Not in Three Lifetimes: Balancing the ‘To Do’ List

Evenings, weekends, whatever it takes to get the job done. I resist the word “obsessed.” “Committed” sounds much better. “It is only work,” a friend quips one night as I head back to the office. Only? In so many ways my identity is my work — I am what I do.

So with passion and purpose I dive into another project. Sometimes I notice that after I finish one, there are at least two more on my “to do” list. It reminds me of that Greek hero — perhaps Hercules? — slaying the hydra; each time he cut one head off, two more grew in its place. Finally, a sad but beautiful truth dawns: I can work 24/7 every day of my life — every day of three lifetimes — and I will still not be done with my work.

It is genuinely a sad truth because I believe in my work; I know that I am making the world a better place for our children.

It is a beautiful truth because it sets me free to live the life in which I genuinely believe. A life where I am what I do — and where what I do includes work, family, friends, spirit, nature, health, etc. I have long said to myself and others that my values include balance, that family comes first, that I need time out to “sharpen the saw” (Covey) — but when “I just need to finish this project,” it is so easy to slip from living those values.

I am privileged — In addition to the joy of work that I love, I have a family that I love, hobbies, commitments, and relationships that sustain me outside of work. So all those times when have I said, “Hon, I need to work late this week to finish a project,” I have felt conflict; while I wanted to live a complete life, I also wanted to complete my work. Every time I found myself working nonstop, I recognized that I was compromising my values but justifying that based on the importance of my work.

The recognition that I will not finish all my work eliminates my best excuse for failing to live my values. Since I will not finish anyway, how can I justify leaving my wife and baby girl alone at night?

Of course there still are some deadlines which I need to meet. I might stay up late writing an article for Priorities, for example, but I do not do so in a systematic way. These late nights are now the exception, not the rule.

Another obvious — but stunning — result of realizing that I will not finish all the work is that I am forced to re-prioritize on a regular basis. If I pretend that I will get through everything on the “to do” (which is usually 3 pages long), then I can pick whatever item is easy to start. Usually those are the most fun, most visible, or most something. Once I realize that I will not get them all done, I have to pick strategically.

There is something uniquely satisfying about crossing items off the to do list when the have been done. While that’s still my favorite to-do activity, the new parts of my strategic to-do process are almost as good: I move items from “to do” over to “good ideas.” I move items from my “to do” over to other people’s. I also throw some away — which has gotten to be almost as much fun as crossing them off. It is a game I play with myself to write everything down then get rid of most of it.

The result is a “to do” list that consists of more “keystone” pieces. These are the tasks on which other people’s work will hinge. If I get a seminar scheduled, someone else can get money in the door. If I get our team to Africa, someone there can build his program. There are a couple of goals that may help you pick the keystone tasks:

1. Multiply your efforts. Will this task allow other people to pick up the ball? Though it means giving up “control,” it also means giving empowerment.

2. Multiply your outcomes. Which pieces of work can be used again in multiple ways? Can this effort become part of many projects?

3. Multiply your benefits. Which pieces have both short term and long term benefits?

4. Play to your forte. Is this something which will be far more effective, faster and easier for you to do than another person?

5. Let your team be strong. Like taking pieces that fit your forte, give away pieces that let others shine.

6. There is not enough time to do all the work.

7. There will be more.

“There will be more” is my way of holding fast to number six. Once I have such a strong to-do list, I may find it seducing me — the lure of crossing out those items is strong. Then I will be done! Except I won’t be. The other piece of “there will be more” is that sometimes I feel at loose ends, like there are not clear strategic steps to take. So at those times it is important for me to remember that there will be plenty more work for me.

Like learning any new skill, I frequently fail in my commitment to remember that there is not enough time. Each failure is an opportunity to learn the lesson more deeply — and perhaps by the time I retire I will have mastered these techniques.

Some managers hear “tell everyone to do less” and immediately leap to the conclusion that if they admit that there is not enough time to do all this work, their teams will fall apart. Running fast makes everyone look necessary. They see a highly productive work force is one that works a lot — the more hours working the more work gets done — and use “finishing” as the major motivator of their employees.

The reality is that more work is not more productive. One of my colleagues in the EQ field, Esther Orioli, once told me the number one issue that she addresses is excessive overtime. We have all seen those organizations where it is devastating to possible promotion if you leave before nine or ten o’clock — so how motivated are those employees to work efficiently? If I am going to be there ’till 10, I know I am not going to bust my chops all morning!

You can see the culture of overwork around the water cooler. Organizations where overwork is the norm, people like to complain about how late they were working. They hang out getting coffee and talk about overwork for a half an hour, then go write a couple emails about it, and then discuss it some more. After they have ensured that they will not get the day’s work done before nine, then it is safe to dig in.

Imagine if we adopted the Swedish view of work hours: People who work past closing time are considered inefficient. What would happen if you created a work culture which says, “If you can not get a day’s work in before 5, you must be having trouble prioritizing”? Obviously there is something awesome people being willing to work 80 hours per week — but we can not pretend that there are not also costs. On a personal level, what happens to an efficient worker’s productivity and motivation when she watches her colleague collect overtime as a reward for being inefficient?

In terms of motivation, I am clear that task completion is motivating for me. I hate to be so banal, but I do like crossing things off my list. I like going to staff meetings and showing everyone how many of my tasks are done. But research on motivation suggests that it is not so much the well-worn list that is affecting me. In fact, some researchers claim that the real motivating factor is a sense of belonging. So maybe walking in with my tatty list is a way of ensuring that I have a place at the table.

It is through the balance of all areas of my life that each is enriched; when I provide time to live my values, I bring my love to work and am far more powerful — and when I bring my purpose home, I am a better father. In the end, what motivates me is a sense that I am doing good and important work in the company of others doing the same. And if all I do is work, I quickly lose touch with the true importance of what I am doing. It is through my time with family, friends, nature — it is through frisbee on the beach, through a candle lit dinner, through giggling with the baby that I see that I am contributing to something truly good and important.


This article first appeared on 7.1.01