How to Break Through the Syndrome Syndrome

When everything’s important, it doesn’t matter what you do first.

by Colter Reed
2:07 read (647 words)
by Colter Reed
2:07 read (647 words)

Planning and prioritizing tasks is something of an art. Often times, there is more than one right answer to how we should plan our time, energy, and attention.

You know you should work on your “important” tasks first. How do you know which one that is? Importance is a combination of many different factors, including the impact it will have, your desire to complete it (or avoid it), and which of your needs it meets. Importance can even vary over the course of the day.

Every task can be the most important task on a different axis. This sort of analysis paralysis—where everything is important, so nothing is—is what I call The Syndrome Syndrome, named after the super-villain in The Incredibles.

Afraid of working on the “wrong” task, you don’t work on anything. Left for too long, you can lose touch with your why and start to drift. Work backs up and it gets harder and harder to get started.

Sometimes, the biggest obstacle to getting started is simply not knowing where to start. How can you identify what you need to work on next? Here are some questions you can ask yourself to get unstuck.

  • What are you most excited about? Getting excited about something is a great way to get unstuck. Follow your heart off the couch!
  • What will have the biggest impact on your life? Why not start with the big wins? Go for the 80% wins for 20% effort.
  • What will set you up for the biggest win tomorrow? Maybe today isn’t the right timeframe. Productivity takes a long-term perspective. Banking wins for tomorrow is solid Quadrant 2-thinking.
  • What do you most enjoy doing? If someone were to look at your task list and offer to help, what’s the one task you would wish they wouldn’t take. It might not be the biggest win for the day, but anything you knock out can build momentum.
  • What would be the biggest weight off your chest if you got someone else to do it? Turn the question around. I know I’ll get stuck on something if I don’t want to deal with it. I’m avoiding it. Fortunately, there’s usually some else to whom I can delegate the task. If there isn’t, once I identify that task, I know it’s holding me back, so I can focus my attention on it.
  • What problem is causing you the most discomfort? After a while, I get tired of seeing a task looking back at me from my task list. I can’t drop it. It’s something I do need to do. So the squeaky wheel gets the grease.
  • What have you been putting off the longest? That’s a good candidate for where to start. It’s also a good candidate for dropping. If you’ve gotten by this long without doing it, do you really need to do it?
  • What will have the biggest consequence if you don’t do it? We are driven by the stick more than the carrot.
  • What is someone else waiting on? External commitments are important. If you’re stuck, there are others stuck behind you. Likewise, when you get unstuck, they get unstuck, too. Either way, it’s a multiplier.
  • What did you say you would do? If you’ve made a commitment, you need to fulfill it or renegotiate it.

None of these are definitive. Nor are they the final word. There are other questions you can ask. These are just a few ideas on how you can get started.

Of course everything you work on is “important”. You wouldn’t be working on it otherwise, right? You still need to be able to rank ideas. It’s how the Ivy Lee list works. It’s how you pick your big rocks. It’s how you group your day into ABC buckets. It’s a fundamental skill.

Decide which tasks have priority over others. Then get to work.

Question: How do you decide which tasks get done first? Share your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.