Last week, I had a perfect week planned out. I knew exactly how I’d spend each day, what my biggest priorities were, and how I would get it all done.
And then…almost none of it happened.
Why? Because on Tuesday, another big project came up and I had to shift my focus to that. It ended up taking the rest of the week, and everything else got pushed to the back.
How often has this happened to you?
You set a goal or plan a project, and then for whatever reason, it doesn’t happen. How can you tell whether you were simply being agile and adaptable to new information, or whether you just failed to meet your goal? Were you being smart, or were you just getting distracted?
It’s not always easy to tell. So this week, here is a guide to making the decision of when to change your plans or goals — and how to know when you’re doing it for the right reasons.
Plans change all the time
Missing a goal or target can feel like a failure. But it isn’t always.
The difference between success and failure is hard to see on a week-to-week timeline. Consistency and meeting your goals overall is what will determine your success. But day-to-day, we all have to make decisions to change course or not finish something.
The real thing that matters is the why behind your change.
Let’s say you need to write a blog post this week. There are lots of reasons why that might end up not happening.
- Maybe your boss comes to you and says, “I really need to you to this other project asap” and that new project ends up taking days to complete.
- Or maybe you just really don’t feel like writing your blog post. Maybe you procrastinate, or find other things to do that “feel like work” like answering emails or working on a lower priority assignment that you like better, and suddenly the week is over and you haven’t written your post yet.
These two scenarios are very different.
In the first one, you are making a deliberate choice. You get new information about a higher priority project, and smartly, you shift your focus to get the higher priority work done. You are choosing to refocus your plan to keep applying your work in the most impactful way; it just so happens that something more impactful has come up than what you had originally planned.
In the second one, you let yourself get distracted. You made a passive choice, not based on priorities or the value of your work, but on what you felt like doing instead.
Small fires vs. distractions
Another huge reason why we don’t get things done is because of other people. Especially when you’re a manager, it can feel like your whole day is spent getting interrupted and spending time on things you never could have planned for.
But you have a choice of which small fires are worth your time and which ones aren’t.
When someone brings something urgent to your desk, it can be hard to make a decision right in that moment whether or not it is important. It almost always *seems* important, since this other person clearly thought it was important enough to bring to your attention. And so we usually opt to just jump in and help out with whatever this person has brought.
But when you already know exactly what is important for you to work on, then you have a framework in place already in your mind that will tell you whether or not this fire is worth your time to put out.
If it is, then you can shift your schedule and prioritize this emergency. And if it’s not, you can confidently tell the other person why you can’t get involved, and instead offer them other resources or people for whom this would be an important use of their time.
So how do you decide which fires are worth your time or not, in the moment? Well, that comes from knowing exactly what is important for you to work on, every month, week, and day.
How to know whether you’re getting distracted or being flexible
When you’re making decisions in the moment, it can be really challenging to tell the difference between a distraction and a new priority. That’s why, first and foremost, you have to have a good grasp on the biggest keys to your success at work and in your life.
- Write your yearly goals down. Where do you want to be by this time next year? Getting specific about what you want is the only way to be sure you get there. Without goals, it’s hard to know if you’re making progress or even to know where you want to go. Sure, we all want to be more happy and successful. But what does that mean to you? Write it down so you can work towards it.
- Check in with them every 6 months. A lot of things can happen in a year. That’s why you should check in with your yearly goals every quarter or at least every 6 months. You might find that your goals need to change slightly, or you need to rethink how you’re spending your time to make sure that you are still on track to achieve your original goal.
- Set a monthly goal. Until recently, I just flew by the seat of my pants and managed to get everything done. However, when you have a lot on your plate and not enough time for everything, you have to be able to prioritize based on what is most important. Setting a monthly goal gives you something to make decisions against. And thinking about your goals every months forces you to be more deliberate about your time and making progress towards your yearly goals.
- Check in with it every week. As you plot out your schedule every week, make sure your monthly goal is in mind. This will help you make good choices about what needs to happen and when
These big picture goals set expectations. So even if you aren’t making measurable progress on these goals every single day, they are part of your plans. You know in the back of your mind that overall this is what you are working towards.
So once you’re getting on track in the big picture, you can start figuring out how to make good decisions in the moment when new things come up.
Your plans will never go completely uninterrupted. So instead of driving yourself crazy trying to avoid all new information or ideas until you get your to-do list done, you need a strategy for determining how you’ll process the new projects that come across your plate.
To determine whether something is a worthwhile deviation from the plan or just a distraction, ask yourself these questions:
- How does this task fit in with my yearly goals?
- How does this fit with my monthly goals?
- Am I uniquely suited to make a high impact if I get involved in this?
- Does the addition of my work or input add a lot of value?
- Will I gain a lot of value from this? Will I learn something that will help move my biggest goals or priorities forward?
- If my boss saw what I was working on, would they agree that it was the best use of my time?
Still not sure you can prioritize on the fly?
If you’re still not clear on what things should be your highest priority every month or year, it’s time to have a chat with your manager.
I did this at Popforms and it completely changed the way I worked. KateM and I sat down and literally made a list of the top 8 most important things in my role, in order of importance. And you would not believe how valuable that list has been, over and over again.
When I am choosing what to work on, I just look at where it ranks on the list. If it’s not high up or isn’t a good use of my biggest strengths, then it might not be the best use of my time.
And when in doubt, ask. “I just had ____ come up, and it wasn’t on my schedule for this week. Is this something I should prioritize over the other things I had planned, or are there other things I should focus on first?”
It never hurts to be crystal clear at work. Your time is limited, and it is worth being spent the right way.