Remember those yellow legal note pads? They used to be my constant companions earlier in my career, before PCs, PDAs, laptops, and smart phones.
(Yes, there was actually a time like that, as strange as it may seem now. And yes, that officially qualifies me as a dinosaur.)
I would always be making “to do” lists on those pads. Some were short, and some were long. But most of the time, I’d manage to put them in order of their importance.
So that first one on any list was typically a “doozy” task – a task so daunting, so challenging, and so unappealing, that you couldn’t help but stare at it for hours. Or perhaps retrace the letters with your pen or pencil, just to make absolutely sure you knew it was important (but you weren’t exactly ready to take it on).
It was really tempting, and I mean really tempting, to skip that first one and just start doing the tasks below it. Just to get a little momentum going. Check a few boxes. I could always come back to that first one later, couldn’t I?
Sure I could. But it was IMPORTANT, remember?
It’s human nature sometimes to gravitate towards the path of least resistance, and I must confess, there were times I succumbed and skipped the doozy. And I always regretted it later.
But most of the time, I’ve taken on the doozy first. And I have Brother George to thank for it.
Who’s Brother George, you ask? He was my Accounting teacher in college. He helped me in a lot of ways because his class was just so darn tough.
He had a very strange way of administering his tests. He would arrange the questions from the hardest to the easiest. That’s not such a big deal, right? But here was the catch: You had to answer them in order, or you would not get any credit for those you answered correctly.
Yep, you HAD to do the first one first. The hardest one. Then, and only then, could you proceed to the easier questions.
Little did I know at the time that Brother George was not only teaching us about Intermediate Accounting, but giving us a critical leadership lesson, one that I use over and over again with my teammates:
Don’t Do Second Things First!
A team isn’t going to accomplish much if all they are taking on is the easy stuff. They may feel like they are being “successful” because a lot of boxes are being checked, but it’s an illusion. All they need to do is stare at their “To Do” lists, and see that doozy staring at them.
And that’s the good news in this story – most teams learn to prioritize well. What we really need to do is always staring us in the face, at the top of that list.
We just need to muster up the courage to do it. Or have a wonderful teacher like Brother George who instills it in us unknowingly.
(This post is dedicated to the late Brother George Malecek, my accounting teacher at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio – I wrote another piece about him and his remarkable teaching methods for Rosa Say’s blog back in 2006)