I’ve always been easily distracted.
You know my type. I could be running the race of my life and stop 10 feet from the finish line to pick up a shiny penny.
These weekly columns take more time than they should because I’m always going back to the beginning to remind myself what I’m writing about.
Wait a minute. I write a weekly column? When did this happen?
A couple of months ago, I was standing at my office idea board — a large section of my office wall I coated with thick whiteboard paint. It comes in handy for quick notes, sketching out plots or jotting down personal reminders.
There I stood, lost in a bulleted to-do list with more line items than the federal budget. Feeling overwhelmed, I scribbled to the side of the list: “What is the most important thing?”
I re-read my list and asked myself again: “What is the single most important thing I could be doing right now to advance my responsibilities, my goals and my day?”
After another moment, I erased the question and wrote in big block letters the acronym: WITMIT.
What is the most important thing?
I sat back down and decided to tackle a project I’d avoided for far too long. It had been the single most important thing I’d needed to do for two weeks, but I’d delayed the pain by convincing myself everything on the list was equally important.
And who am I to discriminate one task from another? I believe in equal rights for all procrastination.
When I was done with the dreaded task, I glanced back at my whiteboard and thought, "Way to knock out that WITMIT."
The experience prompted me to consider the time-management systems I’ve used over the years and the countless books I’ve read on personal productivity. Some of those approaches worked pretty well, right until I saw a shiny penny.
Sometimes the distractions are email, social media or a request from a reader to sign and mail a book. All might be worthwhile tasks and may, in fact, be quite important. But are they the absolute most important thing I should be doing in that very moment?
How many times have I found myself looking at my clock at 5 p.m. and rushing to finish the one thing that was most important for me to accomplish during the course of the day? Before I know it, I’m texting my wife to negotiate for a few more minutes.
But it’s not her fault I spent the day sorting through less important tasks and procrastinating the WITMIT until the whistle blew. If I had a nickel for every time I walked in the door at dinnertime to find my family waiting for me at the table, I’d have so much money I probably wouldn't be so distracted by all those shiny pennies.
Could the WITMIT experiment work for you?
When you’re done reading this column, take time to examine your day. What are the things you positively must accomplish before you tuck in the day and kiss it goodnight? Do you have an email to send, an errand to run or a client to call?
Ask yourself after completing each task, “What is the most important thing for me to be doing next?”
Maybe you spent the morning working on an important business proposal and your brain needs a break. Take a breather and reply to a note from the old friend you haven't heard from in months. An hour ago it wasn’t your WITMIT, but now it is.
Perhaps you need a moment to decompress after a stressful meeting by visiting Facebook and scrolling through your newsfeed. Did you survive a trip to Costco with a mini-van full of kids? You might deserve more than a moment online, your WITMIT might be to hug the DVR and catch up on “Downton Abbey.”
Has it been too long since you’ve taken your spouse to lunch or volunteered at your child’s school? If so, you may find either of those activities should become your WITMIT for the afternoon.
Imagine how productive we’d all feel every day if by lunchtime we’d knocked out those items that kept us awake the night before. Was it that letter to the IRS? What about that awkward discussion with your boss? Could it be an apology? If so, especially to a spouse or child, it should always be your WITMIT.
Sometimes our projects are multi-step hikes through an organizational jungle that will take days, weeks or even longer. Still, we should ask ourselves: What are the most important steps I can take on that trail today that lead me to a successful end?
My objective with my own WITMIT experiment is to accomplish more of the important things earlier in the day so that by quitting time, my WITMIT will always lead me home.
You may have a time-management system and tools for personal productivity that work for you. If so, keep it up! You’re ahead of the game. But if you’ve struggled to find consistency, give WITMIT a try by identifying the single most important task at any given moment.
So, what’s the most important thing I should be doing right now? I can send this column to my editor and call home to check on a child who’s been ill this week.
What comes after that?
What's the next WITMIT?
Is that a penny?
Jason F. Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars," "The Wednesday Letters," and "The 96th Annual Apple Valley Barn Dance." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or jasonfwright.com.