The high performer guide to leaving stuff undone

Here’s an admission for you. I left work today without having finished all the tasks I wanted to. The reason I can say for certain is because I actually do this every day. In fact, having coached dozens of executives and discussed this with hundreds of managers I have trained – including many super high achievers – I don’t think any of them ever do finish everything before they leave the office. But sometimes you think you have done everything – perhaps when you go on holiday. I would argue this is usually that you have set yourself things to do before going on holiday – a sensible strategy – but this does not mean you have completely finished absolutely everything. But surely effective people who are promoted manage to finish every thing by working late, weekends or getting up extremely early? Even though they may well do these, nobody finishes everything every day and you shouldn’t try to.

A difficult conversation

The reason is that there are so many demands on us, so many things to do, so many possibilities to follow, so many requests or orders to follow, we cannot possibly do everything. The amount of things we set ourselves to do expands all the time and is possibly even increased when we are good at our job because more possibilities open up as someone develops a reputation for making things happen. If we are learning as we work, we will become efficient and get far more done in a shorter time. The trouble is, there comes a point where the shortcuts we have learned and the benefit of experience reaches a peak and we cannot take any more things on. Or at least we can but we won’t get everything done. And this is when you need to recognise a couple of things. First: just check to see if you can work any faster or if any of your tasks can obviously be dropped. Assuming you’ve done this already and if you are having more stuff loaded on you by your boss, it’s time for a word with them about how you won’t be able to do everything on your list and so what to prioritise. This is a difficult conversation for many people to have because it can feel like failure. But the failure is with your boss if they can’t understand and help you.

The impossible to-do list

Maybe you have an impossible to-do list because you are taking things on from outside your area of responsibility. You may feel obligated to take some of these but maybe at least some of the overload is due to your saying yes to things you perhaps shouldn’t have. Many people do this – I am a long term offender! – and it is fine to pour yourself into your job and do as much as you can. But when overload happens, you will need to find some moments to take stock and recognise the things that you are not going to be able to do – at least not on time. The worst thing you can do is simply stay at work longer and longer and try to do all of these things. Yes by all means show keenness but there will come a time when there arent enough hours in the day. More importantly, in the end you will run out of road and make yourself ill. So the key thing is to take a deep breath. Literally. Take some breaths and get out a sheet of paper and write down all the things you are trying to do. Now circle the things you are actually going to do and cross out the things you are going to have to drop. The crossings out may lead to some tricky conversations but I guarantee that if you warn someone about a task not being done ahead of time this is WAY better than trying to apologise after the deadline has gone!


The warning sign

I also have another approach to take for perhaps smaller overloads. If you have genuinely finished everything to set out to do every day, you are in trouble. Why?

If you think you have finished everything, you probably don’t fully understand what you should be doing. It’s not that you have finished everything, there is stuff that you don’t even know about. Or, perhaps more worrying, you aren’t trusted to do very much. The long term result is the same in all cases – you aren’t going to have that job for much longer. So what’s the answer?

This is going to sound simple, banal, obvious – but believe me, in the people I work with as coach and the people I report to, the people who report to me and my colleagues (i.e everyone!) the answer is as simple as this: since you can’t do everything so make sure that the stuff you do do is the important stuff. So all you need to do is (a) know what the important stuff is (b) do the important stuff (c) only do the unimportant stuff when the important stuff is done. So, there you have it.

I can almost sense the cynicism – a university professor thinks that management is easy. Someone who clearly doesn’t know your boss/customers/colleagues. And I hear these criticisms and I definitely wrestle with them every day – I am constantly tempted by interesting or essay stuff which takes me away from the duller but more important stuff. So the trick is to really understand what is important, what it is YOU want to achieve and what the organisation values you doing. Set objectives in order to achieve these. Then don’t be distracted, out off course or bullied away from what you have decided.

So, my advice is to embrace the overload – to a certain degree. And when you judge it has gone beyond that, take stock and have a cull!

Do let me know how you get on.


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