Are You Really Working on What Matters? Get Off Everyone Else's Wishlist

Captain's log, stardate d77.y38/AB

In a world where we're constantly harassed by push notifications and last-minute urgent tasks, taking a step back and thinking long term is becoming an incredibly scarce skill.

Conversely, we're always taught to think and plan long-term, in order to do things right. How do these two contradicting approaches work together?

Photo by Ari He on Unsplash Photo by Ari He on Unsplash

Damn those dreadful "unread notification" icons

Monday morning, you sit on your desk to start working and realise that you've got over 200 unread emails accumulated from the weekend, dozens of WhatsApp messages from overnight and countless notifications on your day-to-day applications (Slack, Trello, Basecamp, etc.).

The most humane reaction is to react to them and to put out the fires. Going through all the notifications and cleaning them brings an immediate satisfaction and a false feeling of getting stuff done.

Instead, upon closer inspection, we realise that we're acting reactively, because we're doing what someone else thinks we should be doing, instead of actively choosing what we want to accomplish every day.

Inbox zero is a lie. I have followed the Inbox Zero mantra for a good while in my life and it only led me to spend more and more time inside my inbox, while the rest of the tasks kept piling up.

I would recommend you to read Why We Believe That Inbox Zero Is A Lie (there are countless articles about it), and also Basecamp's What’s that mystery in your inbox costing you?, where they cover the whole "notification counts are painful" thing.

This short-sighted approach robs you of your energy

By acting reactively, as described above, you're failing to pursue your goals and bigger projects. It is especially so if you tackle the dreadful accumulated unread notifications first thing in the morning.

By doing so, you're wasting your best hours and the best of your mental bandwidth to everyone else's wishlist, sometimes to the point of depletion. How many times have you spent one entire day to only answering emails and doing things someone else thinks they're important?

When running a business, and especially when conducting the sales/public face area, where you get to see the grand scheme of things, I confirmed a theory that's out there:

Everyone is so busy running their internal affairs in their companies, that everything that isn't 100% crucial for them gets only done barely before the deadline (if it gets done at all).

Two examples I see often

When companies approach MarsBased for a project, and they want to have it done in five months time, they often do not give us an OK for the quote right away. Some of them take an insanely long time to answer/OK it/sign the contract, which puts us in the position of having to redefine the project or, worse, tell them that the deadline is no longer doable, as we won't rush to compensate for the time they have lost.

The same happens with our conference and events. I tend to organise our monthly Startup Grind Barcelona events between three and five months ahead of their date, to confirm speakers and market them properly, and in the case of our Startup Grind Barcelona annual conference, one year ahead.

Literally, I started working on the conference at the beginning of the year, to focus on packing a few speakers together, so I could go out to raise some funds from sponsors. However, very few people wanted to confirm 10 months before, with the exception of our incredible sponsors (ACCIÓ and Catalunya Emprèn) and some speakers like Orit Kopel (VP at Wikitribune) and Alexis Bonte (Partner at Atomico).

When I called potential speakers/sponsors/partners and the like, the most frequent answer I would get is "I am too busy right now, let's talk once the conference gets closer". Therefore, we proceeded to work on pretty much the rest: doing all the operational things so we could focus on speakers and sponsors right after the summer (giving us only two months to deal with speakers/sponsors).

This approach of kicking the can down the road leads to rushed-up decisions, last-minute unjustified cancellations and sudden change of plans in the initial agreements, which is detrimental to our planning and their reputation.

Luckily enough, now everyone wants to be a speaker, and everyone wants to sponsor. Since we've done most of the heavy lifting throughout the slow months, we will be able to do this, but in all fairness, this is not serious.

How to avoid getting trapped in someone else's wishlist?

If you have read this article and definitely relate to this, here's a list of things I suggest you do to turn the situation upside down, and hopefully change it for the better:

  • Have one or two "no meeting" days per week. I use these days to work on things that require long streaks of focus and no interruptions whatsoever.
  • Force yourself to work remotely for a week every now and then. I find myself to be able to decouple from the daily grind and think grander and further into the future by not working from my usual location.
  • Schedule the most important tasks into your calendar. Instead of having them just sitting atop your task manager app, create an event for them on your main calendar and go for it!
  • Kindly decline stuff. We take too often for granted that it's incorrect to pass on other people's requests, but it is actually not. We all have a backup plan.
  • Kindly ask to extend deadlines. When I receive emails with deadlines, I rightfully answer: "I am sorry, but I can't make that deadline. Is it ok if I send it in two weeks time?". Most of the time you will get a "sure, no problem" for an answer.

The bottom line here is: by being respectful with yourself, you will be respectful with everyone else's time and viceversa.

Now, go out and work on what matters!

Àlex Rodríguez Bacardit

Àlex Rodríguez Bacardit

Business development & growth. Java developer who transitioned to the dark side: sales. Regional Director of Startup Grind in Southern Europe. Guinness World Record in completing Day of the Tentacle in less than 4 hours.

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