How to decide what to do next


One of the best parts about blogging is meeting people I would never meet in real life. Often, this means psychopaths, who use the C word in my comments section. But the best times, the people I meet are like Tony Morgan. He is a pastor and chief strategy officer at NewSpring Church, based in South Carolina.

This is not the kind of guy I usually seek out. But I clicked to his blog, and when I realized that he mixes careers and church like I mix careers and sex, I was hooked.

My conversations with Tony are always about what matters; he approaches this topic from a church perspective, but honestly, careers would not keep me interested if I didn’t talk about it from that what-is-the-meaning-of-life perspective.

Tony combines his religion and his work in a social-media, grassroots, new millennium way. I think that on some level, we’d all like to do what he does: take something with deep meaning to us and add a layer of hipster, what’s-new-and-cool exploration.

In Tony’s new book, Killing Cockroaches, he tells the story of when he was a city manager, and he was in the middle of running a meeting, and he heard a woman down the hall scream about a cockroach. So he got up from the meeting and killed the cockroach. He talks about the dichotomy between wanting to make big-picture impact on the world and being drawn to the smaller, but louder, more immediate issues in front of us.

Really, all time management discussion is about this: How to know when to kill cockroaches and when not to. It’s about why we spend time doing small, stupid stuff that is crawling around in front of us instead of the stuff that makes life meaningful. Here is my discussion with Tony about the issue (which is also published in the book):

Tell me about an instance when you found yourself “killing cockroaches.”

Me: I kill cockroaches every day because it’s easier than doing the hard stuff on my to do list. I get up in the morning, and my to do list is organized with the most important stuff written on top and the other non-threatening stuff on the bottom, and I so frequently spend my time on the bottom, on the stuff that is small and squishable with just one stomp.

Tony: What are some of the strategies you’ve implemented to avoid it?

Me: I try to check with myself emotionally. If I’m not doing the hard stuff, I ask myself why. Sometimes I’m feeling anxious or I’m premenstrual or I just yelled at my kids and I think I’ve ruined their lives (for the millionth time) and I need to just let myself wander up and down my to-do list doing easy stuff. I need a break. But sometimes I look at what I’m doing and I say, “I have more strength right now. Don’t squander it.” And I go to the top of the list and do the hardest thing.

Sometimes I need a warm up. Like right now. Answering these questions is not the toughest thing I have to do today, but it’s harder than, say, answering the emails whee people tell me they loved my last post and I’m great. So I picked this task because I knew I’d feel accomplished at the end because it’s challenging but it’s not so challenging that I couldn’t face it. It is my bridge to the hard stuff today.

Tony: What have you learned from some of these experiences?

Me: If I spend too much time on the stuff that doesn’t matter, I feel like I did nothing. Killing one cockroach is okay because maybe you are helping someone else. After all, the woman in your office that day was screaming. And sometimes you are helping yourself. We all have times when we are silently screaming. But killing cockroaches all day feels dirty. (Yes, I know cockroaches are the cleanest insects around.) We feel dirty because it is actually squandering our passion and energy to spend a day doing nothing to promote our vision for what our work is about. The big picture, though, stuff that we keep an eye on is what makes us feel good about our work, I think.

How do you help your team avoid “killing cockroaches?”

Me: I hire great people so that they think as hard about this stuff as I do. It’s nearly impossible to really know what we are supposed to be doing with our days to make life matter. But I love being around people who are asking themselves this question every day.

A team of people like this means that everyone is trying to do some of the hard stuff everyday — without me telling them to. So then my job is to show people how I’m trying to do it every day. I get inspired by this set of questions right here. We can inspire each other with an honest struggle to have meaningful days. But only if we surround ourselves with people who are engaged in asking good questions. So thanks for asking good questions, Tony.

34 replies
  1. Alex @ Happiness in this World
    Alex @ Happiness in this World says:

    Hi, Penelope,
    First time making a comment on your blog. I’m really drawn to your writing because I find it exceptionally clear (which in my experience reflects the quality of the thinking behind it) as well as exceptionally honest.

    What’s interesting to me about this post is the distinction you make (as we all do) between things that are “hard” and things that are “easy.” Certainly the reasons you give for avoiding hard things are common, but it makes me wonder why some things feel hard and others easy. At some level I think this is because the brain really does act like a muscle in many ways: some work of thinking is “lighter” than others, and when your brain is doing “heavy” lifting, it literally can fatigue like a muscle and after a period of rest, be ready for more. What’s especially interesting about this is that research has shown exercising your brain in a particular way–specifically, in learning a new skill–not only physically reshapes neural connections but apparently decreases the risk of developing dementia. So even though we all like to avoid doing “hard” brain work, we can at least take some comfort knowing there’s some evidence that in doing it we’re not just accomplishing an important task, but likely making our brains in a very real way more resilient. Use it or lose it!


  2. Brian
    Brian says:

    This reminds me of an idea from “The Power of Full Engagement.” Basically, we humans have very little will power at our disposal. It’s not a personality or “toughing it out” issue, it’s just a fact of life. How we use that will power is critical. It gets sapped out of us by the things like yelling at the kids or having an argument with our spouse. If you burn up all of your will power on things other than your biggest opportunities, you’re always going to be lacking the energy to get them done and they will languish instead of thriving.

    I try to make a habit of tackling my biggest opportunities first thing in the day before anyone or anything has had a chance to derail me. As soon as you check email, read a few blogs, and browse your site stats you’ve already lost valuable momentum and burnt up valuable will power by wondering why you didn’t get as much traffic as you hoped and fretting over a frustrating e-mail that you know you’re going to have to deal with later. The further benefit, is that often after you’ve done that one important thing that is your biggest opportunity, you feel accomplished for the rest of the day and it makes it easier to get to the other stuff.

  3. petya
    petya says:

    I kill cockroaches because it gives me a sense of accomplishment. I think that realizing I was doing that was the single most important professional a-ha moment I have ever had!

  4. Vid
    Vid says:

    First of all, THANK YOU! I’m so glad to see that there are indeed others who have the same problem,I have been killing myself with guilt that I don’t get to the bigger items on my to-do list and I try to kill roaches or swat flies so that I feel accomplished,this often motivates me to get to the bigger tasks on hand !

  5. Joseph
    Joseph says:

    There I am, having gotten acquainted with your writing, enjoying every minute of it, reading, reading, reading, laughing aloud, smirking, (I really loved the story about the judge gaveling after your name-change explanation; identity is such a rich issue!)

    And I had so much fun reading about blogs versus books and the worklife ideas – it was great.

    Then! I went to Amazon. And I read the two and one star reviews of your book. Those reviews were very thorough – conscientious – rather thoughtful. Negative. Really trying to knock you aside – they spent so much time trying to dismantle your cred, citing your lack of experience with XYZ, and various pedigree, and taking pot shots at your behaviors toward your bosses, deriding what a sassy ninja of the post-modern you are – and through it all I kept thinking, sure – ok, sure. I could see some of their points – .

    But it dawned on me: they were missing, oh, so missing the point!

    POINT ON BACK OF MILK CARTON with lost kids.

    We need to hear your side of the business story. Because there are so many people who don't fit into the corporate orthodoxy – You are a voice for the perceptive misfit. You're an anti-corporate pro. You have a relationship to irony, too. And you are inviting people to challenge the off the rack identity paradoxes we were instilled with. (RE: "be whatever you want to be as long as you totally fit the idea of what that is and have the pedigree to back it up) You are outside the corporate thing, speaking for people who know it too. And it's really cool. So, I'm hoping any "low-stars" on benefit you. Because not everyone fits the corporate model, and many people have a lot to contribute to the workplaces they invest in nonetheless. And that's who you champion.

    J, Ink Stain, Inc.

  6. Teresa
    Teresa says:

    Awesome post, Penelope. And awesome interview. Sometimes it’s pretty damn hard to see the bigger picture, and the little cockroaches we kill can bring us a sense of accomplishment.

    I just try to remind myself every now and then that killing a ton of cockroaches doesn’t get me much closer to my goals, it just frees the world of a few cockroaches.

    Yes, surround yourself with the people who ask the good questions. They’re the ones who keep you riveted enough to put the smaller stuff on the back burner.

  7. Maggie
    Maggie says:

    Love this post and thanks for pointing out such a cool new guy/blog/book.

    With regard to the thing about the cockroaches and how spending too much time on them makes a person feel dirty because it’s squandering passion and energy to spend a day doing nothing to promote the vision of what we want our work to be about. My question for you is this: how do you relate this same analogy to a specific job, rather than a to-do list? For instance, should part of the way a person evaluates whether or not they should stay in or leave a job be about cockroaches too? As in–how many cockroaches (e.g. stupid busy work) should a person be willing to do because as a whole their job has value vs. at what point does dealing with the dirty or mindless stuff equate to squandering passion as far as career goes?

    I guess my point is what percentage of a job should be about killing cockroaches because the company you work for does great stuff or you want to build a career or whatever vs. how do you recognize whether you’ll ever get past killing cockroaches and be able to get into the hard but rewarding stuff and need to change careers?

    Sorry if this doesn’t make sense–can you tell I just spent my entire day doing an absolute waste of time task and, during that whole time, I kept wondering “why am I doing this again?” I figure this relates to the whole Gen-X vs. Gen-Y thing–what with what each generation is willing to put up with for the sake of a paycheck vs. wanting work to mean something.

  8. Sara
    Sara says:

    Am I killing a cockroach by pointing out that Tony and NewSpring Church are actually based in South Carolina, not North Carolina? Anyway, interesting interview.

  9. prklypr
    prklypr says:

    Penelope, thank you for not using the phrase “killing cockroaches” in the title of this post. Interesting stuff, I’m sure the book’s a great read, but anything with cockroaches in the title is gonna turn off more people than it turns on. Good luck with that, Tony.

  10. Jesper L Ottosen
    Jesper L Ottosen says:


    Reminds me of when I was cramming for my thesis: Even household chores like cleaning the frigde was acomplished before the bookpages was turned :)

    Sometimes the to-do-list is more of a “should & augth-to”-list, not a “where is my heart” list. I imagine we can subconsiously avoid the top on the “should”-list and move to the items of the “matters now” list.

    A good inspiration is to “ask Havi” (

  11. eliz
    eliz says:

    To continue the creepy-crawly metaphors:

    Mark Twain once said, "Eat a live frog every morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day." So when I’m tempted to do a whole lot of little things that may never measure up to any accomplishment, I try to tackle that one thing that will really make the day seem productive. And then once you’ve done the toughest thing on your list – €“ eating that frog – €“ everything else is easy.

    I happen to live less than a half-mile from New Spring church. I don’t attend, but it’s great to see you take inspiration from so many different people from so many walks of life, Penelope. The fact that we know that, if you lived in Greenville, SC, you would probably wouldn’t ever attend a church like this shows how open you are to learning and growing, from whatever the source. You rock.

  12. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I’m with you and think we all need some cockroaches on the bottom of our list. It’s like filler material and gives us something to cross off even on our most unproductive days. And let’s not forget those days we are productive doing important things that unexpectedly come up which never made it to the list in the first place.

    • Mark W.
      Mark W. says:

      There’s something else I forgot to mention regarding killing cockroaches. It’s from the perspective of helping other people. Lending a helping hand for a short period of time for someone else for what you may consider just killing a cockroach may be something much bigger than that for the other person. So you just helped to knock off someone else’s task, you feel better about yourself, you’ve given yourself a boost in self-confidence, and you’re ready to tackle those harder tasks on your list. It’s good office politics, a win-win scenario, and it makes you more likable which you cover in your book.

  13. Tiffany Monhollon
    Tiffany Monhollon says:

    Thanks for sharing Tony’s blog. Looks like there’s lots to dig into there.

    Deciding how to spend your time is the eternal struggle, isn’t it? I thought reading GTD would solve it all, but just putting systems into place doesn’t do any good if you can’t figure out this killing cockroaches part and so you have time to work your system.

    But I like how you talk about how this is so much easier if you surround yourself with people who are also asking these questions and and trying to figure out balance every day. In the end, your community is what matters. And really, that’s exactly the way life is, too. Surrounding yourself with people who are trying to figure out how to make a life that matters — at times in my life I’ve made that a priority, it’s made all the difference in the world.

  14. John Kador
    John Kador says:

    Okay, I get that “killing cockroaches” is an extended metaphor for taking on the low-hanging fruit (another metaphor) instead of doing the hard work of institutional and personal transformation.

    The metaphor betrays itself. Killing anything is never the optimum solution, especially in a house celebrating the God that also created cockroaches. The presence of cockroaches where humans are offended by them is a symptom of a deeper set of problems. All this goes back to your main point: let’s attend to the deeper issues, which is creating the conditions where all creatures can flourish.

  15. Heather
    Heather says:

    Great post! I love the metaphor of “killing cockroaches” to do with focusing too much on the little things. I struggle sometimes too with getting the little things done because it’s so much easier than focusing on the big projects that I know will take some time. Definitely motivated me today to work on the bigger picture things that I know need to get done. Thanks!

  16. Irina I
    Irina I says:

    “We can inspire each other with an honest struggle to have meaningful days. But only if we surround ourselves with people who are engaged in asking good questions.”

    I know EXACTLY what you mean. One of the things I’m figuring out about myself on this first job is that I can be very lazy if I am given the freedom to be lazy. But I also can do very high-quality work if I am pushed by external forces.

    Therefore, I need to surround myself with high achieving external forces in order to perform well and be content with my work product. And I am very excited that there are a lot of experienced analysts at my work (who are 2-3 years older) from whom I can learn sooo much.

  17. berry connell
    berry connell says:

    OK, wait a minute…the “C” word?
    you mean cockroaches?
    Clumsy search methods?
    Oh, dang! I can’t believe it….on second thought, If you had asked me a year and a half ago if i would be bothered by a ‘stalker’ I would have laughed.
    If you had said it was a woman, I would have rolled on the floor!
    Ask me for the last six months, I’ll tell you, yes. It happens.
    This is probably a good idea for a future post, but, what you have to do is convince folks to
    #1 Be up front with your dis-interest
    #2 Demand a lavel of politeness
    #3 DO NOT be afraid to use the ‘spam’ button. If you’re on MSN or like servers, I garantee a success rate that will cinch all incoming smut or relationship problems that come in.
    She did not want to believe it. I listened to her (on-line) crying and would allow her access to the blog, my e-mails, BUT, after a short period, her suggestiond would tuirn to demands, and then whining if things didn’t go her way.
    It took SO MUCH TIME and mental energy dealing with her that my real work, painting pictures, was being shuttled to the side.
    A couple of occasions I fiund myself cussing (never the “C” word, though, because, a gal on Vagina Monologues said that sometimes gals want that response.
    But, whenever i would cuss?
    I don’t cuss at all even to people who badmouth me, whether on-line or in person.

    OK, well, one fellow I did, but, he was supposedly buying child prostitutes for burger money, and I lost it!

    None the less, in an atmosphere where one is trying to get a business going, one bad apple can tint the entire situation, and not in a good way.
    OK, well, dang!
    You post it, folks aren’t going to listen to me.
    I stupidly just opened up a new section on my blog (again) and am hoping she doesn’t ruin this one like she had the last five.

  18. Claire
    Claire says:

    What a great post this was… but did the cockroach have to die? LOL, luckily my son loves bugs and captures them and relocates them for me.

    I’ve been “silently screaming” since my layoff in November. I’ve used the time to take a hard look at figuring out what to do with my life and how to find work that will make life matter.

    I too need to be around others who ask these questions every day… and my last job wasn’t a place where this kind of thinking was encouraged, in fact, asking fundamental questions about what should matter was discouraged! As a result I wasn’t all that disappointed with the layoff… just the timing, since I was in process of taking leave to have surgery and with the loss of my medical insurance have been dealing with a prolonged illness that now prevents me from working a normal schedule.

    It’s during these times that the rational mind pushes us forward, but the spiritual element, the connection to something bigger in each of us is the part that poses the questions in our mind and keeps us moving forward… and holds off the despair that can come when the answers to the questions don’t come fast enough.

    There are times (for me it was last week when I received the eviction notice) when even killing cockroaches can seem like an overwhelming task. That’s when we need to remember to forgive — ourselves and others — and focus on finding what matters most. This is where faith intersects life and it’s here where the answers will come through a reliance on something beyond ourselves which guides us to our next destination.

    Still… Silently screaming along the way! :-)

  19. principalspage
    principalspage says:

    This may be my favorite post of all time.

    The message was great.

    The fact that you referenced the “C” word and a Pastor in the same paragraph… disturbing.

    Please tell me you do these things on purpose.

  20. Ekaterina
    Ekaterina says:

    I am currently juggling a full time job, some contract work and my last semester of a Bachelor's degree. In other words I didn't see an end to my "to do" list in the past couple of months. Once I realize that the papers are due in a couple of week, "killing cockroaches" seems the only escape possible, without feeling guilt and remorse a week before those said papers have to be handed in.
    However I have to say that sometimes "killing cockroaches" can also be a booster. As soon as I notice that I have made it through a large amount of smaller tasks, I get a certain feeling that I can do it all! And eventually "all" gets done.

  21. Joel Gross
    Joel Gross says:

    Penelope, this is one of your better posts. I usually wouldn’t think of a pastor as being a career minded person, but this post showed me otherwise. Nice job!

  22. Jonha
    Jonha says:

    Hi Penelope,

    I guess we need an explanation on cockroaches being the cleanest insects. haha
    I am struggling in managing my time because I, too, am always drawn to the little things that I think will make me happy but I realize what will really make me happy is being productive. Perhaps I just don’t want to be pressured.

  23. Tamara van Halm
    Tamara van Halm says:

    In a playful moment with the Universe I typed in Google……what to do next. And here I came across this great post. Because it raised for me an old dimensional feeling…am I really doing the right thing in this moment? And shouldn’t I be focused on the big picture that’s in my heart?

    But here comes the controversial understanding that this Universe never conspires against us and has more dimensions to it. Once that veil has been lifted you don’t question the order of events and experiences. Life becomes a very different conversation, equally the notion of the separation of Life and work entirely vanishes. It is a love for life. Only the mind would nominate one life or person more significant or meaningful than the other. But as long as one perceives that, they are still asleep to the nature of reality……as we are all One, playing our part to awaken to our divine principle.

    Does that match with traditional career profiles? Probably not because many of those are still trapped in the world of matter, running the wheel in unconscious Doing. Where the true ocean lies within the Authentic heart and life’s purpose is to awaken from the delusion of Self. Great game for humanity will be to combine this quantum understanding economically and socially. Is the big picture more important than the cockroach? No because from Oneness and Presence one understands that you never know how certain dots connect in the end. The Universe never acts in randomness, it’s merely a game of not minding what happens, experiencing through a different state of Consciousness and staying awake.

    PS Sex is indeed the driving force behind this Universe and closes the gap between Heaven and Earth. The Selfless career? :)

    Kindest regards,


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