In our workshops and keynotes, we often talk about the concept of having our best day, every day, without burning out. People laugh at us when we give them this concept to think about. I mean, it sounds exhausting just contemplating it. But when we look at the obstacles that stop us from making this strange notion a reality, we start to see opportunity to work better, live better and get more done in the process.
One of the clear things that stop us from living a great day is the concept of infinite tasks and how they take control of our lives (usually at work) and stop us from doing other things that might contribute to our ‘best day.’ Furthermore, infinite tasks destroy our sense of achievement and progress and they consume us – especially if we like them and they make us feel important. So, what are Infinite Tasks?
By definition, these are tasks with no end. Think about it – for most people work itself is an infinite task. If you sat at your desk for the next five days straight, there is a chance you would still NOT get all the things done that you would like to get done. If you are in a job that relies on information, knowledge and constant improvement, then work has no end. If you’re self-employed or completely autonomous, then chances are this is even worse.
Now, within work itself there are a whole bunch of smaller infinite tasks (which is why work as a whole is infinite) – think about business development, team development, coaching people, learning, marketing…. The list is varied, but there are so many aspects of work that technically don’t have an ‘end.’
Then we have what we might term Semi-Infinite tasks – things like big projects and other assignments that might tend to drag on and on with no immediate end in sight.
Infinite Tasks, Finite Tasks and Satisfaction
Think about the things that often get your attention – things that get in the way of doing those big projects or devoting time to long-term goals. The things that get in the way are things like email, immediate tasks and putting out ‘fires.’ These things are what we call Finite Tasks – they have an immediate end in sight, and we can see when we have checked them off our list. Finite Tasks tend to get our attention because they give us a sense of accomplishment, a sense of progress and maybe even a little reward of dopamine when we get to cross them off our to do list or get someone off our back.
Because Infinite Tasks don’t have these same rewards and motivators built in, sometimes we don’t get started on them (like big projects) and other times we just keep working and working on them because we are constantly seeking that sense of satisfaction (like general Infinite Tasks at work). We might work until late at night, or get a ‘head start’ early in the morning, because we are chasing something that isn’t there- the end. And because of this, work consumes so many people.
Turning the Infinite into Finite
We often say that work life balance starts with work. More specifically, work life balance starts with you deciding where the end of the workday exists. If you’re lucky enough to have a workday that ends at a specific time, then lucky you. But if you’re more self-driven and autonomous in your role, or you’re a manager or knowledge worker, then you probably aren’t as rigid about when your workday ends. So, you need to decide where it is going to end, otherwise those Infinite Tasks will consume you.
And rather than set a time to finish, set an outcome goal based on what you would like to complete that day.
At the start of the day, simply ask this question: What would be reasonable to achieve today? Given all of your meetings, a lunch break and other commitments away from your desk, what could you realistically get done. This seems like a simple question, but so many people struggle to answer this succinctly. To do this well, you need to turn your Infinite Tasks into a multitude of Finite Tasks.
Instead of saying “I have to work on this marketing project” (Infinite Task), be more specific and say “I need to complete the research section of this marketing document” (Finite Task). Or instead of saying “I need to do some business development” (Infinite Task), maybe say “I need to call back those 15 prospects” (Finite Task).
We suggest making each Finite Task within your bigger projects anywhere between 10 minutes and 30 minutes in estimated task time. When you break things down to this small level of accomplishment, you find that you are willing to devote time to the big picture tasks even if you only have a half hour. You will also find that you get a small sense of accomplishment and achievement every time to check one of those small things off your list.
But most importantly, it gives you a benchmark to have a great day. If you know that a great day looks like getting these Finite Tasks completed, then you can fulfil your ideal for that day. And the beauty of this is that each and every day you can close the book on that day, having completed everything that you need to, and go home with the ability to pay attention to other parts of your life.
** Tony Wilson is a Workplace Performance Expert focussed on helping leaders build the environment for high performance. His insights into performance science and it's application in the workplace will make you re-think the way that you approach leadership, culture change, high performance and productivity. Tony has an MBA and a BSc majoring in physiology and combines the two for a different perspective. He is also the author of Jack and the Team that Couldn't See and delivers workshops and keynote presentations around the globe.