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October 1999 Issue
Many Jobs Are Worth Doing Only So-So
by Michael Fick
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We all grew up hearing this axiom: Any job worth doing is worth doing well.

I disagree. Anyone who has time to perform every task well doesn't have enough to do. The first thing we were taught ... nay, the first survival principle we figured out ... in Air Force Officer Training School was to prioritize everything in sight. We quickly categorized every task into one of three categories:

  1. forget it,
  2. fill the square (do a quick and dirty job), or
  3. do it very well.

The Air Force deliberately overwhelmed us with a good 30-35 hours' worth of tasks to perform each of the ten days per week all five weeks per month. The purpose of this was at least threefold: to weed out those who can't handle pressure, to teach us to prioritize, and to erase that unrealistic axiom from our minds forever.

That was the greatest lesson I learned in OTS, because the workload seldom let up for the following 20 years of my career. Those who followed that flawed axiom they grew up with were under unrelenting stress, constantly behind the power curve, and working tremendous hours and days just to stay afloat, let alone do every task well. Too many of my peers saw little of their families, some of them looked exhausted much of the time, and some gave up most of their vacation time because they tried to do every assigned or perceived task, and do it to the best of their abilities.

Because that was impossible in many jobs, many of them ended up performing only marginally, at work and at home. The ones who best survived this pressure cooker were the workaholics (who had no families, sooner or later), a handful of gifted super-performers, and those who learned to prioritize the fire hydrant's output.

We don't want to be the workaholics, and we can't really select our gifts, but every one of us can learn to prioritize. Every single task we face, whether an order from mon generale or an idea of our own should face three questions:

First: Can I ignore this task? Break that question down into simpler questions (i.e., begin eating the elephant one bite at a time), starting with, "What are the consequences of blowing this task off?" Then try, "Who will even notice, let alone care, if I ignore this task?" What if I at least ask for an extension of the deadline, or just ignore the given deadline and do it later?

Many office tasks originate with an off-the-cuff comment at a staff meeting, which some eager beaver turns into a 100 manhour assignment for the whole staff. When a commander or CEO muses, "What if we could build a widget to connect frammises to transmogulators?", some wiener is bound to issue an order to develop a $100,000 interface prototype by next Monday just to gain some brownie points. An astute manager, when suspecting such an overreaction, will verify the task with the chief before dropping everything to bark at this new tree.

When our base personnel office directed us on Friday to write new position descriptions (PDs) for all 15,000 civilian personnel by Monday (most of us branch chiefs had to write up to a dozen new PDs, each PD took a couple of hours, and the PDs were critical to the workers' careers), most branch chiefs spent the entire weekend at the office just because some personnel office weenie said to do it by Monday.

Two big questions immediately popped into my mind: Who the heck is this weenie to tell me how to run my weekend? And more important, how on earth is a personnel staff of ten people going to know or care whether all 15,000 new PDs are in on time? It will take them weeks to months to process them.

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