This Friday, I had woken up with a lot of enthusiasm because it was comparatively a leisure day and I had a bunch of things planned to do. I was planning to write a blog post, draft a work proposal, work on a mobile app redesign, and also redo some of the CSS of this website. All were important, strategic projects to help boost my freelancing business.
The day passed, and I was productive. But not with all of those important projects. Instead, I got sucked into a 3-hour long phone call with one of my clients and updating the documentation on another project I had delivered some time last month. These were urgent too. I felt great about my progress, yet at the end of the day, I knew I had missed an opportunity.
Last night, I was watching a video on how to take Permanent Notes on a note-taking app called Obsidian. The narrator, Justin DiRose, had an interesting note that he was showcasing while talking about Obsidian. One of the statements said, “Working from home means you have to fight the tyranny of the urgent.” Truthfully, the moment I read that phrase, I forgot all about the video and was reminded of the book named “Tyranny of the Urgent” by Charles E. Hummel. I had read the booklet a couple of years ago, while I was trying to learn more about the GTD methodology by David Allen.
The idea of the phrase “Tyranny of the Urgent” refers to the practicality of life when we end up getting stuck between multiple tasks that are all seemingly important and need to be accomplished at the very same time. In my work, I often coach stakeholders who are struggling with exactly this challenge. They have great ideas and strategic opportunities — one which could be transformational for their business and themselves personally — and they struggle to give them the right priority. They head into the office in the morning full of good intentions, only to find people at their door, emails in their inboxes, and messages on their mobile phones with real, urgent needs that stop them from making progress on longer-term goals.
COVID-19 has surely made working from home a necessity, but it is going to soon become the accepted norm. Additionally, with the access to work communications 24×7, the lure of Netflix on the living room TV any time of the day or night, the fun of playing with the pet, etc is going to make it extremely hard to discipline oneself, structure the things to be done, and maintain a healthy balance. I have spent years when I got goaded onto work the moment I received an email regarding the same, even if it was after 10 pm. There have been many days and weeks when I had planned to get something done, and ended up doing something else just because I hadn’t planned my days well enough.
It’s all about Planning
So, what are we going to do about this ongoing struggle? How do we get the right balance between the urgent and the important? Well, planning is the solution. Planning will keep you on course in achieving your goals and objectives. Abraham Lincoln reportedly once said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.” Planning is the difference between being reactive and proactive. When you don’t plan, you end up responding to the day’s events as they occur.
GTD has changed my life
I use applications like Things 3 & Drafts to collect all thoughts and todos that end up coming my way throughout the day. I have set up workflows on all my devices, the computer, tablet, phone, and watch so that I can capture those ideas within a few seconds and move on to whatever else I was doing at that time. That way, I do not get bogged down about having to worry if I had forgotten something important. I have built a foolproof system to collect all incoming ideas, and I have faith in the system. At the end of each day, I go through all of those ideas and move them to relevant projects. If needed, I also assign due dates as well. Additionally, once a week, I go through the whole list and reassess their importance for the upcoming week. With this system, I can forget about decision fatigue and concentrate more on implementing what needs to be done.
Every engagement is in my calendar
Some projects require a level of focus that is hard to obtain during a standard workday. There are stuffs that need some time for thinking and reflection. On the other hand, there could be tasks as mundane as checking up with friends on social media. I keep everything blocked in my calendar. That way, I am always aware of how my day is spaced out, in addition to not have to worry about forgetting stuff that I had planned to do.
I work everywhere
I know this might not sit well with a lot of productivity gurus, but this is how it is with me. When there were no lockdowns, working in public places like coffee shops and restaurants of 5-star hotels used to be some of my most productive spots. There have also been times when I had booked myself into a hotel room for the weekend because I wanted to finish up something important and needed the space to focus. This tactic works for me because of two major reasons:
- I can get myself away from usual distractions and really concentrate on the work
- Change in location often feels invigorating for the mind as well
Now that I can’t go out to a public place anymore, I still try my best to keep moving locations and devices within the house itself, to give me that change of environment.
Help is always available
Often, as leaders, we feel we need to work on the big strategic questions on our own before we share them broadly. Many organizational cultures reward expert leaders who come with the answers. The bigger the potential transformation, the more leaders tend to want to hold the challenge close until a vision or direction is clear.
In today’s organization, this is short-sighted for a number of reasons. Not only are many companies moving toward more collaborative cultures that discourage command and control leadership, but this also can create blockages in progress on large, important change.
Instead of trying to tackle strategic challenges single-handedly, I try to bring in some perspectives. More often than not, I try to delegate tasks to a team of high potential talent to explore the solutions. Or if it something I must do alone, I try to find an accountability partner — a colleague, or even a manager — with whom I can share the goal and who can check in with me on the progress.
Re-assess the project’s importance
Despite being distracted by the ad-hoc tasks last Friday, I am a big believer in task lists. As mentioned above, every day, and every week, I religiously prune my task lists. In case any task ends up getting pushed more than 2 times, I try to re-assess how important the project might be and what could be the potential reason behind postponing it multiple times.
Break it down
Sometimes in assessing an item’s importance, it becomes clear that the problem isn’t that it isn’t an essential or strategic task or project but in fact, it’s not getting done because the next step isn’t obvious. As humans, we take the path of least resistance. If we have five things to do that require very little thought and are seemingly urgent, we do those first. Therefore, we are more likely to make progress on those larger, more strategic, and important projects if we break them down into clear and measurable tasks and we know what we need to do next.
I had no idea that the serendipity with Charles Hummel’s idea would lead to this flow of thoughts. Nevertheless, I guess it’s always good to pause, stand back, and take stock of life once in a while.