I am sure that this happens to everybody, but lately it seems it is my turn.
You know how it is. You have a huge list of Very Important tasks to complete. These are the steps that you expect will make a difference in your future life. These are the actions that might change the entire course of your personal history. Then suddenly, you find yourself buried in Urgent tasks.
These urgent tasks will probably not change your life or your future in any significant way. And yet these tasks are so time sensitive that they must be addressed TODAY. If they are not addressed TODAY you will not be able to deal with them tomorrow. Lots of tasks have deadlines.
That word is pretty intriguing. The implication is that you might die if you do not complete the task by that point in time. Really? And here I had thought some of the project meetings I attend are tough. Then again, even without personal doom, nobody wants to be the person who caused a project to die.
Honoring deadlines is certainly important to our careers. Some project deadlines are a little squishy. Maybe you need to complete testing your first prototypes in 6 weeks. I have seen many projects start the second prototype round with some amount of testing not completed. Management will sometimes allow a project to move to the next stage, knowing that there is some risk that when the first round of testing eventually finishes, that new bugs will be found.
Some deadlines are very, very absolute. You have to file your taxes on time, or the government will assess penalties. But in the USA, you can request an extension if you provide at least some indication of your income and expected tax obligation—and you pay that obligation on time. You get a new deadline, but have to do extra paperwork.
Bids and proposals for projects often have absolute deadlines. If your response is not received by the closing date, it will not be considered. If you bid the highest amount on eBay, but enter it 1 second after the deadline, sorry, you cannot win that auction. That’s just the way it is and we all have to understand and adjust to that constraint.
The time management folks suggest that we allocate our tasks on a two-axis graph of urgency and importance. Those tasks which are neither urgent nor important can safely be ignored (but these are often the ones we choose to do because they might be fun). Tasks which are urgent, but not very important should drop below those tasks which are both urgent and important. The tricky part is making sure that we allocate some time every day to work on the tasks which are important, but not very urgent.
There is one other aspect of a task that complicates how we allocate time. Very big tasks, which are sure to be interrupted, often are postponed because they are only important and not urgent—today. This is why we sometimes need to set some arbitrary deadlines. We use these intermediate deadlines to make sure that important task keeps getting some portion of our effort every day, week, or month. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking, “That’s an arbitrary deadline and I don’t have to meet it.” It might be really important to your future.
Balancing my time is probably the toughest challenge I face every day. I don’t think I am good enough at achieving that balance, so I keep working on it. Wish me some luck.