When I took Fluid Dynamics, I was one of three students in the class to get an A. The other two were majoring in Civil Engineering and Petrolem Engineering—disciplines which need to have a good understanding of how fluids behave. They got a 96% and a 97% for the class.
I was an Electrical Engineering major. This was not on-subject material for me. My average for the class was 89.6%, which rounded up to 90% before being assigned the grade-letter A. I squeaked by, but an A is an A. It was a win.
To be honest, I was just trying to pass the class so I wouldn’t have to repeat it. I didn’t need to get a perfect score, just a passing score. That was the win condition I needed to satisfy.
We’re taught from a young age that we need to be perfect before we’re done. It wasn’t intentional, but it was what we were taught. Just as unintentionally, we’re teaching our kids the same thing.
“Can I go outside and play?” Not until you’ve finished your homework. That’s “finished”, as in, “100% done with it”. “Can I have some ice cream? With chocolate chips?” Not until you’ve finished your broccoli. (To be fair, we’re usually pretty quick to negotiate this down from 100% to just a bite or two.)
Work before play. Needs before wants. We budget for necessities like food, utilities, and housing before fun stuff like the latest game console, a day at the spa, or a trip to New Zealand to visit all the places they filmed The Lord of the Rings. We stay up late to get just one more thing done before we call it a night. We send the kids outside to play instead of grabbing an empty roll of wrapping paper and joining them in their swashbuckling adventures. After all, they’re done with their work and you still need to balance the checkbook.
If you’re sensing a pattern here, you’re right. As an adult, the work is never done. There will always be something else we can do.
Dogmatically postponing play until you’ve completed everything on your task list doesn’t work. You resent work because it’s keeping you from having fun and you can’t have fun because you feel guilty that you’re not working.
Instead, you need to define a win condition for the day.
Having a productive day is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Remember the Ivy Lee method—start at the top of a prioritized list of tasks and work your way down. However far you get through that list, you spent your day working on the most important things you could have. What does it matter if it was half the list, or just the top three, or—there are days like this—you didn’t even finish the first one? Are you going to move heaven and earth in a day and pout because you didn’t move hell, too?
This is where the Ivy Lee method gives way to ABC prioritization. Your A tasks define your win condition for the day. If you can just get those tasks done and nothing else, that’s a win. If you focus on your A tasks and don’t get all the way through them but didn’t get distracted by your B and C tasks just because they were easier, that’s a win. Don’t give yourself more than three A tasks in a day; when everything’s important, nothing is.
Until you’ve finished your A tasks for the day, be intensely focused on your work. If you can’t work on your A tasks now, have a plan for when you will—schedule them.
Once you’ve achieved your win condition for the day, it’s okay to change gears a bit. You’ve still got things to do, but you can be more flexible. You’ve already won the day. Anything else you do is just gravy on the biscuit.