Pick Something to Fail At

One of the consequences of technology is that theres an almost infinite number of things you could work on, both in and out of work. For example:

  • If someone I haven’t seen in years un-friends me on Facebook, I feel bad for not keeping in touch with them more. After all, I have all the tools at my disposal.
  • My PVR automatically records episodes of Sitcoms that I wouldn’t have worried about missing, but now feel I should watch them.
  • Colleagues can assign tasks to me instantly and easily. It’s so easy to create work, all it tasks is a few seconds to write an email out, send it to 4 or 5 people, and you’ve assign several hours’ worth of work. People used to have to fill out a form if they wanted someone to do something.
  • My task list (or Inbox) is with me continually though the power of MS Exchange Integration.
  • Between my RSS reader and Hacker News, I have more career/productivity/life enhancing information to read every day than I could realistically read in a week.
  • Online reputation systems like StackOverflow.com provide the perfect forum for others to beat you to that next exciting job. Maintaining at least a modest level of reputation now seems a prerequisite for not missing out a few years down the line.
  • Automated error/traffic logging means no unexplained error message or referrer can go unnoticed. They must all be investigated.
  • The number of tools and resources available is staggering. If I wanted to produce a community newsletter, mix a dance record, write that novel, attend that Yale class on ancient Greece, learn how to re-tile my bathroom, create a graphic design portfolio or influence others with my views on how to reduce the budget deficit… I can, and at virtual no cost. There’s no excuse.

There is more work out there than you can ever do, one way or another, you’re not going to get it all done. This may make you feel sad, angry or depressed. If so, well done, you’re probably not a psychopath. Now, lets talk about how you’re going to manage this task overload.

Time to Grow up

You’re going to need a prioritisation strategy, and none of them are perfect, so you’re going to have to choose the best of a bad bunch. I think maturity is, in part, about consciously deciding what kind of a person you’re going to be and taking responsibility for the consequences. Let’s look at the options.

Last In Wins

“Do what’s immediately in front of you. If something crops up drop what you’re doing and do the new thing instead”. Nobody chooses this strategy, but it’s what happens if you’re not paying attention. It generally gets the small and mechanical tasks done while leaving everything else half done. It doesn’t take account of priority either. This is our baseline, any improvement on this model is progress.

First In Wins (the simple Queue)

“Do tasks in the order in which that come in; never start something until you’ve finished what you were doing”. When people have had enough of the Last in Wins model, this is often the first port of call. It’s simple and easy to defend when someone wants something from you, so it can be quite appealing. The simplicity comes from the fact that it takes no account priority, it’s entirely time based. This is also its biggest weakness.

The Magpie

“Do whichever task you feel like doing (or looks the shiniest)”. This approach is actually a lot more effective that it might sound to begin with. Our brains usually have one thing that it’s working on in the background, and it’s usually the most challenging or important thing. Issues relating to food, sex or money and conflict often rate highly, as do emotionally charged issues. The more senior you are in a business the more likely it is that those are the issues you need to sort out. That’s probably why so many entrepreneurs are self-confessed magpies. 

The Selfless Hero

“Do whichever tasks seem most important to other people first”. This is an approach I see most often in low level managers. They understand their job is to clear the roadblocks and make the troops in the trenches as productive as they can, but they do this at the expense of their own career/reputation/sanity.  

The VIP Express Queue

“Do the things that a certain select few people ask for, or that will most impress those people”. This approach is easier said than done, it won’t win you many friends and may get you a reputation as an ass kisser. But if you can get that promotion before your peers turn on you then you could be on to a winner.

The Job You Want, Not the Job You Have Approach

“Drop all the tasks you feel are beneath you and focus your attention on the things you’d rather be doing”. For some, task overload is an opportunity not a problem. Having too much to do is the perect excuse for not doing “menial” work and focusing your attention where you can “add the most value”. After a few months you can ask for that promotion on the basis that you’re doing the job already. It can be dangerous though, by definition you have to deliberately fail to do your actual job for a while.

The Shareholder Approach

“Imagine you’re a shareholder, now decide what you think is the least effective use of employees’ time, then skip those tasks”. If you’re a real shareholder, this is what you’d really like employees’ to be doing, the only problem is, there’s really no incentive for employees to adopt this approach. It won’t get you that promotion, if won’t impress any of the people you interact with on a daily basis and it won’t give you an easy life.

Pick Something to Fail At

The one thing that all of these approaches have in common is that they involve choosing something to neglect – sometimes consciously, often unconsciously. My advice is, if you’re going to choose, then choose consciously and accept the consequences of your choice.