there’s just no contest. And as my volume of email continues to increase, I still try to hold myself to about 15 minutes per day, so as traffic grows, I become increasingly selective.
Ultimately it comes down to asking questions like these: Would I rather answer this email or start my own blog? Can I blow off laundry for a day in order to talk to my wife about how to improve our relationship? Should I skip a party to go to a Toastmasters meeting?
Procrastination can be a valuable servant if used consciously, but it’s a harsh master when used unconsciously. Instead of letting procrastination run your life, take control of this beast and make it your servant instead of your master. It requires discipline to consciously delay seemingly urgent tasks, but if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll see that you simply don’t have enough time to do what’s most important to you if you squander your time on low payoff tasks. As Jim Rohn says, “The pain of discipline weighs ounces, but the pain of regret weighs tons.” You must learn to say “No!” to those things that cannot and will not help you live the life you want.
Will you invest your time in what really matters to you, or will your tombstone ultimately read like this:
Here lies John, who passed away
While answering his email one day.
No friend, no child, no loving mate
Could keep poor John from working late.
With each new mail, he worked like hell
To click “reply” instead of “del.”
A prompt response he’d always give
But somehow he forgot to live.
Yes, I just made that up. Perhaps the improv classes are paying off.