One of my projects as a Peace Corps volunteer was to build a 12m long bridge in the mountains around Kara, Togo. We worked a couple of days a week with just volunteer labor. Some days the work went fast, others it dragged on. On one particular day, we had the abutments and central column nearly complete. While others were working on the masonry, I became distracted by the light flow of water through the stream. It wasn’t rainy season, so the stream wasn’t wider than half a meter. I became distracted by the stream and decided to rearrange the rocks to allow the water to flow faster. As I worked on the stream, I convinced myself that this work was important because it would allow the water to flow faster and limit the flooding.
After I had been “working” on the stream for a half hour or so, the villager who was coordinating the project came to me and said, “Daniel, what are you doing? You are just playing in water.” I was so focused on the details of my task that as I looked up from my stream, I started to explain why it was important. As I looked up, I saw how little water was flowing today and how the rocks that I had rearranged would be completely overwhelmed when the river flooded. Chastened, I went back to work.
Over twenty years later, I think of this line when I find myself distracted by details—tweaking fonts on a document when I should be focused on writing, playing with details on a budget when I should be discussing strategy, or arguing over the finer points of a policy that are unlikely to ever be noticed. Rearranging rocks in the bottom of the steam is easy work that gives the illusion of progress. It is much easier to do than the harder work of shipping important work, but work that I need to keep on my “To Do No More list."
So what do you think? Do you find yourself playing in water? How do you convince yourself to look up and see what really matters?