Yesterday, I told a colleague that I had seen a new word in a GRE book (I write GRE books) that I had been meaning to look up, but I “didn’t have time.” What? I own at least three devices on which I can access this magical thing called the Internet.
(The word, by the way, was immurement, “a form of execution where a person is walled up within a building and left to die from starvation or dehydration.” Apparently some Southeastern European peoples believed that building projects were doomed to fail unless a woman, such as one of the builder’s wives, were immured inside the shiny new — now haunted as fuck — bridge or cathedral. Moving on.)
Are you so overbooked that you can’t think clearly? Are you so busy that the really important things end up on the back burner? Slow down and read this. I’ll keep it short.
Remove Yourself from the Situation
I regularly up and fly to foreign countries to eat their food, but also for a mental shock to the system. Your old life back home becomes more clear when you’re following a pack of goats around Bangalore, photographing them with your iPhone.
Once, though, I just went to Toronto, which is not very exciting, but which was cheap and stress-free, and had the added benefit of making me really excited to get back to New York. You can gain a lot of perspective wandering through someone else’s hip part of town and patronizing coffee shops you’ll probably never see again.
In Bullish: Responding to Disappointment with Awesomeness, I wrote, “I’d like to start some organization that just scoops up suicidal people and puts them on a plane. And then they wake up in Istanbul and someone brings them some tea and they walk around trying to find breakfast and they realize: all those things that were so bad just aren’t relevant here.”
Many problems seem solvable, or less important, from afar.
If foreign travel is impractical, move your desk. Work in a conference room or at the kitchen table or in a lawn chair. Spend a long weekend at your parents’ house, sitting at the desk at which you once successfully studied for the AP exams. Put some mats on your floor and work in your yoga pants.
It is never the case that an overbooked, overworked, frenzied person with no clear sense of priorities just keeps sitting at her laptop, doing whatever seems urgent at the moment, over and over until everything works out perfectly.
At best, such a person empties her inbox. Which is really not the most important thing. (See Bullish: How to Be a Productivity Unicorn.)
Strategically Declare the Flu
People who get caught faking sick days are people who use them to go to the beach and then Tweet pictures of their feet in the sand. People who declare that they are unable to get out of bed and who then actually stay at home and eat soup and catch up on all their work are rarely caught. And if you’re self-employed, there’s really no one to catch you, is there?
Ethically speaking, if you falsely declare sick days and your company comes out ahead, I think it’s cool. That’s just “working from home,” freed from the expectation that you will answer emails. (I have also previously gone on the record in saying that I think lying about your salary history is a reasonable gamble.)
If you’re a bad liar, don’t do this, and if you’re sick all the time for real, then maybe getting fake-sick on top of that is a bad plan. Also, this is more believable in the winter.
…Or Just Come Clean
If a faux sick-day won’t do, come clean. If your boss is not an asshole, try “As you know, I have this project due in two weeks, and I am really busy with these smaller tasks that keep coming my way. Is there a way to get these off my plate for the next two weeks so I can focus entirely on our priorities?”
Keep in mind that if you are a competent, qualified employee, and yet your job is so hectic that you can’t achieve whatever the priorities are, your automatic emotional response shouldn’t be guilt. In a total shit economy, a lot of people are managing (or failing to manage) job responsibilities that really ought to belong to more than one person.
Vote One of Your Commitments Off the Island
Or, hold a rose ceremony in which your Junior League meeting, even though he’s a really nice guy from a good family, just doesn’t make your heart flutter. (Sorry for the reality show metaphors. I don’t even have TV.)
Plenty of things are good things to do. But living bullishly means casting aside good things for awesome things. There’s no room for the merely good.
Get Up Earlier. Much Earlier.
I don’t fucking want to, either. But all evidence points to the fact that people who get up much earlier get much more done. (See Bullish: Successful People Are Up at the Crack of Dawn.)
I have been getting up around 8:30, but only because my fiancé has learned to operate my espresso machine. I’m keeping this “Elliptical at 5:30am so I can start writing at 6:45!” thing in my back pocket for when shit gets real.
Urgent Does Not Mean Important
I have attempted to illustrate this with a Venn Diagram.
Try making your own such Venn Diagram: one circle for Urgent and one for Important. (See Bullish: My To-Do List Revolution for more on the benefits of artsy-craftsy organizing.)
What would really happen if you didn’t do all the Urgent stuff and instead did the Important stuff?
I mean, presuming that you know the meaning of the word “urgent,” surely some bad things would happen. But how bad? A late fee, a pissed-off client who kind of sucked to begin with, losing a job you were planning to leave in the next six months anyway? A lot of the consequences won’t actually be that bad. Some of them are probably mere feelings, like embarrassment. Whatever.
See Bullish Life: How to Reduce Your Stress Level Immediately for more on mapping out — and defusing — worst-case scenarios.
Then reflect: How did so much urgent stuff end up becoming so urgent? Can you delegate? How long’s it been since you made progress on the important stuff?
Some of the most successful people are some of the most ridiculously single-minded, at least for periods of time. They have one urgent thing, and that thing is also important.
First published on The Grindstone.