Work Smarter, Not Harder Tip: Fill your days with sand, not rocks

Mini Zen Garden

The other day, I was thinking about all the projects I have going on, and I began to wonder how I would be able to do it all. Well, the simple answer was that I am quite good at multitasking.

Then, I remembered that once, at an interview, I was asked how do I handle multiple tasks? I remembered that I had some answers at that point, but I also remembered that feeling at an interview where you just knew you did not really nail that question…

So, I remembered answering something about prioritizing. They asked, how? I gave some vague answer of depends on the deadline, the requester, etc. Since then, I read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, and he explained a great system of prioritization. Basically, divide your works into four groups. 1) Urgent and Important, 2) Not Urgent but Important, 3) Urgent but Not Important, and 4) Not Urgent and Not Important.

His advice was the need to address the first group was quite obvious. The second group would also be important, but since it is not urgent, we would need to be extra diligent to make time for these tasks. We should learn to say “no” to the third group of tasks. As for the fourth group, we should forget it, but many people would waste too much time on things within this group. I thought this was a great way to frame up how I prioritize. But somehow, I did not think this quite answer why I was good at multitasking… I thought there was more to it still.

Then, I read Radical Careering by Sally Hogshead, and she used the term timestacking. She defined it as “extracting every bit of capacity from time for maximum efficiency. Uber multitasking.”

I thought, this was it. I have been timestacking!

But, I still did not quite grasp what that really meant.

Then, the light bulb went off, and I understood how I seemed to be able to do more with the same amount of time.

Remember back in school, a teacher taught you about volume with a glass. She then filled it up with rocks, and she could only fit so much. Then, she filled it up with pebbles, and she found more space. Then she filled it up with sand, and she found more space still in that glass.

That was the essence of my multitasking!

I break my projects into the tiniest little pieces of tasks. This way, I have more flexibility in fitting the different tasks around each other.

For example: A project would be to create a piece of marketing material. A procedure within that project would be to gain legal alignment. Many people stops at this on their to-do list. Then, at 8:29am, you could not get to it before your 8:30 meeting. At 11:59am, if “gain legal alignment” was still on the to-do list, it would get rolled off to after lunch. Then, what would often happen after lunch? Some other things would ambush you and they would occupy the top spaces of your to-do list. So, at 4:59pm, “gain legal alignment” remained on your to-do list and it would get rolled off to another day.

However, what if that procedure was broken down even further? What if what made it to the to-do list was “email copy to lawyer”? At 8:29am, you could still fire off an email to the lawyer before your morning meeting. Then, you would be able to cross of an item on that to-do list, and it would just feel good. But, of course, back on the to-do list would be “awaiting legal reply”. However, this simple step kept the project moving forward. Perhaps at 11am, you got your legal reply. Then, the new thing on your to-do list would be “call agency”. In all likelihood, you still would not have been able to “gain legal alignment” by the end of that day. If it was so short, simple, or easy, it would have never got put off to begin with. However, I believe you could appreciate how much further along in the process you would be if you would just take it one step at a time.

In addition, with me, I have found that there is another benefit to breaking my projects into tiny tasks. It allows me to be completely focused at the task at hand. Whenever I have worked on mega-tasks, I would get fatigue mentally quicker. I would get distracted easier, probably because I was not able to see the end of the tunnel. With a lack of focus, I would just simply not get as much done…

Also, with a to-do list of tiny tasks, I would never feel like I was unaccomplished at the end of the day. I would always be able to cross off something!

So, try to break your rocks into sand, and fill your days with sand!


Photo credit: Bill Frazzetto

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