Don't Get Everything Done

tags: prioritization, productivity, time management
created: Sat 07 November 2015; status: published;

This blog post is directed at you if you work extra hours and are always stressed because you can't everything done. This advice is to help people in that position get control. Part of the Notes to a New Engineer series.

Are you working hard and putting in long hours day after day and still not feeling accomplished? Are you consistently not done with everything? If so, you need to stop. Stop getting everything done.

A good employee thinks and prioritizes their actions based on urgency, importance, politlcal, and relationship factors. A good day from the perspective of an employer (and hopefully yourself) is that you got everything done that needed to get done. Every day should start with a prioritized list of things to do that you execute from top to bottom. Being human, we all deviate a bit, but priorities are done highest to lowest.

The low priority items are things that are neither urgent nor critical in the short term, and not fundamental to long-term goals. There are a good number of these in modern business: followups on tangential projects; responding to unimportant requests; meetings done for show rather than because concrete decisions are needed.

Do not do these

If you are getting everything done on your activity list every day you are underestimating your productivity or not planning appropriately - you have too few items on your list and you should have more, so you know what the best thing to do is at any given moment in your day. Fill your day with prioritized items that you need to accomplish or push forward - you want a list you can't quite achieve.

Do less low-value work

Prioritizing is not about doing everything

If you are putting in long hours to get everything done that you could possibly do, you are not prioritizing. You are executing like a robot who doesn't know value. Tasks in your life have different values and every single one costs time, energy, decision-making ability, and willpower. Humans have a finite amount of those things. If you get everything done, you are spending precious resources on increasingly valueless efforts. The return on that investment is less and less.

The solution is to realize that it is okay to not complete every task. By making a conscious decision to not do something, you are acting more intelligently and showing you understand value to yourself and your colleagues. It shows independence and volition and that you aren't an unthinking task-executing robot.

It may now feel like that, leaving things undone. But you are working very long hours (see "Who this is for" at top of article) and never feeling done, and part of that stress comes becomes you are not making a conscious decision about value.

How to start not doing things

At the end of a normal workday, before you go into the extra hours you are used to putting in, do this exercise:

  1. Look at your list of priorities.
  2. Think them through: are their immediate consequences for not doing them?
  3. Say out loud (or whisper it to yourself) "I choose to not do these things because they are low value".
  4. Go home and relax.

Your normal behavior is probably the #1 step of looking at list items, then doing them. When you finally stop at the end of the day from exhaustion, you feel unsatisfied and unhappy. Why? Because you feel like a failure. You feel like a failure....because you failed at being a task-executing robot.

The difference in this process is step #3 - the conscious decision to not do them. You validate to yourself that it is the right thing to ignore these. This is conscious versus unconscious action and it makes all the difference.

Make the conscious decision to not do everything and you will feel happier, less stressed, and be on the path to understanding prioritization and being effective.