Someone on LinkedIn suggested we write a letter to our 22-year old selves, with the things we know now that we wish we knew at that age. The expectation was that new graduates, just starting out their careers, would benefit from that perspective. I’m not sure how many 22-year olds have LinkedIn accounts, but I’m pretty sure that good advice will be shared. So, with that in mind, here’s the best advice I can give:
Make a List
Every day brings things that must be done, that should be done, and that you simply want to do. Capture them in a list, and work your list. Those who accumulate responsibilities, whether family, career, or community, also accumulate things to do. Develop the habit of maintaining lists of things to do, and you’ll be better prepared to fulfill those responsibilities.
You can’t please everyone, and you shouldn’t try. You can’t do everything, and you need to have realistic expectations. Once you have your list, prioritize it. Work your list in priority order, and be ruthless about it. The term triage refers to the military practice of prioritizing medical treatment of the wounded by putting them into three groups: those will live, whether they receive immediate treatment or not, those who will not survive, given the available treatment, and those for whom treatment means the difference between life and death. I’m not suggesting that your to-do list should be seen as a matter of life or death, but you should internalize what the term means. And when you have difficult conflicts to resolve, remember that battlefield medico, who has to make those choices and then live with them.
Early humans had only two specialties: hunter and gatherer. These days, nearly everyone has some specialized way of making a living, using tools and techniques the average person isn’t exposed to. Our economy is based on trading for goods and services provided by others; in other words, delegating. You should be prepared to delegate items on your to-do list to others, who are either better at them, have available time, or simply need the experience. That’s how you’ll get the experience you’ll put on your resume. But follow up on whatever you delegate, to be sure that it was done to the quality level you expected – you delegate work, but not accountability.
As you delegate or complete a task, mark it as such. But when you do, glance at the items near the bottom of the list. You won’t get to everything, unless you have a short list and lots of time. Give yourself permission to cross off the ones you won’t get to. Economists talk about opportunity cost, which is the “cost” incurred by not enjoying the benefit that would realized by taking the second best choice available. If this task is at the bottom of your list, I would suggest that it isn’t the second best choice. There is value in the work deliberately not done, in that you free up time to do more valuable work.
The satisfaction you get from completing a task and crossing it off your list is, for many of us, part of the reason we take on difficult tasks. Don’t just grind things out – take time to look back on what you’ve accomplished. Remind yourself that you’re on a journey, and that, for the moment, you are in control. Those moments are fleeting; don’t let them pass without notice.
I’ll close with a phrase borrowed from Star Trek: Live long and prosper. The expression is not merely an eccentric way to say goodbye; it is a mandate and a responsibility. How well you fulfill that responsibility will determine the satisfaction you’ll get a few decades from now, when you sit down to compose a similar missive to your younger self.