I often use the analogy of aircraft safety guidelines – you know, the ones that people don’t put their magazines or papers down for, as cabin crew diligently demonstrate how to ‘top-up’ a life jacket.
In workshops or at speaking events I tend to mention the bit about the oxygen mask – that one should place over one’s own mouth before attempting to help children. The idea being, presumably, that you need to stay alive for long enough to help them.
Sometimes, to be of most value, we have to choose to put ourselves before others – because what use is a clapped-out version of you or I?
When it comes to productivity, this can be a hard lesson to learn.
But picture this:
As evening fell on a Tuesday in a busy week, there was still vital prep to do for events later in the week.
And there was an email from Monday – not yet responded to – and which influenced someone else’s workload. More than 24 (or within usual ‘inbox-opening’ hours, what would become 36) hours later it felt that it’d be rude not to respond. But it required 10 minutes of travel research and making a decision.
This small task was started (not wanting to hold the sender up further) and the important prep pushed aside. Whereas the prep required more brainpower and creativity, the research task was small and straightforward.
The pull of ‘owing someone a response’ made it seem more ‘real’. But there was no real benefit – it all got done on the same evening. However, by doing the more thinking-intense task later as energy levels were falling, it took longer – over-running into what should have been at-home ‘downtime’.
So who did this decision serve? No-one especially. There’s a small degree of satisfaction from completing a task that influences another’s job.
But shouldn’t the thing that probably influences our own success come first?
Is it lack of self-discipline? Or is it the pull of serving someone else? Or is it knowing that the 10-minute task is out of the way and there’s one less thing weighing us down?
For any of us in danger of serving someone else with a quick response or fast fix – as opposed to tackling a meaty chunk of work to move ourselves along – it’s a habit worth acknowledging, surely?
If at risk of serving others before ourselves and the job allows for it, we can try these steps:
For each task, questioning whether it serves us (our primary work aims and sense of achievement), or someone else
Listing the day’s tasks in order of personal value
Before starting a task, asking why we’re doing it now – not least so it feels like we’ve chosen to do it rather than being caught up in the fast-moving cogs
Noting (if easily distracted, to one side out of peripheral vision) the tasks that ping into mind (or an inbox) and learning to live with them being there
Squeezing the noted tasks in-between big tasks
Rewarding the completion of a self-serving significant task with an hour of rattling off smaller ones
It can save time.
It can reduce mistakes when energy is applied to where we need it most.
It can help us to switch off and re-charge.
We gain a sense of command through pro-activity rather than reactivity.
The bonus of this process is that we might learn when some things matter more than we realised, and notice others that don’t seem to matter as much – in which case, perhaps it’s right to review why we do things in a certain order?
Perhaps we don’t do what’s good for us sometimes – like reading magazines and newspapers when cabin crew give life-saving instructions. And perhaps it seems uncomfortable to consider putting ourselves first.
But perhaps paying attention to what works for us makes more productive sense?