Know when your work is done!


How do you know when your work is done? For those of us who have unlimited possibilities for work and could do it 24/7 without ever finishing, it is a demand of good leadership to be able to stop, to switch off and to KNOW THAT YOUR WORK IS DONE! 

To attempt to manage their work and other commitments, most people keep some kind of ‘to do’ list? Yet sadly these often don’t deliver. This post considers the reason for this, and explores four things that what can be done about it.

The first problem is that most to-do lists grow ever longer as more items get added than get completed. Then some items just never acquire the sense of urgency and importance needed to be prioritised over other things. Yet they remain on the to-do list, forever reminding the individual of what they’ve not done, thus draining energy and generating feelings of failure. Eventually, recognising that the list isn’t working, many folks give up their attempts to keep a to-do list and the whole thing gets relegated to a file.

Such a list is in fact a ‘want to do’ list; an uncensored wish list of possibilities. As such, anyone comparing their actual daily accomplishments to the list is virtually destined for disappointment.

In summary four must-have requirements for success are:

1)      A master list showing all your major responsibilities, ideally limited to no more than twelve headings. For each heading list the routine tasks needed to fulfil that responsibility, then add any other activities or projects that are planned or underway. Categories of responsibilities that often get overlooked in such planning include personal development, non-work relationships, and ones’ own health! Such a list is not a to do list. Rather it offers a regular, say weekly opportunity to step back, assess one’s balance across these areas of work and personal life, and plan accordingly.

2)      A means of scheduling specific activities, transferring them from the master list and giving them a ‘home’, whether in a paper diary, MS Outlook, or smartphone app. There are plenty of apps out there and most seem to do a good job. The usual problem is not the tool, but the discipline of keeping it up to date. David Allen, writing in Getting Things Done, refers to such a schedule as a ‘commit to do’ list, distinguishing it from the ‘want to do’ list that many of us keep. The idea of giving everything a ‘home’ in the diary/planner is an important means of helping you to switch off and relax.

3)      Recognition of the tendency most of us have to fail to anticipate the unexpected demands that will disrupt our plans, and to be over-optimistic about how long activities will take. The fact many of us prefer to overlook is that we can only ‘commit to do’ something on a given day if we have a realistic understanding of how long it will take, and we have allowed time for the unexpected. Otherwise we are setting ourselves up for disappointment.

4)      The discipline to turn vaguely described actions into tangible outcomes, and at minimum a concrete first step. For example, the item “begin personal time management project” might be usefully translated to a first step of “create a list in Outlook of all my responsibilities and core activities”. Many things on to-do lists fail to get actioned because they are vague and unclear! Articulating the very first outcome that you need to achieve is a good place to start.

For most of us, the above will require one or more new decisions, and this will demand effort. The reward for putting effort into determining what we will commit to do, and then doing it, is the satisfaction of knowing that our work is done!




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Saying ‘no’ without damaging your reputation



A ‘no’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble” said Mahatma Gandhi. Following the previous post on the challenges of saying ‘no’, this entry considers how to develop the skill of saying ‘no’ in practice.

1.       You need a robust basis for saying ‘no’. Good intentions to spend more time on marketing, networking, family life, personal fitness  or whatever will rarely be sufficient. Of greater value are concrete commitments to specific and tangible activities. For one busy city lawyer this meant scheduling an evening pilates class once a week with a private instructor. The fact that her plan involved another person (the pilates instructor), a scheduled activity, and a financial outlay, all helped raise her level of commitment to her decision.

2.       Communicate your plans to others. Informing colleagues and clients of our existing commitments can influence their thinking positively, and potentially avoid the need to say ‘no’. Provided you give the message in a positive manner, putting the focus on when you will be available for them, rather than when you won’t, you can provide a strong example of personal organisation. This can also encourage in them an attitude of better preparation, for example giving them the chance to anticipate in advance ways in which they may need your involvement.

3.       When saying ‘no’, maintain a positive attitude towards the other person and find a way to demonstrate your desire to be of service. Sometimes this may mean suggesting an alternative solution. It’s helpful to think of ‘no’ in terms of ‘not now’ rather than ‘never’! With regard to maintaining a positive attitude …

4.       Do not direct your anger at the person asking you. If as Ghandi suggests you are in the habit of saying ‘yes’ to please others or to avoid trouble, you will have possibly accumulated feelings of being taken advantage of, along with suppressed anger. In truth you are responsible for your choices, and if the other person gets what they want by asking you, good for them! A student at the school I taught at in Kenya once asked me out of the blue to give him my camera. Catching myself feeling angry at his ‘impertinence’, I quickly adjusted my perspective as I realised that he had nothing to lose and everything to gain. He’d have been a fool not to try!

5.       Don’t assume that what they ask for is what they really need. The two are often very different. For example your client asks you to complete the draft contract by Thursday, yet in practice only needs information relating to costs. It’s often worth finding out what specifically is important to the client about the time-scale of their request.


It may seem like a small thing to say ‘yes’ when you really want to say ‘no’. Over time however, it generates a life of frustration and regrets. An Australian nurse named Bronnie Ware, who cared for people in the last 12 weeks of their lives, recorded the most often-discussed regrets. First on her list, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” Next on the list, “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard” and “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.” (Read the Top 5 Regrets here).



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Saying “no”: a core leadership skill


The last blog post explored the importance for managers and leaders in having a ‘stop-doing’ list; a pre-requisite for anyone concerned with achieving greater personal effectiveness or organisational success. Closely related to getting good at stopping doing things is to become fluent at using the word ‘NO’!


A large number of people tell me that “in their world you can’t possibly say no”. When I think I can get away with it (and sometimes even when I can’t!), I like to tease them by saying that in my view they are already very good at saying “no”. Each time they say “yes” to another piece of work that will keep them in the office over the weekend or through the night, they are in effect saying “no” to time with their partners, families or personal lives. The point that many of us tend to overlook is that every “yes” is linked to a corresponding “no”. There is always a choice. Choosing one course of action prevents us from taking another.


Observing how someone spends their time over an extended period does, I believe, show us where their priorities lie. It tells us ultimately what they value most. While a partner in a law firm may say that her children are the most important thing in her life, if she works throughout her children’s early years and rarely sees them, her actions seem to tell a different story. Similarly many businesses claim that their people are their most important asset, yet their habit of pulling staff out of training events and cancelling their appraisals undermines such a claim.


Exploring these ideas with people often generates discomfort, plus some reluctance on their part to accept them. First it puts the responsibility for their lives squarely at their own door, forcing them to acknowledge the part they play in creating their circumstances. Second, it confronts them with the need to communicate a message that is likely to disappoint the other person. For many people this is profoundly uncomfortable. While they may justify their saying “yes” habit as “just wanting to be helpful”, deeper exploration often reveals a profound dis-ease with being anything other than compliant.


It is therefore reasonable to conclude that saying “no” is an essential means for both protecting what we value most, and for demonstrating to others in our organisation where our priorities lie. To put it simply, it is an core leadership skill; a skill that for most people demands real discipline and effort to use. For many people looking for a focus for their leadership development, this is a great place to start.   


Next time: how to say “no” without losing out


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To achieve greater success, what should you stop doing?


According to Jim Collins writing in Good to Great, successful organisations and individuals don’t just have ‘to-do’ lists, they also have ‘stop doing’ lists. Collins cites Kimberley Clark as a classic example. In order to focus on growing its core business of consumer products, the company took the tough decision in 1991 to sell its long-cherished paper mills. This decision was a key contributor in helping the company achieve record growth throughout the 1990s.

Why is ‘stopping doing’ such an important leadership skill?

First, stopping doing liberates energy and resources for the things that are of greatest importance. As Spencer Johnson puts it in ‘Yes or No’, “to make a better decision, you must first stop proceeding with a poor decision”. Second, stopping doing provides a vivid example to the wider organisation of the qualities of commitment and self-discipline. Qualities that the leader seeking excellence needs to actively encourage in others.

What makes ‘stopping doing’ so difficult?

I believe the principle reason is that stopping doing confronts us with a sense of loss. The existentialists remind us that this can trigger negative feelings which most of us naturally seek to avoid. Throughout my publishing career we stopped doing all sorts of business ventures which were all good in their own right and to which there were strong emotional ties, yet which distracted us from what was of greatest importance. In fact we became rather good at stopping things: halting publication of a popular range of fiction, closing a distribution facility, pulling out of an Asian market, to name a few.

In general the longer we had been engaged in the activity, the more attached we were to it, and the harder it was to stop. On occasions our very sense of identity seemed to be threatened by the decision; certainly we had to re-think who we were and come to terms with a new understanding of ourselves and a changed place in the market.

What can help us to ‘stop doing’?

First, practice with the small stuff. Successful leaders regularly take the time to ask themselves, what am I doing today that I could live without? What is taking our time yet adding the least to our overall success? You might for example add a ‘stop doing’ heading to the agenda of team meetings, or to your own personal to-do list. Once people discover that life continues after the change, further change gets easier.

Second, when stopping doing something that the organisation has invested time and effort in, recognise and anticipate a sense of loss. Grieving is a natural human response and as such should be allowed a reasonable time and acknowledged. Collectively marking the end of the era can help to establish the change in people’s heads.

Third, and most importantly, ensure that you have a robust commitment to what you will start doing, or start doing more of. (Without such a thought for the future, what reason could there be to stop doing anything!) Then, once you are clear what is going to contribute the most to your long-term success, or to that of your organisation, commit the resources and energy to doing it. There is nothing like a clear commitment to the future to take peoples’ minds off the past.

As a Chinese proverb puts it “If you want a hot cup of tea, you must first empty the cup”. Happy emptying!

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What stops people making decisions?


“The Eurozone must have a decisive plan”, declared David Cameron this week. And of course he is right. The EU has signally failed at reaching conclusive agreements and taking decisions.

I am struck by the large number of people I have spoken to in the course of my recent work who face similar challenges in making decisions, whether individually or collectively within their teams.

What is it about decisions that makes so many of us put them off until things reach crisis-point, and we can no longer sit on the proverbial fence? Looking at the origin of the word ‘decision’ provides some insight. It shares its roots with the word ‘incision’, but rather than meaning to cut into, it means to cut away, literally to cut off our options. And this is the heart of the problem; to take a decision always means facing up to losing something. In the case of Europe this is clearly the integrity of the currency, or the continued inclusion of Greece, or the need for financial restraint. Whichever way the decision goes, something that is valued will be lost. So until things reach absolute crisis point, it’s easier to put off the decision.

And this is equally true for us at a personal level. Avoiding making a decision may well allow us to feel that we’re keeping our options open, that we’re avoiding getting it wrong, or that we’re avoiding having to deal with the fall-out from the people we’ve had to disappoint. Yet while we may feel better in the short term by avoiding our fears, the one thing we can be sure of is that we are no longer taking a lead. Rather, events will start leading us.

To cut off options of course demands courage and the willingness to deal with the anticipated negative consequences. As such it lies at the very heart of good leadership.

"Be willing to make decisions” said General Patton. ”That’s the most important quality in a good leader." And for those of us involved in developing young leaders, whether in our own or our clients’ organisations, creating the conditions where they can practice making decisions and cutting off their options in relative safety is absolutely key.

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How to deal with your harshest critic


Who is your harshest critic? If your answer is yourself, then you are in the company of a great many people!

I am struck over and again by the otherwise successful and high-achieving people I meet whose impact and influence is diminished by their self-judgement. Or if not by their self-judgement, at least by that which they semi-consciously imagine others are making of them.

Professional advisers, whether coaches and trainers, or lawyers and consultants, are especially prone to such concerns. As they interact with their clients and see how they respond, the instinctive question many ask themselves is ‘how is this going down?’ On further investigation this question commonly turns out at its heart to be a deeper personal question along the lines of ‘am I good enough?’

Writing in The Art of Possibility, Ben and Roz Zander draw a stark contrast between life lived from this place of self-judgement, with life lived as a contribution. Ben writes “unlike success and failure, contribution has no other side. It is not arrived at by comparison. All at once I found that the fearful question, “Is it enough?” and the even more fearful question, “Am I loved for who I am, or for what I have accomplished?” could both be replaced by the joyful question, “How will I be a contribution today?”

This is a wonderful idea which offers great liberty to those, including myself, who are plagued with self-doubt, fear and criticism. In re-inventing ourselves as a contribution rather than as professionals to be harshly judged, remarkable powers seem to be released. Conflicts may be transformed into rewarding relationships, clients are best served, and our own well-being is most deeply enriched. Writing in the book of Romans, St Paul speaks of something very similar using the wonderful notion of ‘grace’ – a word that has generally fallen out of common use, yet which captures the essence of the liberty that ‘being a contribution’ implies: “you are not under law, but under grace”.  

So whatever the circumstances you’re confronting, and especially when the stakes are high and you’re most anxious about your performance, experiment with these steps from Ben Zander:

1)      Declare yourself to be a contribution

2)      Throw yourself into life as someone who makes a difference, accepting that you may not understand how or why

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Whose ideas do you like the best?


This question frequently gets raised in workshops on leadership and management, and the answer quickly comes back: “your own”. Yet even though this characteristic of human motivation is intuitively known by us all, it’s still surprising how much management time is spent prescribing to staff exactly how they should go about their tasks.


Let me clarify. I’m not saying that people should not be instructed in basic skills and procedures, nor that there are times, especially during emergencies when the details should be clearly spelled out. And it goes without saying that people need to helped to understand exactly what goals they are working towards. It’s simply that if you want to motivate somebody and get the best from them, you’ll get better results by drawing out their own ideas. Yes it’s true; we like our own ideas the best!


It was interesting to hear this finding backed up and quantified in a research experiment reported by Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky. The researchers ran a lottery with a difference. Half the participants were randomly assigned a lottery number. The remaining half were given a blank piece of paper and a pen and asked to write any number they would like as their lottery number. Just before drawing the winning number, the researchers offered to buy back the tickets. The question researchers wanted to answer is, “How much more do you have to pay someone who ‘wrote their own number’ versus someone who was handed a number randomly?”


The rational answer is that there should be no difference, given that a lottery is pure chance and every ticket number, whether self-chosen or allocated should have the same value. The actual finding was that wherever the experiment was conducted, and with whatever population, the researchers always had to pay at least five times more to those who wrote their own number.


So the truth that this reveals about human nature is that when we choose for ourselves, we are far more committed to the outcome — by a factor of five to one! So for all leaders who want to drive up engagement levels, enhance performance and drive change, the message could not be clearer.

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