I spent the entire day writing – it was great. I shut down my email except for two or three check ins associated with meal breaks – glorious. Although not what I was writing about (I am putting the finishing touches on the 2 Weeks to a Breakthrough book), I thought about the importance of doing one great
thing each day. Here are a few paragraphs from a chapter I wrote about this topic in Focus Like a Laser Beam, which will be out in about
The concept of one great things helps me stay focused and disciplined because the other stuff is just stuff. Let me know what you think.
"I’ve learned that you can’t have everything and do everything at the same time." Oprah Winfrey
Laura is a smart and motivated vice president for a growing medium sized company. She maintains a detailed to-do list and works full tilt from the moment she gets to the office until she leaves. She brings some work home, too. From meetings to planning to phone calls and e-mails to creative work, her day slips away. Her whole department works at the speed of light. But Laura lacks focus and she often leaves the office feeling as though she has not accomplished much of anything. What a tragedy! Laura is a talented and engaged leader. Any company would be lucky to have her on their leadership team. And yet, she is killing herself everyday and not making enough of a difference to the business. Her brave efforts have she and her team heading for burn out.
Laura is not alone. Many hardworking leaders are frustrated and dissatisfied with their results. Many create this problem for themselves by saying, "yes," to many things. Too many things. Yeses that fill their days and their team´s days. Days filled to the point that many great tasks get shortchanged or pushed aside. The trouble with yes it is often applied to the wrong questions.
"Yes, we can do that."
"Yes, I will attend the meeting."
"Yes, I have a few minutes."
"Yes, that would be nice."
"Yes, we have the budget (or we can juggle a few things around)."
These questions become the relevancy barometer for tasks that could fill 100 to-do lists. Think about that. How many items on your to-do list are there because you can do them and they are good things to do? Talented leaders can do many things. This does not mean that they should. In fact, senior managers should value leadership resources and take care not to squander them on marginal work.
And the yeses roll down hill, filling up to-do lists throughout the organization to the point the part-time interns can´t get all their work done. When leaders agree to a project or task, they often commit their team´s time and energy. Many employees do not feel comfortable managing up to ask questions about why the tasks keep coming. On way to help pare down your team´s list is to ask your employees their thoughts on what they do that does not make sense or support the most important goals.
The problem of too many yeses goes beyond each leader. "Yes," is an organization wide issue and some cultures are worse than others. If someone calls a meeting that everyone knows is a waste of time, what happens? Does anyone say anything? If you attend a staff meeting that lacks relevance and impact, does anyone suggest to change the meeting? In many organizations, it is normal to attend ineffective meetings and spend time on marginally worthwhile tasks. This is crazy, and if you want to improve focus and results, you will want to get tougher about how you spend your days. Don´t endure another crummy meeting or spend time chasing down unimportant information! There are many more good things to do than you can complete.
It is better to do five things well, than 10 things poorly. Determine your and you´re your team´s capacity by looking at the quality and maintenance of your work. To-do lists are part of the problem. The process of emptying your head and keeping a running list of tasks, small or large, feels satisfying. A long list means you are not likely forgetting anything. If you can make a long list of things to do, why wouldn´t you? Keeping a legal pad or PDA full of uncompleted tasks does not help you focus. Your mind will see all the tasks that need to be done and go about trying to satisfy too many needs. You don´t want to be like Laura and leave at the end of a long day feeling like you did not get anything important done. Do you need a to-do list to tell you what´s most important? You shouldn´t need to be reminded of the ways in which you can make the greatest difference. These core tasks are likely emblazoned on your mind.
If you do use a to-do list, make it small and short. List the goals that you need to support and the precious few tasks that will best support them. At the top of this short list, write the one great thing that you want to get done today. Strive to get at least one great thing done each day. If you can do more than one, that´s great, but start with doing just one.
What´s a great thing? Think about your role and the goals of your function and the company. What´s the one thing you could do today that would best facilitate and enable the forward movement of work? What´s the one barrier you could obliterate that would get things moving again? What´s the one conversation you could stimulate that would leave your team energized and ready to attack a tough problem? What could you do that would help the company make better decisions about whether to approve a new system or process? What could you do that would clarify expectations, goals, or current performance? Great things will often address one of these areas.
If you do at least one great thing per day, you will leave each day feeling satisfied. Once you get to the point of doing one great thing each day, try doing one great thing each morning and afternoon. If each leader did two great things a day, their collective contribution to their businesses would be massive and transformative.
Laser focused leaders don´t need to-do lists. They make sure they do at least one great thing each day.