If you’re like me, you work long hours every day and are constantly busy. Why is it then that we often feel fully busy, but unproductive? Why is it that given the amount of work we are trying to produce, we find it so hard to devote time to the activities that are most important to our long-term happiness and wellbeing?
The term “big rocks” describes important undertakings that are easily crowded out by all of the other things we feel we need to get done during the day. Big rocks often include thinking strategically about our careers, making a long-term financial plan, protecting our health, making progress on a large project, learning a new skill, and other activities closely tied to our long-term goals and ambitions. When we face each of these objectives, we recognize their importance, but it is also clear to us how incredibly easy it is to put them off until another day when we’re not as busy fighting fires and dealing with a constant flow of new to-dos.
As a social scientist, I spend my days trying to understand why people (myself included) often make decisions that aren’t in line with their long-term goals. We want to lose weight but have another cookie anyway; we want to save money but decide to upgrade to the more expensive seats at a concert. My goal is to use research to understand our behavior, and find ways to help overcome some of our destructive natural tendencies—helping us to make better decisions and spend our time and energy in ways that help us lead more productive, healthy, and satisfying lives.
So, what are some of the common reasons why our short-term actions prevent us from taking care of the big rocks, and what can we do about this?
1. We Don’t Use Our Productive Time Well
Most of us are most productive in the morning. (Some people are night owls, but most are most productive before lunchtime.) Unfortunately, many of us do not use this precious time wisely–for example, one of the first things we do when we arrive at work is check our email, Facebook, and other tasks that don’t need our full attention and cognitive capacity.
Instead of immediately focusing on email, meetings, and other activities, we would be better off spending the morning doing productive work that requires a higher cognitive capacity (thinking, planning, calculating, for example), and delaying the tasks that don’t require as much mental energy to the hours when our capacity is diminished.
2. We Prefer Activities That Help Us Feel That We Are “Done”
Unlike small, unimportant tasks, the challenge with big rocks is that our efforts aren’t immediately rewarded with visible progress. Responding to 15 unimportant emails has a tangible output of 15 emails, and this can makes us feel like our morning was well spent.
What about thinking critically for an hour? These kinds of activities are often accompanied by no tangible output, which makes us feel as if we have made no progress.
The key to success here is to break down the big rocks into smaller milestones so that you can feel a sense of progress. Then mark your progress on each milestone in a visual, dashboard-like way, so you can see your progress and be encouraged by it.
Let’s say you are planning your next large project and to get a sense of progress you break the overall task into: creating a shortlist of ideas, creating a pro/con grid for each idea, create a list of requirements and dependencies, etc.
We get a lot of pleasure from crossing finished tasks off the to-do list. Let’s make it easier to get that wonderful feeling while working on the big rocks.
3. We Wait for Inspiration in Order to Work on Complex Tasks
Waiting for inspiration is a common excuse we give ourselves to avoid difficult tasks. In reality, the best step we can take is to simply make a plan and start. This is true even for creative fields.
George Gershwin famously said, “Out of my entire annual output of songs, perhaps two, or at the most three, came as a result of inspiration. We can never rely on inspiration. When we most want it, it does not come.”
Set aside time, jump in and get done what you can. When you look back at what you have accomplished, you’ll be glad you did.
4. We Procrastinate
Structured procrastination is our ability to do nothing while feeling like we’re doing something. This includes things like getting to “inbox zero,” going into our to-do list and reordering things in the “right” order, and cleaning old files from our desktop. The problem with these tasks is that they give us the sense we’re achieving something when in fact we’re not.
If it’s important to you to have a clean inbox and orderly files, or to finish any other task that enables structured procrastination—remember it’s wasting more time than it saves. But, if you still feel the need to get these things done set them at the right priority and get to them only after you have made real progress on a big rock first.
5. We Don’t Realize We’re Choosing the Wrong Things
Sometimes, not working on the right things is not an active choice. We’re not actively rejecting working on a big rock, but if we don’t think about it, and don’t experience immediate consequences, we just don’t do it.
One of the challenges is that big rocks often don’t find their ways to our calendar. Our calendars show us mostly meetings, and the time needed for big rocks is usually the empty space between meetings. When we see the empty time, we think that we have extra time and we add more meetings, when in fact we should be realizing the “empty time” is not empty at all: It is the most important time we have and it should be dedicated to our big rocks.
What we need to do is to be aware of these big rocks, and the importance of the empty time, and then make a daily commitment to the big rock we want to tackle during our “free time.”
6. We Let the List Become Too Long
With a long, overwhelming list of to-do items, it becomes more tempting to tackle the small, easy things in order to make visible progress. This gives us a feeling of quick wins and an artificial sense of making progress.
There’s nothing wrong with keeping a to-do list, but we need to make sure that the joy of erasing things from our to-do list is not shifting the way we spend our time. One way to shift our attention back to the big rocks is to break our big rocks down into a few sub-tasks that together serve a big rock: This way we get both the joy of erasing things from out to-do list and we make progress on the things we really care about.
In this short article, I have described the challenges we all face with our time and priorities, and I am leaving it up to you to figure out the way you are going to deal with the big rocks and not spend your time on the small tasks that matter less. At the same time no two cases are the same. When it comes to time management, simply being aware of our mistakes and fallacies is an important step in setting our priorities in the right way.
Photo of person thinking courtesy of Morsa Images/Getty Images.
Dan Ariely is the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology & Behavioral Economics at Duke University and a New York Times best-selling author. He is dedicated to answering questions in order to help people live more sensible – if not rational – lives. Dan can be found at www.danariely.com and on Twitter @danariely.More from this Author