yes-noMany think that thinking strategically is about cleverly deciding what TO work on. And in a sense, it is. But it’s far more clever AND effective, strategically speaking, to decide what NOT to work on.

First off, if you’re like most people, you’ve got waaay too much to do. It’s the calling card of American business. Sure, you can work harder. And, yeah, you can work smarter. But at the end of the day, more likely than not, you’ll have just as much to do – if not more – than when you started. Because that’s just how it works. So while working harder and smarter have their place, they will only get you so far.

When Less is More

Thomas Edison said, “To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.” Let’s modify that, slightly, and say, “To invent, you need a pile of to-do’s!”

So it’s Monday (or Tuesday) (or Wednesday) (or Thursday) (or Friday, for that matter), and you’ve got 10 (okay, 10,000) important things to work on, today, and only time for about 3 of them.

But which 3?

Picking the the first 3 on your list is tactical, at best. Picking the most important 3 is basic prioritization. But is there an even better way? Perhaps some ‘good imagination’ as Edison quipped, might help lessen your load – at least, temporarily.

Indeed, identifying the items you can justify NOT working on, right now, provides you with a powerful litmus with which to choose your short-list. Think about it this way – if you’re going to be held accountable for what all you don’t complete, it’s better if you have a cogent rationale at-the-ready as to why you chose NOT to do them. Yes, why you CHOSE not to do them.

A Quick Story

Many years ago I was in a year-end performance review with my boss. We had just finished discussing a major victory for the year, one that not only I was proud of, but my boss was, too – we really moved the needle in terms of the business benefits derived from it and the business risks mitigated by it. It was a clear-cut win/win/win/win/win. (For me, my boss, the company, our clients, and our vendors.) Kudos flowed. #Yay.

Next up was another project – one I made very little headway on. Not surprisingly, my boss gave me an ‘unsatisfactory’ rating for it. “I accept that rating,” I told my boss, “because I didn’t do what I said I would. But I have to tell you that the reason I did not work on this project was because I chose NOT to work it.”

“You CHOSE not to work on it?!” he asked. “Tell me why.”

So I told him that I thought it made far more sense for me to keep my focus and attention on the first project, instead. THAT’S where the impact was going to be, I said. And THAT’S where the impact was. So even though I knew I’d get ‘gigged’ for not doing this second project, I felt it would have been irresponsible for me to take my eyes off of the the first one – and I’m glad I didn’t because of x, y, and z.

Bottom Line: My boss agreed with my rationale, deleted the second project from my review, and said, “Just get it done this time.” Which I did.

With Time Comes Insight

Thinking back on that story, there were a few things I wish I had done differently.

  • I wish I would have done a better job updating my boss on that smaller project. Even though things turned out fine, it really wasn’t fair for me to have kept him in the dark, like that. I put him in an unnecessarily vulnerable position by not updating him on my lack of progress. And he may have had some essential information as to why that second project was more important than I realized, if I had just taken the time to ask.
  • I now know how I could have worked BOTH projects, successfully. My main rationale for not working on that smaller project was that I didn’t have a big enough chunk of time TO work on it. The question I asked myself was, “Do I have enough time to work on this right now?” In hindsight, that was wrong. The question I SHOULD HAVE asked myself – and the question that you should always ask yourself, especially when you’re feeling overloaded – is, “Given the time I DO have, what CAN I do to move this priority meaningfully forward, RIGHT NOW?” It’s like this:
    • If you need to meet with someone, don’t wait until you’re fully prepared to reach out to them – send an invite, right now, and then start preparing.
    • If you need an answer from someone, don’t wait while they try to think it through – tell them when you’ll be back so they can do their research without you hovering.
    • If you need to prepare an executive summary, don’t wait until you have time to complete the thing in its entirety – capture the key points you want to make as they occur to you.
    • If you need to keep someone in the loop on something, don’t wait around until they’re out of that meeting – text them the highlights, right now, and fill in the holes, later.

Choosing what NOT to work on, and when NOT to wait for more time to begin, are powerful leadership and strategic moves. So repeat after me:

“Given the time I DO have, what CAN I do to move this priority meaningfully forward, RIGHT NOW?”


Did you find this blog post helpful? What did you learn from applying its lesson in YOUR world? Please DO let me know.

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