The gist: When your priorities are out of order, you create a lot of unnecessary work for yourself. Adjusting can be scary, but the result can make you faster and more creative.
Try to remember what it felt like the last time you had a to-do list so long it made you want to give up and declare “to-do bankruptcy.”
I’m not surprised if you feel that way right now. A study by Harris Interactive found over 80% of people in America are stressed out at work. 1
I’ve felt the same many times. I’d sit down at my desk and, before even starting, I’d say to myself, “There’s no way I’m going to get everything done.” Defeated from the beginning.
This problem might be worse for introverts who work in a company where personalities don’t always match the task. You get sucked into meetings, the chatter is loud, and the environment can exhausting.
But there’s good news. If you haven’t taken a hard look at the way you do your work, there are probably some incredible opportunities to eliminate a large portion of your daily workload.
And just how is that possible? It’s all in the order of the work you do and how you prioritize. Here are a few examples from my own experiments in making my work day just a little more sane.
Problem #1: You’re Doing the Wrong Work
We all know different types of work suit different types of people. But, if you’re the type who likes to say yes to new things and accept challenges, it’s surprisingly easy for work that’s not a good fit for you—and never will be—to pile up like a mountain of mud.
I once found myself in exactly that place when I took over the customer service department in a business partnership. What I didn’t realize then (but quickly learned) was that I am comically bad at customer support.
As an introvert, my strengths lie in building systems and working on projects that can help lots of people all at once. I’m a poor fit for actually interfacing with those people on a daily basis.
The problem goes beyond just doing the wrong work, though. It takes a surprisingly small amount of it to foul up the work you should be doing.
You think, “Hey, I have eight hours in a day to get things done. I can spare one or two on this soul-crushing stuff. It’s a good opportunity.” But you’re wrong.
If you’re an introvert working on something better fit for an extrovert, then just an hour of “wrong work” can easily eat up four or more hours of productivity because it’s so draining. When you finish—if you finish—it’s hard to get motivated to do anything else.
Solution #1: Time Box & Delegate Your “Wrong Work”
So what’s the solution to a problem like this? You can’t just stop doing your work, right? People are relying on you to get things done. But when you’re doing the wrong work, you have to find a way out of it. Success—and your sanity—depend on it.
After finding myself doing too much wrong work, I did two things that helped:
- I talked to my partners and we agreed to hire someone else to take over customer support.
- I committed to spending no more than an hour each day answering support tickets.
Those solutions worked. Delegating support was a permanent fix and, until then, I knew I could triage support and keep us running without losing each day to wrong work.
If you don’t work for yourself like I do, this might sound like an impossible solution. What if your boss regularly dumps work in your lap and doesn’t care if it’s a good fit? Sometimes, this can be fixed with a long-term commitment to improving communication.
Your best shot at fixing the problem will be to show your boss two things:
- How much more effective you’ll be when you’re working on your right work. If you spend a week ignoring the work that drains you and just doing what you’re good at, you’ll have proof of what you can accomplish when you’re not saddled by draining tasks.
- Regularly reinforce what your right work is. In order to make sure the assignments handed to you are the right ones, take an active role in reminding the people around you what you’re good at.
If you work for a company that sees the connection between their success and how productive you are, you won’t be stuck in an impossible situation.
Problem #2: You’re Working in the Wrong Order
This is a problem that causes an equal amount of havoc but you also have a lot of control over it. If you’ve never spent a day or more thinking hard about the order of the work you do and how you prioritize your time, you can be sure you’re wasting a lot of it.
The problem I faced was two-fold. First, the time I spent doing wrong work ruined productive work time in the future. Second, I was so focused on keeping up that I didn’t have time to work on actually solving the problem.
We’re human. We’re hard-wired to focus on what hurts and go for easy, short-term gains. For me, that meant the first thing I focused on each day was making the pain of the overstuffed support box go away. It was so relieving to see the inbox empty.
But what I ignored was all the long-term work I could have been doing to make the pain go away forever. By laser-focusing on squashing a small problem each day, I was ensuring the root problem would never actually be addressed.
Solution #2: Build Systems That Eliminate Work
The fix for this problem is obvious—focus on the big picture ahead of the urgent—but it’s oh-so-hard to actually do when the pain of doing wrong work is front and center.
Funny enough, what helped me start to solve this problem was a meltdown. One day, I woke up, and I could not get myself to answer support tickets. I gave myself three failing pep talks before giving up and watching Netflix all day, too defeated to do anything else.
When I opened the support box the next morning—dreading what I would find—something unexpected happened: the world, indeed, had not ended. Sure, there were more tickets than usual, but nothing had gone wrong. There were no problems that came in yesterday that couldn’t be fixed today and no one was so impatient they couldn’t wait a day for a reply.
It’s not ideal to make customers wait, but this was an incredible discovery for me: I instantly gained a free morning every other day. And I used that extra time to beef up our knowledge base, format automated replies for common questions, and fix other systems that lowered customers’ need for support in the first place.
It was like magic to me. All of a sudden, life was infinitely better. I had more time to do what I was good at, and that work translated to the creation of less work I was bad at. If I hadn’t had that panic-induced breakdown, I might not have realized it.
It’s difficult to do, but when you force yourself to prioritize your right work, it can actually reduce the amount of wrong work you need to do forever.
Examples in Real Life
I’ve used a personal example to illustrate how doing wrong work nearly broke me and how re-prioritizing lead to salvation, but you might wonder where you can put this to use in your life.
The opportunities are endless, but here are just a few that you have complete control over right now.
- Paying bills. If you find yourself constantly juggling funds between accounts while forgetting to pay bills, this is an area ripe with opportunity for improvement. Sit down on a weekend and pick one account you’ll spend money from. Set up every bill you can on auto pay and transfer enough cash to remove worry about checking and juggling funds every other day.
- Grocery shopping. Always struggle to find time to go grocery shopping? Don’t know what to buy when you do? Take a 24-hour fast and spend the time you’d normally spend eating building a meal plan. Find easy recipes and build a system so you always know what you’re eating for the next seven days. Grocery shopping will become easy and you’ll never waste time wondering what to eat.
- Running errands / doing unexpected tasks. Life is filled with small to-dos that pop up at inconvenient times. If you focus on the short-term, you might stop everything to try to fix the problem when it comes up. But if you were to take a long-term view, you might set aside a specific time each week to work on “unexpected tasks” and ignore small things that come up until then. Keep a list of what needs to get done, and batch it all together in one pre-determined session.
This is but a tiny fraction of all the opportunities in your life to refocus yourself on your right work so that the wrong work becomes less urgent or goes away entirely.
Put it to use at home and you’ll start seeing ways to introduce it at work.
Final Thoughts on Reorganizing Your Work
As I think about the things that helped me take control of my overwhelming to-do lists, the words that come to mind the most are “focus” and “systems”.
When I force myself to focus on the big picture I’m always happier with the result because it usually means getting rid of many smaller frustrations. And a system for managing things I must do but don’t want to removes the pain of figuring out how to do them or make time for them.
Both of those things add up to having very little wrong work to do each day and the little that’s left is no longer overwhelming. It can be done without thinking too much. It’s made every day tremendously more enjoyable for me.
If you see a little bit of yourself in the struggle I faced, I hope the solutions here make your life better, too.
- Source here. This was part of a recurring study, and it also found that the problem was getting worse every year and “workload” was one of the top reasons why.