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Leaving things undone

Here’s an admission for you. I left work last Friday without having finished all the tasks I wanted to. The reason I can say for certain is because I actually do this every day. But I feel I am amongst friends because I have met many people who are the same position. In fact, having coached dozens of executives, 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 be fire 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.

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 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. So here’s a radical idea; if you have genuinely finished everything 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 business school lecturer 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.

How do you do this? I’ll start on this next week! And it may take several weeks to work through it. Unless something more important crops up of of course!

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