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What to do when you have so many things to do

“I have so many things to do.”

It is the sentence I often hear every time I catch up with friends. This is not a strange phenomena in current workforce. Job field is getting more and more competitive. Therefore we are expected to add values to the organization we are in.

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I am also not immune to being overwhelmed by work. Managing multiple priorities and stakeholders at the same time is definitely a tough thing to do. I stumble upon Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less written by Greg McKeown. He emphasizes the importance of constantly assessing and remaining focused on what is most important. “There are far more activities and opportunities in the world than we have time and resources to invest in,” McKeown says. “And although many of them may be good, or even very good, the fact is that most are trivial and few are vital.”

The concept in the book is not new. Although after reading it, it gives me a reminder about how I should live my life moving forward. The reminder comes when I started to relate what’s written in the book with the work I’m doing right now.

After working for quite some time, there is a correlation between the amount of tasks that we are doing with quality of output. We can’t lie that at one point, we can’t produce good quality of work if we are doing many things at one time. Therefore it’s essential to identify which tasks are critical and which ones are not.

“But but, all tasks are critical, I have to do all of them.”

I hear that. That’s the sentence that we often say to give ourselves permission to lose our boundary. We have the tendency to say “I have to” instead of “I choose to”. This demonstrate a phenomena named “learned helplessness.” Learned helplessness is when people feel helpless to avoid negative situations because previous experience has shown them that they do not have control. If we are honest with ourselves, often times it’s not that we have to but we choose to do something.

One example that might be relatable for a lot of people is getting additional tough work with tight deadline from our supervisor when we are swamped. We have the option to either (1) reduce the scope of the work (2) negotiate the deadline (3) refuse the entire work, but instead of asking first, we tend to say yes directly. There are couple of hypotheses why it happens (1) we live in a culture when saying no is a bad thing (2) we want to prove ourselves that we are competent (3) we overestimate our abilities to get it all done.

“Ok, but how if I don’t have options all the time”

I have to admit that this might happen to some people. If that happens then you should seriously consider if you need to be in that environment all the time. It doesn’t mean that you have to immediately leave, but more thinking in a big picture whether it’s a good idea to stay both in short term and in long term.

Growing up, I reject the notion that we should accomplish everything. There will always be trade offs. The part of adulting is to accept that we can’t always get what we want and embrace it. According to Mark Manson, we should ask to ourselves this question: “What pain do you want to sustain?” This question opens up to an entire exploration to determine what really matters in our life.

“So, how do we know what matters in our life?”

Well, this is a very difficult question to answer. It requires rigorous process of self reflection, interaction with others, situation, and many other variables. What makes it more challenging is what matters in our life is different from time to time. I remember that when i was in high school was to win basketball competition at school but now, winning sports competitions is not even on my top 10 priorities. To really know what matters to our life, we need to question ourselves and adjust our plan accordingly.

While deciding what matters in our life is an intimidating work to do, we can do a baby step. We can start by determining what matters in our life this month. There is one simple exercise that we can do. Let say that we know that priority for this month is to (1) get work done (2) build relationship with my colleagues (3) spend some time with family. If there is a futsal game held in the office, before saying yes, we should ask this question ,”From scale 1–10 (1 is not distracting and 10 is distracting), how will this game affect my priority?” If you rate less than 5, then you should go. If not, then you know what you need to do :)

“But how if something interesting comes in?”

There is a twist here. We should also be open to possibilities. Let say we plan to burn the midnight oil to finish our work to build financial modelling. We don’t need to work all night if we spend one hour with the finance geek but sometimes we are too invested in one method of work so we don’t realize about this. This is why, taking some time to think is important to make sure we make a sound decision.

We should also manage our expectation that as much as we plan, things might still go in the direction that we don’t want to. Therefore, preparation will definitely help. There is one practice in software engineering that I admire, Test Driven Development. It is an engineering practice where you need to write the test first before writing the functional code. Applying it to real life, I interpret that as preparing enough number of possible obstacles and planning accordingly.

“After we know what matters, then what’s next?”

What’s next is to start embodying our prioritization in our daily life. It means waking up at 6 am and run instead of staying up late playing games once we set that health is more important than play. It means pushing ourselves to read few pages of book when we create a new year’s resolution to read more. It means saying no to dessert once we know that we need to lose weight. In the end what matters is to act. It’s simple to say but definitely not easy to do. Good luck :)


Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by George McKeown

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