If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.
My life has been out of control, and that was before the world got turned upside down by the Coronavirus.
I’m used to measuring my work against 40 hours inside an office building. Working remotely outside those four walls, the boundaries are no longer clear. As an added challenge, a large part of my job is providing live training for our employees that’s always been conducted face to face. It’s a whole new world.
I find myself filling my schedule with extra, random tasks to fill up a tracking sheet for accountability. Now, I have a long list of to-do’s, webinars, and video conferences, but it’s short on meaningful accomplishments.
I’m taking this opportunity to regain control using Greg McKeown’s Essentialism as a guide.
The basis of Essentialism is “only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.”
Less is better.
To start identifying the correct priorities, ask yourself “What is the most valuable result I could achieve in this situation?” “Situation” is easily replaceable with career, relationship, or life.
My answer to the question is discovering how to develop county employees in a remote environment and going all-out on a system implementation that has been taking me away from the training I enjoy. The more I get done now, the more energy I direct back to training when we resume “business as normal.”
Using Essentialism as a reference, I’ve identified three big ideas we’ll explore further.
- Reinforce Boundaries
- Re-Examine Reality
- Routine Things Routinely
“Boundaries are a little like the walls of a sandcastle. The second we let one fall over, the rest of them come crashing down.“
We can’t serve everyone and do everything. We need boundaries to protect our most valuable resources: our time, energy, and attention.
When considering a task, McKeown suggests, “If the answer isn’t a definite yes, then it should be a no.“
As I try to make the best of my remote experience, I’m starting to ask these questions:
- Will another webinar on remote work actually increase my ability to provide training?
- If I sign up for another online class, will the long-term benefit outweigh the short-term cost in time?
- Will this lead to any output or is this just task avoidance?
To decide whether a task is a “definite yes,” use a numerical scale.
Rank the task objectively between 0 and 100. If you score it less than a 90, reject it. Only commit yourself to your best tasks. Fewer tasks mean you can make progress on the ones that matter.
By assigning numbers, we are forced to think objectively and reduce the impact of emotion. While I don’t have a specific scale, these are some of the considerations I’ve developed:
- Does this task contribute to my or my organization’s end goal? Not a “nice-to-have,” but does it provide real value?
- Does this task excite me? If not, I need to strongly consider the cost of motivation each time I start on this task. What’s it going to take to get started?
- Do I fully understand what’s being asked of me? Have I considered the total amount of work and the follow-on tasks?
How exciting would it be to start your day with tasks that have meaning and matter?
As we focus on the right tasks, what about the tasks we’ve already committed to?
Are your current projects worth your time?
McKeown highlights one of our sticking points, a sunk-cost bias. That’s a tendency to invest more resources into something because we’ve already committed time and resources. We fear losses or wasted resources. Instead of pursuing a better option, we double down.
For example, if an online course is not providing tangible benefits, why am I continuing to waste more of my time? Is there a reward worth spending more time?
These commitments are everywhere: education, jobs, investments, relationships, cars, projects, etc.
Rather than looking in terms of what we’ve committed, we need to ask these questions.
- If I was just starting out, would I invest more resources into this endeavor?
- If I did not have this opportunity, how much would I be willing to sacrifice in order to obtain it?
- If I wasn’t already involved with this project, how hard would I work to get on it?
If the answer is no, let it go.
Another common issue is the planning fallacy. This is a tendency to underestimate how long a task will be, even if we’ve completed it before. The results are overpromising and overcommitting to unrealistic timelines.
This sounds like my current system implementation project. Sure, it took me weeks to get through the initial data transfers, but I know I can get through them in a day or two this time. I think we can all guess how that worked out for me.
Underpromise and overdeliver. Because you’re giving a slow yes, you can use historical data and experience to make accurate assessments, and add a 50% buffer for when things inevitably go sideways. Then deliver early and look like a rockstar.
Now, what does this look like on a daily, operational basis?
Routine Things Routinely
We start each day with a limited amount of willpower. We can waste it making the same choices each day or we can eliminate those choices through routine, providing additional energy elsewhere.
One way of eliminating choices is building habits. Habits consist of a cue, routine, and reward. The cue is the action or trigger that starts the process.
For example, when I’m bored or uncomfortable, I’ll open up my phone and start mindlessly scrolling through social media. The reward is the avoidance of the task I’m avoiding which is reinforced by funny memes.
Another example where I waste a lot of energy is running. Despite the fact I do it consistently, I’ve failed to make it a habit with a consistent cue, trigger, and reward. As a result, I struggle daily with the temptation of the couch, computer, or anything that saves me from having to change outfits, step into the heat, and take those first few steps out the door.
I’m suffering daily for a decision that should be automatic. My solution is trying to run immediately after I shut down from work until the transition becomes routine. It’s working so far; can I stick with it?
To support your routines, McKeown suggests examining your environment and processes by identifying your “slowest hiker.” What’s the one obstacle, constraint, or possibly even another person, causing you to constantly stop or slow down in order for them to catch up?
My slowest hiker is starting each work session with a clear goal. The ambiguity costs me time and morale every time I try to get started. Then, when I don’t make progress, the negative feedback loop makes me even less motivated to work.
My current strategy is to plan each evening following the end of my workday and exercise when I have the most mental clarity. During this time, I still have a clear idea where I left off, but I’ve taken a step back to re-assess and be more selective where I start tomorrow. I’m also trying to use outcome-oriented tasks, meaning I have a clear idea of what done looks like.
When I roll out of bed in the morning, half-asleep, I know what my next action should be.
As you speed up on one slow hiker, you will pass the next slowest one. Repeat the process. What is slowing him down? How can I keep this hiker from limiting my experience?
I’m already gaining on my next slowest hiker, information overload. Some of my systems are like overgrown yards, badly in need of mowing and edging. I hope he’s ready for a trim.
“Every choice we make to pursue the essential and eliminate the nonessential builds on itself, making that choice more and more habitual until it becomes virtually second nature.“
Start by identifying your most important work. Then, reinforce your boundaries. Get comfortable saying “no.” Be selective with “yes.” At the same time, re-examine the tasks you’ve already agreed on. Are they worth continuing or do is it time to let them go?
Finally, do the routine things routinely. Automate choices through a routine. Identify constraints and speed up your slowest hiker.
Essentialism is about being laser-focused on the things that matter. It’s about consistency. If you spend your time, energy, and attention on your priorities, what can you accomplish?
I want to give a special thanks to Juan David Campolargo, Jen Vermit, and Kelvin for their editing and feedback. They spared the world several hundred extra words.