Thanks to our internal wiring, human beings favor the path of least resistance. That makes sense for many reasons. For one, it’s a survival mechanism: of course you’re going to grab the food that’s easiest to get. At the same time, we humans also hate to deal with repetitive problems. Think about the inspiration for the washing machine. Hand-washing your clothes is a hard and cumbersome task – so it makes sense that we would be driven to find a solution that would eliminate that task by inventing something that could automate the process.
But sometimes our drive to take the easy route can backfire on us – especially in the workplace. Think about the last big, complicated project you were involved with. Which tasks did you tackle first? If you’re like most people, you may have knocked out a few of the easy ones – the low-hanging fruit that you could quickly finish and that allowed you to feel a sense of accomplishment.
Far fewer people would say they went after the harder tasks first because, well, they’re harder to do.
When we think about “harder” tasks, it might include something you’ve never done before or something you don’t know how to do. Or, it could even be something you’ve struggled with in the past, which is why you might want to put off working on it to tackle something easier instead.
But when we go after the easiest tasks first, it can be less workable.
Uncovering Unanticipated Hurdles Earlier
Doing the harder things first means you are more likely to find unexpected hurdles earlier in the project. Finding hurdles earlier then means you have more time to deal with them before missing a deadline.
Let’s think about an example where you have a project that is due within a week. Let’s say it involves completing seven separate tasks, five of which are easy ones and two that are difficult. Now if you spend the first few days knocking out the easy tasks, you might feel like you’ve made some good progress toward your goal. But, you’ve also pushed out the most challenging tasks to the last minute. What happens, then, if those tasks take longer to do than you’ve allowed yourself time to complete them? What if you’ve suddenly realized that the task you left for last will actually take you two, three, or even four days to complete? You’ve just increased the risk that you’re going to miss your deadline. You’ve also taken away all the time you may have used to overcome an unanticipated hurdle.
In a nutshell, that’s why always going for the easy tasks first isn’t always workable. If you go for the harder work first, on the other hand, you can greatly increase the likelihood of your project finishing on time and on budget.
Going after the harder stuff first also increases the likelihood that you will finish the project. Many projects get abandoned precisely because when you do the easy stuff first, it can seem too daunting to continue once you need to move on to a more challenging task.
This happens as a result of a defective cost-benefit analysis. You looked at the benefits of the project but only weighed it against the first task. But when you realize the cost of doing the more difficult tasks (time, money, etc.), you abandon the project – which turns everything you have done so far into waste.
Let’s use another example, say something like reading a book. The easiest task when it comes to reading is buying the book: it could be as easy as a few clicks on your computer. The much harder part, of course, is making the time to actually read and process the contents of that book you bought. But there are so many good books out there filled with so many good ideas. It can be easy to find yourself clicking away and ordering a bunch of books that soon line your shelves – only you still haven’t made time to read any of them. That, too, just isn’t workable over the long haul.
Now, I understand that there actually might be times when you do need to abandon a project or a book. But what I’ve learned is that it pays to be very intentional about the projects that we even start by doing a more complete cost-benefit analysis up front.
One way to force yourself to do a better cost-benefit analysis is to do the harder stuff first.
In this case, you might want to consider doing the harder task first (reading a book you already own) before tackling another easy task (buying a book). After all, you’re only wasting your resources (the money you keep spending on books) and opportunities to learn something new (because you haven’t made time to read).
There’s nothing wrong with not reading a book. But wouldn’t it be nice to save yourself the money you spent on all those unread books, let alone all the extra clutter they’re causing?
Bigger Projects / Bigger Savings
This approach can pay off in even bigger ways when it comes to bigger projects.
At ITX, for example, we’ve found that it pays huge dividends to break up the more difficult tasks in a project into more manageable chunks as a way to make it easier to do the harder things first.
Let’s say we have a large project that will involve importing a whole series of files into a system. The hard part is building the software routine that will automate the process. After that, the job is easy: you just run the routine until all the files are imported. In this case, you have to do the hard task first. But it might also make sense to look for any other harder tasks involved with the project before you move on to running the easy automated ones.
By doing that, we then eliminate much of the risk that the project will go over budget or, give us a better chance to assess early on if it’s something we want to abandon.
In the end, you’ll find that by doing the harder tasks first almost always creates workability. And this added workability can save time, money, and headaches for you and anyone counting on you to deliver.