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:
- forget it,
- fill the square (do a quick and dirty job), or
- 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.
I went windsurfing that weekend and wrote my PDs next week on company time, while all the knee-jerkers put in 20 + hours at the office. They thought I was nuts to ignore even a meaningless, artificial deadline, while I thought they were drones to kowtow to it.
Examining most assignments, at least in our own minds, can dramatically affect our sanity and our workload.
Second question: Given that this task must be done, for whatever reason, how well must it be done?
Implied questions (bites of the elephant) include: Who suffers if it's done only adequately? If only I will suffer, can I take the hit? If my minimal effort affects others, is that effect tolerable by them, and will they understand ... or even notice ... my lame effort? Is my lame effort sufficient for their purposes? MANY projects can accomplish their desired result even if done according to the 80/20 rule, which states that 80% of the work can be done in 20% of the time. That's a great rule when circumstances dictate following it and we can withstand public knowledge that we applied the rule.
And, third: Is this one of those rare tasks that merits our very best effort and is genuinely more important than our family, most of our other tasks, and nights and weekends? Such rare projects are usually obvious, and pulling out all the stops to do them with near perfection usually pays off handsomely in the long run.
The job applications that got my wife the career transfer she strongly wanted were ultimately well worth the months of continual effort we poured into each of some six or eight applications. The official that finally chose her for the transfer told her that it was very close, that every little nuance we put into her final app was crucial.
On the other hand, this month's column on stress reduction is not more important than helping my wife move furniture and crates in preparation for our move. Her shoulder hurts, it's near midnight, and this has been going on for about 18 straight days and evenings to the tune of 16-hour days of painting, cleaning, sorting, re-carpeting, etc.
That's why I sat down one hour ago, set a one-hour timer, and typed as fast as I could until the timer told me to stop typing.
Get my drift?
It's all about prioritization, and every hour in the past 20-22 days has been critical to our meeting transfer, home sale and purchase, and career deadlines. Sorry, but that has put this month's column in the square-filling category.
But isn't that a perfect, or at least efficient, example of exactly the point I'm trying to make? It's precisely why I thought of this topic this afternoon, just when I was afraid I would have to blow this column off altogether because our house goes on the market in about 12 hours, and it needs at least three days' work to get it ready.
I thank the Air Force for teaching me to prioritize.Think, and ask questions at least of yourself and your values, before acting. It makes life and work a LOT simpler, and a WHOLE lot more efficient. And don't most things in life depend more on efficiency and productivity than on perfection?