It happens innocently enough. Your boss hands you an extra assignment that turns out to be a major undertaking. Or a colleague takes a leave of absence and you’re asked to absorb his workload. Or you agree to chair a youth sports league fundraiser because you feel guilty you haven’t been that involved lately.
Before you know it, you’ve got too much on your plate with too little time to get it all done. While you could do a beautiful job on any one of these obligations, the total soaks up every last bit of white space in your life, leaving you little to no margin. You feel anxious and overwhelmed. You worry you may no longer be able to keep up if something doesn’t let up. And you know if a problem arises, everything could come unraveled.
If this frenetic pace sounds all too familiar, you are not alone. Good leaders are in high demand, and chances are you’ve been handed things or asked to lead because you get things done.
It’s good to be a willing leader – and being asked to lead affirms our “achiever” status. But it’s not good when the volume impacts our ability to produce good thinking and solid execution. It’s even worse when the stress jeopardizes our health, our state of mind, and negatively impacts our outlook on life.
We need more margin in our lives, especially as the demands and the pace increase. That’s why it’s important to develop discipline – and a system – for capturing, evaluating and prioritizing the responsibilities you take on. When you are intentional about thinking through what you do and why you’re doing it, you are in a better position to manage your schedule, minimize your stress and maximize your joy.
A Different Approach I’ve been guilty of taking on way too much for a lot of my leadership journey. As I have learned to become a destination leader with a journey mindset over the past several years, this has gotten better. Recently, I decided to try a new approach to evaluating my workload and setting priorities with the goal of creating more margin in my life.
So far, it’s really working, and I am far happier with how I am handling the projects I’m leading. I have more energy and focus around my work and greater clarity about what’s a need-to-have vs a nice-to-have. Most importantly, I have created more space for family and more downtime for myself. Here’s how it works.
Step one: Evaluate your responsibilities Start by making a master list of everything you have on your plate for the next 90 days. Write each item down on the left-hand side of a page. Include both work and personal responsibilities – I group them together so it’s easier to see that I’ve considered all aspects of my life.
Across the top of the page, write the following criteria, creating a column for each. Then working your way down your list, rank each criteria for each responsibility on a scale of 1-5 with 5 being the highest. Ask yourself these questions:
- Impact – How big an impact will this assignment make? Is it going to prevent or solve a major problem? Will it help to further a key organizational goal?
- Growth – Is there an opportunity for me to grow my knowledge, skills or expertise?
- Relationships – Who cares about this project? Who was the requester? Who else is engaged? Who will be impacted by my efforts?
- Time – How much of my time is really required? Will one quick hit do it, or is continuous engagement needed? (NOTE: Be realistic; we tend to underestimate how much time something will take to get it done well.)
- Role – How important is it that I take the lead? Am I uniquely qualified, or could someone else just as easily take this on? Can I play a supporting role? Can I delegate this as a development opportunity to someone else?
Here’s an example:
Step two: Set your priorities Tally up your scores for each responsibility, putting a mark beside your highest scores. Look for a natural break point in the scoring to divide into two lists:
- Top priorities – projects that scored the highest because they are more important to you across multiple criteria;
- Secondary priorities – lower-scoring projects, which could be considered “nice to have” but not “need to have.”
If it helps, consider your work and personal items separately so you can ensure responsibilities from both parts of your life make the top-priority list.
Step three: Protect your time Once you know your top priorities, review your weekly and monthly schedule. Identify ways to protect your time so you can focus on these more important projects. For example:
- Block out time each week so you are assured of having uninterrupted thinking and work time.
- Mark “do not disturb” on your calendar periodically to prevent meetings and calls from creeping on to your schedule.
- Set a time when you will reply to email and calls in a batch so you are not constantly interrupted.
- Recapture time for your priorities by cutting down on things like social media or binge-watching Netflix.
Be sure to block time for important family obligations, connecting with friends and investing in your personal well-being, such as health and mindfulness activities. This is part of the margin you want to reclaim for your life. If you don’t intentionally create time for these things, they’ll fall off your schedule very quickly.
Step four: Prune your list Now that you have a better feel for how much time you need to devote to your top priorities, consider your secondary priorities. Do a stop/delegate/wait analysis:
- What can you stop or say “no” to doing altogether?
- What can you delegate to someone who can move it forward for you?
- What can you push back on your schedule to tackle another time?
As you ask yourself these questions, think about what you’d rather be doing when you create more margin in your life. Use that vision as motivation to prune more things.
Step five: Take action Finally, implement your decisions as soon as possible. Here’s a tip: If you’re finding it hard to say “no,” try saying “not now.” I have a friend who often says, “I have a high interest in that project, but low availability.” Your primary goal is to protect your time for the immediate future, so you can:
- Accomplish your top priorities; and
- Create more margin in your life for connecting with family/friends and investing in your personal well-being.
Additional Resources for Getting Your Life More Organized Do you fear your tendency to be disorganized is contributing to the problem? Ask yourself if either of these statements describes your life:
- You have half-done to-do lists scattered throughout your life, yet you can’t seem to get anything meaningful done.
- You try to file things away mentally instead of capturing them in a master list. Neuroscience research tells us you can only hold four or five thoughts in your head at any one time, which explains why we tend to forget so many things we intended to do.
If these statements are true for you, you need to put “getting more organized” at the very top of your priority list. Here are some additional resources:
- Getting Things Done, a best-selling book by David Allen, sets out a tried-and-true approach for capturing, organizing and taking action on your to-do list.
- Keep your master list in one place so you can access it wherever you go. Consider tools like:
Here’s to a more organized and rewarding 2018 that allows you to focus on your top priorities while creating greater margin in your life.
Any tips to share? I’d love to hear from you – email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.