Do you ever have one of those days where you wake up early, sit in front of your laptop, and feel incredibly motivated to do everything on your to-do list? And then when it gets to the end of the day, you realize that because you had so many things to do, you were overwhelmed and kept bouncing around as if shiny objects popped up all the time to steal your attention away?

This happens to me all the time! And as you have likely figured out, there is a solution. It’s not THE solution; it’s a solution that works for me.

Urgent vs. Important tasks

As a project manager responsible for multiple projects, my attention is divided among these projects. I might block out time for one project, but then get an urgent email or instant message from a project stakeholder telling me of a fire I need to put out that then steals away my attention.

For readers of Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Effective People, this is where Urgent (but not Important) tasks take over your Important (but not Urgent) time.

At the end of the day, I felt that putting out fires was doing something on the projects. But at the end of the month or year, I looked at the tasks collectively and didn’t feel like I was making as much progress as I should have. It’s like writing a book, but every time you sit down to write, you decide to edit an existing page you wrote instead. You’re making progress towards writing a book, but without spending time on the Important, but not Urgent, task of writing, you aren’t making as much progress as you could be.

Mediocrity as a solution?

Stephen Covey has a few solutions for prioritizing the important over the urgent. One is to block out chunks of time to focus on important tasks. Two is to delegate, delete, or defer as many of these urgent tasks as possible. If you don’t have urgent tasks to worry about, you aren’t going to spend time doing them. Of course, it’s easy to prioritize important over urgent tasks on paper, but in practice, if your boss is messaging you over and over to get something urgent done, you’re going to drop everything to help your boss even if it isn’t as important as something else you’re working on.

Another challenge I have: I’m a bit of a perfectionist. Not only do I want to do all my Important and Urgent, and Important tasks, I also want to complete all my Urgent tasks too. With the limited time I have, I’m either working overtime (and burning out) or putting out low-quality work because I’m not spending enough time on the tasks. Neither solution is attractive to me.

Instead, the one thing I have embraced is the idea of mediocrity. Decide and accept that there are some tasks, work products or deliverables that aren’t reflective of your best effort or thinking. And not everything needs to be the ‘best’ either.

For example, when I started working at major companies, I was surprised to see typos and grammatical mistakes in my boss’ or my director’s emails. I didn’t see mistakes in official communications going out to the company, but rather, in informal or ad hoc messages back and forth. I thought “how can this director be at this level while making simple mistakes like this?”

What I realized are two things: speed (read: content) is more important than ‘correctness’, especially in informal conversations and not everything needs to be perfect.

Takeaways

  • Just because there are some people who seem to ‘have it all’ doesn’t mean you have to kill yourself to be the same.
  • Decision comes from two root words meaning ‘cut off’. In essence, when you decide on one option, you are deciding not to do everything else (if you decide to drive to the supermarket, you are deciding you are not driving to the bank during that same time, or staying home to read).
  • Sometimes you have to be realistic about what you can accomplish during a day. You might have a lot of things you want to do but there’s a balance between spending a small amount of time moving a little bit forward on a lot of different things, or spending a lot of time moving a lot forward on one thing. Do you want to use a shotgun? Or a sniper rifle?
  • If you decide you want to go with a sniper rifle approach, you have to accept that working on one thing means that other things on your list aren’t going to get done. And that is okay (I’m telling you it’s okay).