Root-cause analysis: Myth #2

This is Part 2 of a three-part series on the myths that underlie our thinking in the workplace and that lead to waste and inefficiency.

Myth #2: "I'll just take care of the easy things first, and then tackle the big project."

Like all good fantasies, this one has the veneer of logic, which makes it so very attractive. It sure seems to make sense, right? Write a couple of emails first, before getting bogged down in building that spreadsheet you've been dreading. Or make a few phone calls, and then dig into the expense reports from the last three months.

You figure that it makes sense to cross a bunch of easy things off your to-do list, because the big, icky, nasty thing -- the one that everytime you look at it (and lord knows you've looked at it plenty of times during the two months it's been sitting on your desk) makes you feel like you suck because you can't seem to get it done -- will take a long time to finish. And frankly, you might be right about how long it will take, or how difficult it will be.

But you're wrong in putting that task behind the easy ones. Here's why:

If you told a teenager that he could play one video game before cleaning his room, how long do you think he'd make that game last? He'd milk it for all it's worth. He'd play so long that he'd never get to cleaning his room before finally getting sent to bed. (Most parents know this, of course, which is why they insist that the room gets cleaned before settling in with Halo 3.)

Unfortunately, you're behaving like your own children. You're doing the corporate equivalent of playing video games before cleaning your room. You check email, make phone calls, surf the net, talk to colleagues, get another cup of coffee -- you do anything you can before tackling the project you hate the most. And in this kind of hidden procrastination lies an enormous amount of waste. (I call this procrastination "hidden," because while you're busy congratulating yourself on how productive you are by finally figuring out the keyboard shortcut for the copywrite symbol in Word, you're not getting the stuff done that's cluttering your desk and your mind.)

But procrastination is not in and of itself wasteful.

No, the real waste stems from the extra time it takes to complete otherwise simple tasks. Your phone calls take longer, because you spend extra time talking about the whether the Patriots will go undefeated or how serious global warming really is. Your email takes longer, because (having just read Send) you proofread a bit more than you normally would. Your review of a colleague's document takes longer, because you add just a few more comments of only marginal value. Hell, it probably takes you longer to get a cup of coffee, because you're debating whether you should finally try the Hazlenut soy latte instead. And the reason? Because you're stalling. You don't want to get to the really icky thing that you hate.

I saw a survey once that showed it took people 67% longer to complete the same tasks when they put the crappy ones at the end. Think about the colossal waste in that dilation of time. Every time that you postpone the big or difficult task in favor of knocking out the easy ones, you're unwittingly undermining your own efficiency. You're introducing unnecessary muda into the system.

What you need to do instead is tackle the worst thing first. Even if you can't finish it, the mere fact that you started it and worked on it for 20 or 30 minutes will eliminate the time dilation. And you'll also find that you feel better about yourself: you won't have that thing glaring at you reproachfully anymore making you feel inadequate.

So go on: do the worst-first, and don't get suckered into just doing the easy stuff.

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