The Path of Least Resistance
I once asked a prospective client how she decided what to work on next.
"It's pretty simple" she said. "I look at what's going to blow up in my face next if I don't do something about it right now."
It can be easy to default to this reactive way of working if you don't have an alternative. Deciding where to focus your attention and effort is very clear if you're only responding to what's shouting at you "latest and loudest".
If you've got hundreds of emails in your inbox to choose from you'll pick the ones you can answer straight away. You skip past the tricky ones that you know are going to take a big chunk of time and mental effort, and don't need an answer right now.
This is a classic source of procrastination. If a task on your project list isn't well defined then you're likely to move on to something else that is. You'll leave it until the stress of not doing it is worse than the consequences of biting the bullet and getting it done.
This is "leave it to the last minute" syndrome. It's a significant source of stress, pressure, and feeling overwhelmed. It also means that you're not able to perform at your best consistently.
This way of working is unnecessary for most people and the problems it creates are completely preventable. You can choose a different way. Why put yourself through this if you don't have to?
One of the other problems of working in this reactive way all the time is that it's hard to do anything proactively.
These are the kind of projects that move you forward. The "develop this new idea" or "implement this feedback for our next presentation" or "look for different ways to do" projects.
All the great ideas that you came up with at your last management meeting six months ago but haven't got further than the whiteboard in your conference room. And that list of projects that you'll get to "when you have a minute."
A new client showed me something that she titled her "When I have a minute" list. All the projects on there were valuable, relevant and would help grow her company.
"So when did you last have a minute to work on any of these projects?" I asked her.
"I don't think I ever have" she replied.
Now I'm certainly not saying that you should only work on proactive projects like this and ignore everything else, but you do need a healthy balance.
Treating all the projects that you have, reactive or proactive, in the same way, is a good place to start.
Lower the cognitive barrier for everything you have to do so as far as possible. What's the smallest action that you can take to get a project started and then move it forward? Make sure that all your projects and actions on your task list pass the Nike test. Can you look at everything you have to do and "just do it"?
This way everything you want to do will be on the path of least resistance.