When it comes to improving time management, the advice I hear most often is to avoid “shiny objects.” People tend to lose their focus and get behind on their core projects because they get distracted by stuff that “shines” – that is, seems more interesting than the boring but essential task at hand. Resist that temptation and you’ll be more efficient.

Shiny objects is a great metaphor, but I recently heard another one I like even more: squirrels.

Squirrels are those small, urgent tasks that fill up your day. They aren’t shiny. In fact, you may hate them as much as I hate the real-life squirrels that chewed up my garden furniture. But they’re always running around, chattering that they absolutely positively MUST get done.

Any one squirrel isn’t likely to throw you off deadline for the major strategic project you’re working on. But if you’ve got a lot of squirrels chasing you, they’ll take you down.

So the solution is simple, right? Postpone squirrel projects until you get your primary task done. There are two problems with that:

  1. Squirrels multiply quickly. If you ignore enough small problems today you could end up with a whole bunch more tomorrow
  2. Very often it’s your boss who’s throwing squirrels at you. What are you going to do, ignore your boss?

You can’t turn your back on squirrels. But you need a squirrel-management plan. Pregnant squirrels — the ones that are on the verge of producing a litter of new problems — have to be dealt with right away. For the others, maybe you need a squirrel-wrangling day. And maybe some will go bother someone else if you do ignore them (with your boss’s permission, of course).

The point is, we all have squirrels to deal with. But we need to deal with them on our own terms. If you let the squirrels set the agenda, it’s going to be squirrels all day and every day — and you’ll never get to the stuff that matters most.

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