How Your To-do List Is Symptomatic Of Your Focus

Show me your to-do list, and I’ll show you what you are(n’t) focused on

I have to imagine, that several millennia ago someone realised that they had too much to do and not enough time to do it. 9,500 years ago is the earliest recorded time we began creating and using bricks. I can just imagine the start of the to-do list: “I need to make the bricks, sell the bricks, show people this thing called a brick, decide if I like the name brick, recolour the brick, test the brick (is it edible?), find the adobe clay and reeds to create more, ask my mate what he thinks about the brick, and…. Might need to write all this down…”

Fast forward to today, several millennia later and we have tools like Trello, Monday.com and MS To Do to manage our to-do lists. Surely it’s gotten easier?

Yep. It has.

Easier to record more crap on the list of things to do. But no easier to actually do the things that matter.

Great…

But who doesn’t love a list?

Coaching is an amazing process that involves adapting to meet the unique challenges each leader faces. What I have found to be some common issues across all leaders from CEOs down to new front-line leaders:

  1. Coaching your team
  2. Getting people and business results
  3. Managing the chaos
  4. AND, you guessed it, getting through the unending to-do list

To-do lists are a dangerous trap.

One peek at your to-do list and I can tell you how focused you are or aren’t. I also can tell you why your personal results are the way they are. It’s not because I have some super list-reading power. It’s because I recognise the signs.

I’m going to help you fix that painful to-do list now.

Let fires burn…

Reed Hoffman is a pioneer of the term Blitzscaling. It means rapid growth and scale through aggressive focus, rapid action and a lack of perfection in pursuit of proof of concept. He tells a good story about Paypal when asked about Blitzscaling.

There’s a little known story about how Paypal handled customer service in the wake of growth. They had a to-do list as large as you can imagine, including becoming profitable (they were bleeding millions). They were still a new tech start-up and were trying to change the way people handle payments online.

One of the not so well known things they did to refine their focus was to get rid of customer service by phone. They legitimately turned off their customer service line. True story.

It sounds mad, but the case for it is good. They had finite resources and aggressive deadlines to meet or they would literally die as a business. They decided to let some fires burn and take them off the to-do list for today.

By saying they didn’t care about the service (right now) they signalled to themselves, their team and the world that they were focused clearly on the most pressing matter (becoming profitable before they ran out of funds) rather than all the things they were told they should do.

The analogy I’ve put together which I use a lot with business leaders goes a bit like this:

You have small patches of smoke, fires and blazes all around you. Some are just smoke (which means the fire is coming), others are patchy fires and yet others are walls of fire. I see leaders spinning in circles with a water hose wondering why their situation isn’t improving and that the heat is building. You’ll never win that way.

How you can crack your to-do list problem

If you want to win, you’ve got to switch that hose from sprinkle-mode to direct blast and point it at one fire at a time. This means you also have to choose specific fires to fight. YOU CAN NOT FIGHT THEM ALL. Learn to embrace the fires that don’t actually matter.

Now, your to-do list is a lot like that analogy. I have leaders say to me during our fortnightly coaching session: “ah, yeah, I haven’t made much progress against goals X, Y, and Z because I’ve done this, this and this”. To which my response is invariably “are those the things that matter, get you a result or those that you’re simply comfortable with”? The answer needs to be the latter.

Here are my tips on you cracking that to-do list dilemma yourself:

  1. Look for the pain – if you boot up your laptop with your cuppa every morning and loathe the to-do list, you’ve got a clear sign that it’s not getting you what you need. Look for the tasks that bring you no joy AND no results. Kill those.
  2. Make a to-not-do list – Like Paypal saying no to customer service for a period of time, what extreme no’s are you adopting to unleash your growth? If you haven’t said no to anything, you’ve said yes to mediocrity (that’s my take on it). I know you’re able to do so much more than that.
  3. Question your assumptions – What things are on your list because they’ve always been there, are things people want you to do or are simply things you’ve taken on without realising it? Fight those things that aren’t paying rent (covering the effort) or a dividend (return on effort).
  4. Fight mediocrity – I can assure you that doing all of these things will bring you a tiny sense of accomplishment, but no real result. Do you really need to go to Jake’s weekly status meeting (that should be an email) or build that service that Amy asked for but you know isn’t going to create real results? NO. Say no, tell them why then move on.
  5. For every 10 things on your list, circle three – If your list is still too long after the first four tips, then it’s time to turn up the heat. This tactic is painful, but it’ll make a dent in that list. Write the 10 things down you THINK you need to do. Then, circle 3 (max) that you DEFINITELY need to do. After that, wage war on the other 7. I’m serious. Fight against those. Those remaining 7 create mediocrity. Fight them off. I promise you, it’ll be worth the short-term pain.

This should give you a start on cracking that painful to-do list and unlocking your growth. We have lots of resources on our blog to hone your focus and reach your business goals. We’re here when you need the help doing just that.

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