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Pick-Up Sticks and Next Actions

Pick-Up Sticks and Next Actions
Pick-up Sticks

    Pick-up sticks. You know the game. You drop 33 colored sticks in a pile and take turns trying to pick them up, one at a time, without disturbing any of the other sticks in the process. If you pick-up a stick successfully, you get another turn.

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    It sounds like a simple game. Pick up the most sticks, and you win. But there’s a twist, and the twist makes the game a perfect metaphor for how to approach your “next action” list. You see, all the different-colored sticks have different point values. And a few of the
    sticks are worth more than all the others combined. So the number of sticks you end up with actually means a lot less than does the value of the sticks you
    successfully pick up.

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    My sons (ages 7 and 5) are competitive, and the first time they played pick-up sticks, they immediately “got it.” After I dropped the 33 sticks in a pile, they went right after the three blue sticks (worth 400 points) and the sole black stick (worth 1,000 points), even though there were sixteen yellow sticks (2 points), eight red sticks (4 points), and five green
    sticks (40 points) that were easier to grab. Their strategy was simple and effective: go after the big fish first; get those blue and black sticks; score the most points; win!

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    Neither of my sons is a genius, yet both of them understand intuitively that victory depends upon snagging the scarce blue and black sticks first.

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    And achievement principles are devilishly similar. In our own game of “pick-up sticks” (where the sticks are “next actions” on our daily to-do lists), we are seduced by the temptation to spend time and energy trying to pick up numerous yellow and red sticks. We
    find it’s easier to stay busy with the yellows and reds and it feels good to be successful over and over again, even though “winning” might actually require completing a single, challenging, important next-action and not necessarily completing lots of next actions. Following through on a single important phone call at 8:45am is often worth more than all the
    emails, meetings, and calls that are made the rest of the day!

    Of course, all of us do need to “pick-up” the yellows and the reds on our next action lists when we’re in the right context to do so. These represent commitments that must be fulfilled, regardless of their apparent “point values.” However, we must learn from the way my two young sons play pick-up sticks and remember that, in the end, winning the game of
    achievement hinges on identifying and “picking-up” the blue and black sticks on your next action list, not putting them off until another day in favor of the busy-trap’s yellows and reds.

    Rob Crawford, a school administrator who loves baseball and acoustic guitars, writes on productivity, impact, and happiness at Crawdaddy Cove.

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    Last Updated on April 8, 2019

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    Unless you’re infinitely rich or prepared to rack up major debt, you need to budget your income. Setting limits on how much you are willing to spend helps control expenses. But what about your time? Do you budget your time or spend it carelessly?

    Deadlines are the chronological equivalent of a budget. By setting aside a portion of time to complete a task, goal or project in advance you avoid over-spending. Deadlines can be helpful but they can also be a source of frustration if set improperly. Here are some tips for making deadlines work:

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    1. Use Parkinson’s Law – Parkinson’s Law states that tasks expand to fill the time given to them. By setting a strict deadline in advance you can cut off this expansion and focus on what is most important.
    2. Timebox – Set small deadlines of 60-90 minutes to work on a specific task. After the time is up you finish. This cuts procrastinating and forces you to use your time wisely.
    3. 80/20 – The Pareto Principle suggests that 80% of the value is contained in 20% of the input. Apply this rule to projects to focus on that critical 20% first and fill out the other 80% if you still have time.
    4. Project VS Deadline – The more flexible your project, the stricter your deadline. If a task has relatively little flexibility in completion a softer deadline will keep you sane. If the task can grow easily, keep a tight deadline to prevent waste.
    5. Break it Down – Any deadline over one day should be broken down into smaller units. Long deadlines fail to motivate if they aren’t applied to manageable units.
    6. Hofstadter’s Law – Basically this law states that it always takes longer than you think. A rule I’ve heard in software development is to double the time you think you need. Then add six months. Be patient and give yourself ample time for complex projects.
    7. Backwards Planning – Set the deadline first and then decide how you will achieve it. This approach is great when choices are abundant and projects could go on indefinitely.
    8. Prototype – If you are attempting something new, test out smaller versions of a project to help you decide on a final deadline. Write a 10 page e-book before your 300 page novel or try to increase your income by 10% before aiming to double it.
    9. Find the Weak Link – Figure out what could ruin your plans and accomplish it first. Knowing the unknown can help you format your deadlines.
    10. No Robot Deadlines – Robots can work without sleep, relaxation or distractions. You aren’t a robot. Don’t schedule your deadline with the expectation you can work sixteen hour days to complete it. Deathmarches aren’t healthy.
    11. Get Feedback – Get a realistic picture from people working with you. Giving impossible deadlines to contractors or employees will only build resentment.
    12. Continuous Planning – If you use a backwards planning model, you need to constantly be updating plans to fit your deadline. This means making cuts, additions or refinements so the project will fit into the expected timeframe.
    13. Mark Excess Baggage – Identify areas of a task or project that will be ignored if time grows short. What e-mails will you have to delete if it takes too long to empty your inbox? What features will your product lack if you need a rapid finish?
    14. Review – For deadlines over a month long take a weekly review to track your progress. This will help you identify methods you can use to speed up work and help you plan more efficiently for the future.
    15. Find Shortcuts – Almost any task or project has shortcuts you can use to save time. Is there a premade library you can use instead of building your own functions? An autoresponder to answer similar e-mails? An expert you can call to help solve a problem?
    16. Churn then Polish – Set a strict deadline for basic completion and then set a more comfortable deadline to enhance and polish afterwards. Often churning out the basics of a task quickly will require no more polishing afterwards than doing it slowly.
    17. Reminders – Post reminders of your deadlines everywhere. Creating a sense of urgency with your deadlines is necessary to keep them from getting pushed aside by distractions.
    18. Forward Planning – Not mutually exclusive with backwards planning, this involves planning the details of a project out before setting a deadline. Great for achieving clarity about what you are trying to accomplish before making arbitrary time limits.
    19. Set a Timer – Get one that beeps. Somehow the countdown of a timer appears more realistic for a ninety minute timebox than just glancing at your clock.
    20. Write them Down – Any deadline over a few hours needs to be written down. Otherwise it is an inclination not a goal. Having written deadlines makes them more tangible than internal decisions alone.
    21. Cheap/Fast/Good – Ben Casnocha in My Start Up Life mentions that you can have only have two of the three. Pick two of the cheap/fast/good dimensions before starting a project to help you prioritize.
    22. Be Patient – Using a deadline may seem to be the complete opposite of patience. But being patient with inflexible tasks is necessary to focus on their completion. The paradox is that the more patient you are, the more you can focus. The more you can focus the quicker the results will come!

    Featured photo credit: Estée Janssens via unsplash.com

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