I often use the phrase “the crux of the issue,” and when I do I’m referring to the point or points upon which success or failure rests. It’s important to resist the temptation to get sidetracked by peripheral issues that cannot yield a payoff no matter what their outcome.
For example, I believe that the reason so many people are late for appointments is that they compulsively get sidetracked working on projects that are not time sensitive — i.e., things that have nothing to do with the objective of getting themselves out the door and on the way to their destination. Twitter is not going to disappear if you wait until you return from your appointment to send out one more tweet.
To ward off this problem, I’ve developed the habit of asking myself, “How important is the project I’m working on?” or “How important is the task I’m about to do before moving on to more important things?” Taking it to its logical extreme, an even better question is, “Does this project have to be done at all?” A task may be interesting, it may be fascinating, it may even add value to my life, but whether it warrants an investment of my time is the real issue.
Which points to the conclusion that the quickest way to finish a project is to simply cross it off your “to do” list. Does that sound like a vote for inaction? Not at all. On the contrary, it’s a vote to take action — action that focuses on the highest-priority project in your life at any given time. That means refusing to allow yourself to become a slave to noncrucial matters.
All day long, you make choices either to do what is most important at any given moment or do something that is of lesser importance. If you’re gainfully employed, you know all too well that there are not enough hours in a day to do everything that needs to be done. That’s why it makes good sense to spend as little time as possible on projects that aren’t crucial to accomplishing your main objective.
In this regard, people often confuse the means with the end. Did you ever grind away at a project for hours, then look up and ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” More often than not, the reason is that you got caught up in trying to make the details perfect, and in the process lost sight of your original objective.
Don’t allow yourself to become enslaved by the obsession to try to make everything perfect, because perfect is an enemy of action. It may be difficult for perfectionists (like me) to swallow, but I’ve learned the hard way that it’s better to do a subpar job working on the right project than a great job working on the wrong project.
When it comes to focusing on the crux of the issue, it also helps to have the self-discipline to concentrate on doing what you do best and let others do the rest. In our zeal to maintain control, it’s easy to forget that we live in a division-of-labor society wherein it not only isn’t necessary to do everything yourself, but it isn’t even necessary to understand how something works in order to use it.
You don’t need an intricate knowledge of computers to surf the Internet. You don’t need to understand how television signals are transmitted to use a television set. Ditto with cars, copying machines, smart phones, and just about everything else you use in your day-to-day life.
Time spent working on projects that don’t take advantage of your best talents is time inefficiently used. The common term is delegation — parceling out jobs to others, whether those others be employees or outside people you pay to do the work.
Delegation makes it easier for you to spend more of your time on the crux of the issue, and at the heart of good delegation is the willingness to let go. Most people make the mistake of trying to battle their deficiencies; instead, they should contract out their deficiencies and nurture their skills.
It usually will cost you a lot more in wasted time not to pay for someone else’s services than it will to do something yourself for which you aren’t qualified. A perfect example of this is the millions of people who have but a smattering of knowledge of computers, yet insist on trying to solve their computer problems through trial and error rather than paying a qualified technician to do the job. (The problem of actually finding a qualified technician who isn’t an arrogant twit is another issue altogether.)
Focusing on the crux of the issue is not really a complicated proposition: The more time you spend taking action on low-priority projects, the less time you have to take action on high-priority projects. A good way to look at it is that one of the most important ways in which the successful person differs from the unsuccessful person is that he has the self-discipline to consistently do the things that need to be done in order to achieve his principal objective, while the unsuccessful person tends to work on lower-priority projects far too much of the time.
The good news is that you have free will, which means you have the power to choose, and you can never go wrong by choosing to focus on the crux of the issue.