If you golf, you know that sound. The sound of a club swinging through the air. The sound of a clean strike as the face of an iron connects with the ball. The sound of a ball hanging silently in the air as it decides whether it’s going to come back down.
My 9-iron made that sound. The shot felt right in my hand. It was a beautiful shot, straight towards the pin, and I made it look effortless. A 152-yard par 3, and if this had been my tee shot, I would have been tapping it in for an easy birdie.
The only problem was this was my third shot, and after two lousy shots that run along the ground, I was halfway to the green. What would have been a perfect shot off the tee ended up just as far away on the far side of the green, and now I had to work my way back.
There is an old saying in choirs: the right note at the wrong time is still the wrong note. As I so skillfully demonstrated, the right shot at the wrong time is just as wrong. And working on the right task at the wrong time? Also wrong.
When is it the wrong time to work on a task?
- During peak hours. Doing something at the same time as everyone else is a huge drain on our time. Not only does a task take longer, it takes more energy to complete it. Instead of working from 9 to 5, work from 8:30 to 4:30 and beat rush hour traffic. Instead of going to Costco on Saturday afternoon, go on a Tuesday morning. Spend less time on hold by calling customer service as soon as they open.
- You’re chasing perfect. Perfect very rarely happens, but we’re afraid to accept mistakes. It’s good to proofread, refactor, and seek someone else’s opinion. Those are valuable activities, and they have their limitations. What started off as improvement can become an easily-rationalized form of procrastination. Sometimes, you’re better to call it good enough and spend your time on something else.
- You have someplace to be. We regularly underestimate the time it will take to complete a task and how long it takes to get someplace. Trying to fit in one more thing before leaving is going to put you further behind. Capture the task (if it isn’t already), and get going. The task will be waiting for you when you get back.
- Something else has priority. Working on the wrong task is another form of procrastination. Make sure the more important task really is more important, not just more urgent, and not just someone else’s priority. If what you’re doing today isn’t the one thing that will make the biggest difference in what you can do tomorrow, you might want to set it aside and work on what is.
- You should be sleeping.How many times have you stayed up late to get “one more thing” done? You might get more done tonight, but you’re going to have a harder time getting things done tomorrow. Ask yourself if you’d be willing to get up early to work on it instead. If you are, go to bed and work on it in the morning. If not, it isn’t worth staying up for, either. Take notes on anything you need to, and schedule time to come back to it later.
- Your energy levels are wrong. Schedule high-energy tasks for times when you know you’ll be up to it. When you are brainstorming, being creative, or meeting with a client, you want to be at your best. Save filing, shredding, cleaning up, and reading for the times where you don’t feel like doing much. We all have these cycles. Pay attention to yours (and how to affect them) and plan accordingly.
Having a personal mission statement will help you clarify the direction you’re heading. A weekly review will help you keep making progress in the right direction. Then you schedule the big rocks and start working your list.
These tools all help you to work on the right things. You also need to make sure you’re working on the right things at the right time. Don’t worry about the plans you made—they just gave you the perspective you need to adjust your plans and keep working on the right task at the right time.