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How to Succeed by not doing your Work

What would you do in this situation: “You have to deliver a report to a client in 4 days, but you have 3 weeks of work that need to go into it, and 8 of the 10 people that you need to get information from are not available until next week.”

You have a few choices here, as I see it.

  • Ask for more time. Tell the client (or your boss) that you can’t meet this unreasonable deadline, and ask them if you can deliver the report in 3 weeks.

  • Work 16 hour days to get it done. If you work your fingers to the bone, neglect your family, forgo sleep, you might be able to get it close to complete. But you still need to find a way to get those 8 people to meet with you.

  • Put together a skeleton with a point of view, and relentlessly prioritize the rest. Create a framework for the report based on your current hypothesis. Fill in what you know. Push hard for the missing information that you deem the highest priority. Note in the report where you need validate assumptions based on missing information.

Did you ever notice that some people seem to be able to accomplish so much in the time it takes the rest of us to do almost nothing? Think about your favorite business rockstar, Jeff Bezos for example. Jeff Bezos has exactly the same amount of hours in his day that you do. What makes him able to run and multi-billion dollar company under the same constraints that I have? The key? Relentless prioritization.

Urgent and Not-Important. You may be familiar with Stephen Covey’s Time Management Grid.

Credit: Stephen Covey

Covey recommends that you focus your time on the important things, making time for the non-urgent and important items. This grid is widely popular but seldom practiced.

How much time do you spend in the non-important? And how much in the urgent and important quadrant?

Minimize time spent on unplanned work. “We are so busy! We don’t have time for non-urgent but important stuff!” In The Phoneix Project, Gene Kim introduces the concept of “minimizing unplanned work.” Let’s refine the term here, it’s not ‘minimize unplanned work’ it’s actually ‘minimize time spent on unplanned work. Look for creative ways to automate, consolidate or delegate unplanned work (urgent) so you can allocate more time to the non-urgent and important work of building for the future.

The thing that usually doesn’t work is trying to get the unplanned work to become planned. I’ve heard people try to get this unplanned work to ‘plan ahead better’. It’s not usually the case of poor planning, it’s usually the nature of the work. Besides, if we go back to a world where we plan months in advance for everything, we’ll end bringing back in rigidity.

Leave things undone. When you focus on the important and not-urgent quadrant, things will be left undone. This is the truth that no one talks about. People think that getting everything done is the key to success, and in fact, the reverse is true.

Do you take an action item and follow up on every word that comes out of your boss’ mouth? Would it surprise you to learn that they are not expecting you to? Your boss wants outstanding results, not completeness. It’s up to you to figure out which tasks will get you the best result.

Just a warning, this will raise eyebrows with your peers, and maybe even your boss. I had a stern talking to from a peer about my tendency to ‘drop things on the floor’. This was right before I got a promotion that she was passed over for. When you are faced with this challenge, I encourage you to redirect the discussion to your breakout results.

Holistic Prioritization. Relentless prioritization doesn’t only apply to work, it applies holistically across your life. This means that you might prioritize things like ‘time with your family’ higher than ‘work late on status reports’. But it also means that you might prioritize ‘work on a presentation that will position me as a thought leader’ over ‘attend my son’s baseball game.’ You are truly thinking about what’s most important in your life at any given moment.

You won’t make everyone happy. If your goal is to make everyone happy all the time, consider a new goal. When you appease people, you are making a prioritization choice, that appeasement is more important than your goal.

How do you prioritize your life? Where can you make different prioritization decisions to affect a better outcome?

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