The Five-Minute Chase

Here’s the start of a fairly common conversation:

Me:  “Is it done yet?”
Him:  “No”
Me:    “It was a five-minute task. It’s been a week. Why isn’t it done?”
Him:   – Insert blank stare here –

We can file this as another life lesson I learned the hard way. I had the exact same blank stare when my Chief asked the same question. I can’t remember what it was, the simple task I’d put off really isn’t important. It never is when you’re looking for some answer that doesn’t make you look and feel like a fool. Up until that day, I’d never had this problem. There was always plenty of time. Maybe I’d just never been challenged and held accountable. Finally, probably a little later than necessary, my feet were to the fire.

So, how could a five-minute task take two weeks?

– I knew what needed to be done

– It wasn’t too hard. As usual, it was probably some small clerical need.

– I probably had a full ten or fifteen minutes of free time every day of the week.

How often do we find ourselves in this exact situation? I’ve done it more times than I care to count, and more recently than I’d like to admit. Tell me if this logic sounds familiar:

That task will only take five minutes. And yes, I have five minutes now, but I’d rather do, well, not that. Besides, I have these five minutes now, but I’ll also have another five minutes later.

And thus begins the five-minute chase.

I’ve said to myself a number of times that I’d have minutes later to do some small clerical update. Unfortunately, that spare moment never came back, and I chased those five minutes for months. 
And yes, five minutes not put to those small tasks can really get you chasing your tail, but it’s not a single five minutes, it’s a habit of not using the time you have effectively.

It’s a bad habit, but we all do it. I don’t want to call it procrastination. I’d rather say that we focus more on the big complicated stuff and underestimate the simple tasks. More often than not, I realized I was too far behind the power curve about five minutes before the boss came calling for whatever it was, but those five minutes don’t count. Those five minutes are reserved for panic, flailing, and some kicking myself for letting something so simple not be done in time.

But, the big project that needed all our attention got done. Doesn’t that count?

No. No it doesn’t.

The big two-month project is important, but it’s new. The five-minute tasks are usually about maintaining what we already have going, and if you don’t do those routine processes, they will sooner or later become a mess. That five-minute chase quickly turns into an hour of backtracking to get everything in order, then we promise ourselves we’ll never let that job slip by again.

After that, we have a chance to take a break. Oh, but what about that other tracker that needs updating? It won’t take long. As a matter of fact, if I got to it right now, I could probably get it done. You know what? I’ll take this short break, just five minutes.

And five minutes later, the boss came in with some distraction, and you didn’t spend those five minutes on what you had in mind. Worse, that task is now out of sight, out of mind, and, well, you know the rest.

This is a lot like a snooze button for productivity. Just five minutes for _________. Fill in the blank with your favorite. Mine is coffee.

I learned a valuable lesson on sea duty, but it took quite a while because I’m a bit of a slow learner. It’s not just that tomorrow isn’t promised, which is true, but the minutes in the day as well. Those five minutes aren’t promised, and if you don’t use the time you have for the little things, they’ll turn into big things. We’ve heard the analogy about big rocks, little rocks, and sand. I’m talking about the sand here, the things you don’t put first, the ones that no one knows need to be done until they’re not.

Make some time in your day to do the little things, and tell yourself that you can work just five more minutes. For us in the military, that’s easy. There are always five more minutes to work, there’s no clock to punch. If we want to pull an all-nighter, it’s all good. Overtime is always authorized.

In the civilian world, those who aren’t salaried don’t have that luxury. The workday will end at the same time, on time, so use your time effectively. Stop chasing those five minutes from one day to the next. Trust me, you’ll never catch them. Once I figured this out, I became pretty darn successful.

– What habits do you have to keep focused and on track with the small stuff, the five and ten-minute tasks?

And on the flip side:

– What if you’re the person needing those five-minute jobs done?

– What tools or practices are successful in motivating your personnel to complete those tasks?

Have a  great week out there.

– JT

James Tinker

About James Tinker

James was born and raised in Bangor, and left home at 18 for the Navy. Twenty-five years later, he retired as highest enlisted rank on a warship in San Diego. His popular blog series, The Day Job, shares personal and professional lessons learned through his career.