What's your problem?

I'd like to try to improve the way I work. I'm very busy and have aninteresting job. No two days are the same. I love what I do but I find myself always doing the most interesting stuff first and then coming unstuck when I get behind with the less interesting but more important or urgent things.

by Jeremy Bullmore
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

My colleagues seem far more disciplined. How can I be more like them?

A: I may be on the brink of giving you thoroughly irresponsible advice, so proceed with care. My first reaction on reading your question was one of recognition: that's me, I thought. All my life I've been favouring the interesting at the expense of the routine; and most of my life, like you, I've felt slightly ashamed of myself and wished I could mend my ways.

But the need for self-justification is a powerful force - and this is how I've tried to justify my own undisciplined behaviour. Far more often than not, the interesting stuff is interesting because it's unfamiliar and challenging. That means it's likely to be more difficult than the workaday stuff, so getting it right will be of greater value to whomever it is you're working for. So it may be untidy, and some less testing tasks may have been temporarily neglected, but if it is measured in quality of output rather than the orderly ticking of boxes, real worth will have been delivered.

I hope and believe there's some truth in all this - and that both you and I should take some comfort from it. But only some. If we take too much comfort we begin to flatter ourselves and believe that our superior ability to solve problems absolves us from taking on our fair share of those equally necessary but deeply tedious repetitive duties. It's a bit like one of those New Husbands who makes gourmet meals for family and guests but invariably leaves the kitchen in chaos and never empties the dishwasher.

So how to improve? I don't think you'll ever be exactly like your colleagues because your brain will always be drawn first to the fascinating - and long may that last. My best advice is this: steel yourself to polish off all those routine things by setting aside a regular half-day to do them. Once this pattern has become known to your colleagues, the worst is over. You don't need to be nobler or more disciplined; you just have to fear the potential loss of face involved in failing. Your mates will tell themselves it can't last. Your vanity will need to prove them wrong.

People who have earned a reputation for punctuality go on being punctual not just out of thoughtfulness for others but because they prize their hard-won regard. Being organised at work is much the same.

- Jeremy Bullmore is a former creative director and chairman of J Walter Thompson London. His book Another Bad Day at the Office is published by Penguin at £6.99. Address your problem to Jeremy Bullmore at: editorial@mtmagazine.co.uk. Regrettably, no correspondence can be entered into.

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