In 2006 I was in a serious accident. The cause was my stubbornness and some ruts dried into a crushed limestone bicycle path. I was an avid cyclist, often riding to work two or three times a week. The limestone path was part of my route home, the stubbornness part of my numerous character defects. On that spring day, as I rode across the dried ruts, the U-shaped lock hanging from my handlebars bounced over the crossbar on my bike.
I recently had dinner with a friend who asked, “What’s the best advice you have ever received?”
Without drawing a breath, I said the words I had heard from my father hundreds of times when we were on our way out the door, “Bring a hat. And some water.” My friend and I shared a laugh at this, and then he persisted. His question got me thinking.
Throughout my life, I have acquired dozens of simple tools to help me decide what to do with my time and, once those decisions are made, how to prioritize, organize, and accomplish whatever it is I choose to do. I plan to tackle some of these ideas this year and use some illustrations and examples of how they have helped me find some balance, some fulfillment, and some utility in my life.
To that end, one of the best suggestions I ever received also came from my father, who told me, “If it is worth doing, it is worth doing right.” I recognize he was not the first person to say this. He was, however, the first person to say it to me. It is one of the first pieces of advice I recall receiving.
There are two halves to this equation. It is a simple “if, then” statement. Here’s how I have learned to break down those two halves.
“If it is worth doing ….”
How do I determine if something is worth doing (at least when my father is not there to tell me)? I feel that I tackle what needs doing most of the time, especially what seems like it needs doing right now. Other times I choose something to distract me or entertain me. When I act on either of those impulses—when I must react to the immediate or opt to do what feels good at the time—I often feel less than fulfilled. I feel more satisfied when I spend that time pursuing something that I deem essential and affect. In other words, something that is worth doing.
Decisions on how to spend time can be profound. Time is a limited resource. I have to be diligent with how I spend it. I keep reminders around to bring me back to this valuable idea of what is “worth doing.”
Here is a simple diagram that helps me determine how I spend my time when I am at my best. Of course, I forget, get distracted, get pulled in other directions, and get hooked by emotions and desires. This Venn diagram can help me get back on track when my clear thinking returns.
There is no shortage of things I can do. When I filter those things down to what I decide is important (family, work, relationships, etc.), the list becomes much more manageable. I can then examine these things, evaluate what I might have influence over, and choose activities worth doing. That little overlap of “important things” and “things I can change” has helped me find a lot of fulfilling work, enrich my life, and point me in a positive direction.
Before this orientation, I once spent 10 hours researching running shoes. Now, I run a lot, but by no means am I a fanatic. For a runner like me (healthy legs and feet, slow but steady, non-competitive, etc.), the subtle differences among the brands and the models don’t mean too much. And yet, I spent over a workday on research. Am I happy with the results? Sure, but could I have flipped a coin or spun a wheel in a few moments to make the decision and been just as happy. That is very likely. That is most likely as long as I chose some known brands and models.
With those 9+ hours I saved, I could have run 9+ times, taken nine naps, practiced a hobby or passion, helped a friend, volunteered, etc. Would those pursuits have brought me more fulfillment? In my experience, the answer is “yes.” Of course, with a coin flip, I could have ended up with a pair of shoes that were terrible for me, but with a bit of guidance (like asking a knowledgeable agent at a running store), I could have found good to excellent shoes and still saved 7+ hours. I need to remind myself to spend my time on things worth doing. I get to make those choices most of the time.
“… it is worth doing right.”
This one is a double-edged sword for me. I tend to either slap together a makeshift solution to get on to the next item on the list of “things that need doing,” OR I spend way too much time tinkering with the parts of the project that make me feel good. When working with and for others, defining “doing it right” is extremely important. “Doing it right” can cover a wide range of outcomes, a range that is different for everyone and can change for the same person at other times.
I don’t know what is right for you unless we talk about it. You don’t know what’s right for me unless we do the same. Here is a tool I use for business decisions.
“Doing it right” is often defined by a constraint (quality, time, or money). That constraint is the one described most important among these three. It is called the Iron Triangle, or the Triple Constraint. Many of the misunderstandings in my professional life can be traced directly to poorly defined expectations around these constraints. People want all three, but determining the most important of these constraints can go a long way in helping you to “do it right.” It helps in setting the proper expectations.
I had a former manager who drew it up on a whiteboard and told me I could pick any two:
I could choose:
- Good and fast, but it would not be cheap. OR,
- Fast and cheap, but it would not be good. OR,
- Cheap and good, but it would not be fast.
I asked her what was in the middle of the diagram? She said, “Perpetual motion machines, unicorns, great white buffalos, Moby Dick, and The Holy Grail. Also, your bonus.”
The process can be run another way. For example, the project must be _____ (pick one, then one other):
- If you also want it CHEAP, it will likely be less than beautiful (GOOD).
- If you want it beautiful (GOOD), it will be expensive (not CHEAP).
- If you also want it CHEAP, it will likely take time (not FAST).
- If you also want it FAST, it will be expensive (not CHEAP)
- If you want it beautiful (GOOD), it will likely take time (not FAST).
- If you also want it FAST, it will be expensive (not CHEAP)
Different situations will call for other tactics. FAST will be your best option if there is a hole in your lifeboat and it’s sinking. If you have an opportunity to meet your snooty father-in-law for dinner, GOOD likely makes the most sense. If your budget is the constraint, CHEAP will drive your options (get the first-year apprentice to work on your patio project throughout the summer).
I valued speed over quality over price as a child and young man. So “doing it right” for me was “DONE!” and on to the next thing. My father’s orientation was (and is) quality over price over speed. This difference in perspective led to a few heated discussions, especially since we did not know about the Iron Triangle at the time. We do better now because I have the experience to know his general orientation, and I have the tools to ask what he’s looking for in a project.
I believe that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right. I also now understand that I get to choose what’s worth doing for me—and I get help defining that for Keson and SOLA. I am also grateful to be surrounded by experts who can help me “do it right” and navigate the Iron Triangle.