“Procrastination in the name of reducing risk actually increases risk.” — Colin Powell, retired American four-star general and former Secretary of State.
“Many people go through life making nothing but ‘if’ decisions. These are not decisions for success but preparations for failure.” — Zig Ziglar, American motivational guru.
It happens every day: You finish a task, check it off your list, and feel a sense of accomplishment. Great—now what? It’s important to quickly decide what to do next. But it’s equally important to decide what NOT to do next.
Making the right choice can be difficult when you’re drawn to distraction, react to requests, or randomly select the next task. We must choose the correct course of action by design, not by default. So I’d like to give you some guidance on how NOT to choose your next task.
1. Don’t decide what to do next by what you FEEL like doing. Our emotions are usually poor judges of value. You may have something due tomorrow you absolutely hate to work on. Well, what choice do you have? Instead of reorganizing the files on your hard drive, jump into the tough task immediately, so you won’t have to worry about it anymore.
2. Don’t decide what to do next by the order in which tasks appear. Emails in your inbox, messages on your voicemail, and tasks on your to-do list rarely appear in priority order—unless you’ve deliberately listed your tasks by importance. In a more general sense, don’t open an email and deal with it just because it appeared in your box. If you’re working on a critical task, don’t answer the phone just because it rang. When you’re in a meeting, don’t look at your phone just because it buzzed. Shut down devices if you absolutely can’t help checking.
3. Don’t decide what to do next by who’s screaming the loudest. Unless it’s your boss and you’ll get fired otherwise, don’t respond to other people’s requests in order. Some people have a way of making everything seem like a crisis, and some co-workers try to make their tasks your top priority. If someone comes to you with a true emergency, certainly handle that first; otherwise, state when you’ll be in touch or will handle the request. Let others know what they can expect in terms of a deadline, while communicating with no uncertainty you won’t be doing it now.
4. Don’t decide what to do next by what comes to mind. Just because you think about something doesn’t mean you should do it. The human brain often operates in a seemingly random manner, with your subconscious tossing up solutions or reminders as it comes up with them. If a sudden idea seems useful, write it down so you can come back to it. Don’t just chase the shiny thing or work on the first thing you think about. Though you might feel busy and “in motion,” you’re probably creatively procrastinating.
5. Don’t decide what to do next by the order of the sticky note. Just because a sticky note is unearthed from beneath a pile of reports or project files doesn’t mean you need to get right on it. Weigh all the other factors first. If you haven’t looked through a pile of paper in a year, chances are you can simply toss it with no ramifications. If it had become an emergency, you would have known about it long before your discovery.
You face such moments of truth several times a day at work, where a fork in the road (or 17) appears. Each time, you have a split second to decide what to do next—and what NOT to do next. As I pointed out in my latest book, What to Do When There’s Too Much to Do (Berrett-Koehler, June 2012), making the right choice in the moment represents a three-step process, involving:
• Clarity, whereby you already know your priorities for the day and have a plan in place for their execution;
• Discernment, where you exercise your judgment to determine priority, realizing all checkmarks on your list aren’t equal; and
• Discipline, forcing yourself to stay on point and stick to your plan.
Ready, Steady, Go!
This process of how to decide what to do next vs. how not to may seem complex at first glance, but your mind can race through it in a few tenths of a second. Even easier, you can just decide in advance. Some of us can put a little section of the subconscious to work crunching the numbers and deciding what should come next, based on the day’s changing circumstances.
Whatever your method, don’t spend more than a few seconds on it—and for heaven’s sake, don’t just shrug your shoulders and open Facebook or play a word while you “decide.” If you need a break, take one, on purpose. Otherwise, pick something and go with it, refusing to choose the workplace equivalent of straightening pictures when you need to be vacuuming the floor.