This post serves as its own negative example. I usually write my weekly TechRepublic post on Friday, but for some reason, I was never able to get around to it this Friday. I sat down in front of my monitor first thing Friday morning, thinking about what I would write. “I’ll just read through my e-mail first,” I thought. My e-mail included my TechRepublic alerts, so I got involved in a few discussions that consumed an hour or so. Finally, I was ready to start writing. Or so I thought.

A client happened to call me at that moment about a problem I had been working on for them. Our exchange gave me an idea about how to solve it, so I said to myself, “I’ll just work on this a bit and then get back to my TechRepublic post.” Naturally, the idea didn’t work, and I spent several hours trying to figure out why not and coming up with alternatives. By that time, the day was nearly over, and my brain was tired.

So come Saturday, I tried to catch up. I’m an object lesson for the first rule in a strategy that TechRepublic member tburkett shared with us a few days ago: “Always begin promptly.” If I had just started writing, I’m sure I would have finished this article within an hour or two. But by finding other things to do, I procrastinated and left it hanging over my head all day and all through the night.

Another way to phrase this rule is: “just get started.” I should make that number 19 in my list of consulting maxims. Unless you’re really short on work, you always have other things that need to be done — so you can always find an excuse for not working on any one of them. But in order to get anything accomplished, you need to put the blinders on and focus on just one goal. Even if something else seems to be pressing, you need to ask yourself “Is this really an emergency?” before you alter your priorities.

The more flexibility you have in scheduling your work, the more important this principle becomes. If a client is breathing down your neck demanding a deliverable, it’s easy to focus on their project (even though you may resent it a little). But when you are free to pick and choose what you’ll work on when, you have to become your own boss and lay down the law for yourself. Allocate specific time slots to individual goals and stick to them.

When you have several urgent priorities (which happens to me a lot), sometimes it’s tempting to work on each of them a little bit to try to make progress and keep each stakeholder happy. But that approach has several problems, which include the following:

  • As soon as you hit a snag in one project, you’re likely to put it on hold and move to another project. This means that you’re only giving superficial attention to each problem.
  • Context switching eats up more time than you realize. Becoming refamiliarized with the parameters of a problem and setting up the test cases for it can often take longer than finding and implementing a solution.
  • A breakthrough may only come after a critical amount of attention (without distractions) has been applied to a problem.

Concentrated effort is the key to getting things done. In order to apply that effort, you can’t afford to wait until everything else is settled. It never will be. Just get started.

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