“As we all know, it’s easier to do trivial things that are urgent than it is to do important things that are not urgent.”— John Cleese

While I was in Ireland, one of the stops we made was at the Guinness brewery. One of the delights of the stop was being professionally trained on how to pour the perfect beer from the tap.

One of the key tricks was that you could let the suds run over the edge of the glass. In fact, letting the suds run over was encouraged to make more room for the Guinness. There was an essential caveat to this process. One must never let the liquid beer spill over the edge.

Too many people miss this in their personal planning process. They take on many more projects and commitments than it is possible to complete in the time they have available. Imagine for a minute that the tasks people are taking on are a combination of figurative suds and beer. The beer is the most important value. The suds are the noise or the less valuable projects. The suds may seem urgent at the time, but they are just foam at the end of the year.

The problem for these overcommitted people is that their level of overcommitment doesn’t allow time to sort out the suds from the beer. Beer is constantly spilling onto their floors as they miss what the important projects really are.

The following are three critical steps to help you overcome your overcommitment habits.

  • Estimate the work you are taking on. This is really quite easy to do, although most people complain that it is impossible. Use your previous experience to look realistically at the maximum time the task might take and with that starting point think about the most likely amount of time it will take. You don’t know all the details but you can make educated guesses.  Add up all your quesses.
  • Estimate the actual capacity you have to do that work. Look at your days, weeks, and upcoming months.  Meetings and other overhead already consume how much time in a day?  What major events are coming up that prevent you from doing your project work?  How much time is left?  It is a rare person who finds they have more than 25 hours in a week for doing focused, non-interrupted project work.
  • Learn to say “later” if you can’t say no.  Most people who are overcommitted are surrounded by people who are practicing the same habit of beer spilling. People find it difficult to be very different from those around them. Once you know your capacity, you don’t need to always say “no”, but you can be kind enough to let people know when you will really get it done. Learn to say “later.”

I am certified to pour the perfect glass of beer. I know which suds I can let spill on the floor. I treat my most important projects as sacredly as the glasses of Guinness I learned to pour. Do you?

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,

Alan Willett

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