Getting it all done (or not!)
Every senior person in an entrepreneurial business that I’ve ever coached has shared the problem of having too much to do. And every time they come up with some sort of plan to get through the list, unexpected events or interruptions derail it. Multiple incoming channels (phone, email, WhatsApp, Slack etc.) exacerbate the problem and the modern work culture of “always available” does not help. It is utterly relentless.
External factors notwithstanding, we don’t help ourselves. We’re hopeless at discerning the difference between urgent and important and our addiction to dopamine means we’re drawn to ticking small things off lists. In other words, by default our brains are not very well designed to deal with the situation we find ourselves in. So what to do? How do you get working on the “right” thing and stay working on it?
Get it down
It doesn’t matter whether you prefer to use a notebook or a piece of software, but it does matter that you get it all out of your head and recorded in one single place. The energy your brain spends on remembering the 5 things you have to do today/next week/whenever is much more than you might think and amongst other things it is likely to cost you sleep . Spend some time thinking about how it’s best going to work for you to organise your list. Is it a single list or multiple themed lists? Ordered by due date or priority or something else? There are many ways to do it and no right way, just the way that works for you, but it’s certainly worth determining what that looks like and reviewing your methodology periodically. I tend to review mine at least once a year and almost always make a couple of tweaks at the very least.
The completion myth
The next hugely important step is to fully accept and embrace the fact that you’re simply not going to get everything done. This idea that we’re working towards some kind of nirvana where everything on the list is ticked off is a myth, as anyone who has ever tried to achieve Inbox Zero will attest (it doesn’t stay at Zero for very long!). Oliver Burkeman explores this idea brilliantly in his book “4,000 Weeks”, even going so far as to debunk some of the well-known productivity methodologies by demonstrating that getting better at getting through the list only accelerates the pace at which things are subsequently added to it. You’ve already accepted that you’ll never read all the books on your wish list or visit all the countries on your bucket list - so just add to that that you’re never going to do all the things on your to-do list. You may find it somewhat liberating.
Always be delegating
I talked in my last article about how to delegate, but the key thing is to work out when to delegate, and the answer is of course whenever you possibly can. As I worked on developing my leadership in my own business a decade or so ago, I used to ask myself the question whenever anything came onto my desk “who else could do this?” And if the answer was genuinely no-one, then I’d ask myself “why not?” and “what needs to happen for that to change?” I came to see that a key part of my job was to constantly seek to make myself redundant, knowing that I never actually would be as the business developed and the demands on me evolved.
What's it worth?
Once you’ve pruned your list this way, next think about what’s worth doing, in a literal financial sense. I often ask clients what column they think they should be working in, by which I mean: is it their job to make thousands of pounds of difference to the company, millions of pounds of difference or something else? The answer will depend entirely on what stage the company is at, but in my view a leader should be clear on that answer and be very disciplined about working to it. It’s a simple principle - if your job is to make tens of thousands of pounds of difference to the bottom line and you find yourself working on something that makes only hundreds of pounds of difference, then just stop. Find someone else to do it or just take it off the list altogether. It’s a slightly brutal lens to look at things through, but the perspective it provides can often be something of a revelation.
Design your day
Once you’ve determined what the most impactful things you could be doing are, design your day to make sure that you’re doing those things and not the things that other people think you should be doing (or need you to do for them). In Ed’s Getting S**t Done article, he explored the idea of the morning sprint, dedicated time that you diarise every day for focusing without interruption on the things that are going to make the most difference. Start with a couple of hours - spend them away from possible interruption and turn your phone and email off. I even recommend that you go as far as not turning your phone or email on in the morning until the sprint is done - that way your brain is not distracted by whatever happened to pop into your Inbox overnight. Decide the day before what it is that you’re going to achieve so that you can get straight into it - and if there are some critical resources lurking in your email program, get them out and saved elsewhere so that you don’t have to delve in there in the morning. Let the people you work with know that this is what you’re going to be doing and that you’re not available before a particular time. And yes, you might have to set up some system where they can get hold of you in an emergency, although a better solution would be to equip the relevant people to deal with emergencies themselves!
With all these approaches, it’s important not to beat yourself up when things go off track, as they inevitably will from time to time. If we let our brutal inner critic take hold when we lapse, the likelihood of returning to the habit actually decreases. So shrug it off, reset and go again. And remember you’re still never going to get it all done!
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