QuickTip: Are You LIFO or FIFO?

While talking with a client last week, it occurred to me that the accounting concepts of LIFO and FIFO are a perfect way to distinguish between the way we historically processed our stuff and the way we currently process our stuff. (“Stuff” includes all the inputs that stream into our lives throughout the day.) My observation is that the rapid development and adoption of technology have fundamentally shifted the way we manage all the information we need to process … for the worse.

Quick Definitions

Before explaining my position, let me first define LIFO and FIFO. They are terms (ancronyms actually) used to financially account for inventory as it enters and leaves a business. LIFO stands for Last In First Out; the notion being that the cost of  last item put on the shelf (the newest) is used when determining inventory value.  In contrast, FIFO stands for First In First Out and dictates that the cost of the item first put on the shelf (the oldest) be used.

There are a number of reasons for these distinctions which go beyond the point of this article, as well as my limited understanding of advanced accounting principles.  My use of these concepts here is focused more on when a particular item is addressed – is the oldest or newest of higher importance?  It seems to me that we’ve moved from the old-school behavior of managing our stuff in a FIFO manner to a LIFO manner. That is, for the most part, we used to take that which was oldest on our to-do list and get it done before moving “up” the list to things that were newer. Consequently, things never got too dusty on the to-do shelf and we stayed reasonably current with our workload and deadlines.

However, as the inputs started to come at us faster and faster because of technologies like laptops and the Internet, we began to shift to LIFO behaviors – addressing things as they pounded us on the fly, leaving those that were older to rot a little longer on the to-do shelf. That behavior became firmly entrenched when smartphones started delivering the tsunami of inputs to us wherever we went.

It’s gotten so bad that people routinely send a second email or text a few minutes after the first one if they haven’t received a response yet! Huh? What about focusing on the to-dos that were already on my plate? What about client/customer service? How is that advanced when I’m yanked from input to input never having time to actually think about the right solution? Think about it for a minute. Great service and performance comes from concerted, focused effort, not lightspeed reactions and herky jerky efforts. (Note, I just deleted an entire diatribe about “ASAP,” “Urgent,” and “Top Priority.” Consider yourself on notice that they may appear in a later post.)

Relearning the Lost Art of Taking Stock

So what’s the solution? How do we regain some semblance of control and sanity in a world where inputs continually stream at us 24×7? My answer, as you’ve already guessed, is to return to a FIFO model of managing your workload. Simply put – conduct regular surveys of what’s on our plate. At least three times each day – morning, noon and night preferably – stop and look at what you’ve accomplished, what you’ve got to do and when you think you’ll get to each item. With your stock taken, adjust any deadlines that were or have become unrealistic and communicate those changes to others.

Taking stock in this way will give you a much better understanding of the existing commitments on your time. This will, in turn, allow you to better estimate when things currently on the list will get done and when those that will soon be there will get done. As you regain control and command of what’s “in inventory” and what’s coming into inventory, your sense of accomplishment and success will also rise.

Small Changes Make Big Differences

Returning to the historical way of managing your to-do list is not reverting to old, outdated habits. It’s channeling the new data inputs into a proven process for maximizing your productivity. When you’re racing against things moving at nearly the speed of light you will lose every time. If you force the inputs to slow down to human speeds, you stand a chance of managing them more effectively. Adopting the LIFO model of to-do list management will help you make that transition.

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