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April 2002 Issue
Get Those Deadlines Outta Yer Face!
by Michael Fick
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Most of our wakeful moments, including our jobs and our private lives, are defined by an endless series of tasks, many with deadlines. The tasks include everything from hitting a golf ball before somebody says, "Hurry up, will ya" to fixing a meal to swapping out a beating human heart, and the deadlines range from seconds to days, but most of our activities are driven by and focused on meeting deadlines. Whether this generates joy or horror depends on many factors, including the importance of the tasks, the urgency and frequency of the deadlines, and the individual's reaction to pressure.

Many of us are quite swamped by them, to the point that they impact or even comprise the very structure of our lives. They strongly affect our physical, mental, and social health in many ways. The stress, the time, the family separation, the effort, the displacement of countless things we'd rather be doing, and just the frustration of trying to meet all those deadlines most of the day wear many of us down.

Complicating all of this is the number and complexity of the tasks, which leave us trying to prioritize them based on some clever scheme or, worse, on no scheme at all. The result of either approach in any hectic life is often poor efficiency, as we juggle multiple tasks simultaneously to make sure each is accomplished by its deadline. The juggling process itself becomes one of our greatest tasks, one of repetitive urgency, of great effort, of endless time consumption but no end in sight, until sleep suspends the rat race for what seems like a few seconds. And some of us are even impatient to get to sleep.

How many times have you stayed at work after quitting time, worked through lunch, missed a golf game or your kid's ball game, or had to let the tomatoes rot on the vine because too many deadlines loomed too close? How many headaches or tight jaws has this given you? And how many deadlines have you still failed to meet because you didn't prioritize your efforts well enough? Worse yet, how often do you have time to do what you want to do?

The utter relief of doing nothing, or doing something we really want to do for a while, is a special treat. Wouldn't it be great if we had more moments like that? Wouldn't it be great if we could not only eliminate the juggling process, leave work on time, and free up more time for ourselves and our families, but also beat every deadline?

Certainly human or artificial assistants or systems or schemes may help the process, but they add their own layer of complexity, and are not always completely effective. Even the best assistant or gadget or scheme is imperfect, and often one much simpler solution can improve or even replace all those more complex schemes and gadgets. Just changing one little flawed rule by which even many efficient people operate can reap all the benefits above, almost overnight, with no downside.

Many efficiency experts tell us to prioritize our work, home, and playtime tasks according to their importance, their urgency, their size, and/or some more complex criteria defined by software in a box. Those schemes help, but they come with their own baggage, and they may fail you-or you may fail them-all too often.

Would you like to meet or beat even more deadlines, in less time, with less effort, with less worry, and less gear-switching? Is your present time-management system more cumbersome or less effective than you want?

Now, I'm no time management expert. If your system is sound and works for you, and especially if you are a time-management expert, don't throw your system out the window for mine. But maybe you can effortlessly add my simple change to your present system for a quick horsepower boost. For me, its major advantages were

  1. dramatic reductions in the number and impact of deadlines that jammed me into a corner and
  2. a dramatic increase in my opportunities for a long lunch or a sudden vacation or an afternoon of windsurfing.
And it has no downside that I've noticed.

OK, I've teased you enough. Here's the rule that set me free: Do First What's Due First.

Just list your tasks in the order they're due and focus on just one alligator at a time ... the nearest one in line. Slay that alligator and grab the next one. Even though some tasks take minutes and some take hours (if they take days, they should be subdivided into smaller subtasks), this technique kept me ahead of the alligators for years in a very demanding and hectic job. Good for the company, for my performance evaluations, for my mental health, for my deodorant, for my family, and for everything else I wanted or needed to do at home and in the community.

The basic principle is that if you always work exclusively on the next task on your clock or your calendar-rather than on the most expensive or the most important or the red one or the one somebody put on the top of your IN box or the last one somebody phoned you about-and you meet its deadline, you'll never be late. This rule concentrates all your effort and attention on meeting the very next deadline, and we can usually manage to meet any single deadline once freed of the others. Ever see a martial arts movie hero fight two bad guys at once? Of course not; he always dispatches the nearest opponent first, then switches his attention the new nearest opponent.

When a task ... an alligator ... shows up on your radar, just slip it into your task pile according to its due date. If it's big and complex, break it down into manageable individual parts with their own hard deadlines and slip the parts into the pile according to the date and hour each part is due. The pile can be anything from slips of paper stuck on a nail to computer files, but they must be in some form we can rearrange as new tasks arrive with new deadlines. A list written on a sheet of paper quickly becomes gibberish by the time a few deadlines change.

This isn't just theory, and it works on tasks and lives much more complicated than "stuffing envelopes at home for big bucks". I adopted this system after being assigned to manage a division of 150 people spending $40,000,000 annually on Star Wars research for the Air Force, and for the years I stuck with that job I never missed one of the 10 to 50 deadlines that hit my desk every week from sources from the janitor to the Pentagon.

Proven benefits, for me, included:

  • Met every deadline.
  • Was praised by my boss as the most responsive manager in the organization.
  • Was able to focus my efforts rather than having to watch and juggle several tasks at once.
  • Was usually sufficiently ahead of the alligators to take an hour or a day of leave time when a buffet or a day of great windsurfing came up suddenly.
  • Was much more relaxed most of the time.
  • Went home most nights at quitting time and still stayed ahead of my peers who often worked longer hours.
Before long, I began seeing the following reminder on office and cubicle walls, right up there beside "THIMK": "Do First What's Due First". Apparently it wasn't just my boss and myself who noticed its success. The same principle works well in our daily lives, too. Try it tomorrow. It's too simple not to at least give it a try.



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