Believing that more is always more is a dangerous assumption. There’s a cost to complexity. Every time you commit to something new, you not only commit to doing the work itself, but also remembering to do the work, dealing with the administrative overhead, and to getting it all done in the time constraints involved.
The unfortunate result of taking on everything that comes your way is that you end up spend more of your time managing the work and less time investing in truly immersing yourself in what’s most important and satisfying. Many people in large organizations spend a huge amount of their time going to meetings to talk about doing work, writing e-mails to communicate about work, and worrying about how they’re going to get work done — yet rarely making meaningful progress on a weekly basis. They see saying “yes” to everything and having a constantly growing to-do list as at best a marker of success, and at worst something that can’t be avoided anyway.
But the people creating the most value for their organizations take a different approach. They start with having radical clarity on the meaningful work that will create results. Then when something new comes up, they stop and evaluate the new item versus what they already know is most important before saying “yes.” Sizing up new opportunities — from a simple request for a meeting to a large request for a project — isn’t about being insubordinate or unhelpful. Instead, it’s about recognizing new activities for what they are: a request for time resources that if not managed properly could pose a serious risk to the stellar execution of the most significant priorities.
It’s simple math. Each additional project divides your time into smaller and smaller pieces so that you have less of it to devote to anything. Whereas if you reduce your number of responsibilities, you have more time to devote to each one. That means on an individual level, you want to strike the ideal balance between the number of projects and the time you need to excel in them. The same principle holds true on a department and company-wide level. Promising fewer new projects, new products, and even new customers gives everyone the capacity to deliver breakthrough results on what remains.
YOU AND YOUR TEAM
The best way to break out of this vicious cycle of over-commitment and underperformance is to very carefully manage what you agree to do. You can actually do more if you take on less. Here are a few steps you can take to prevent overloading your plate:
Create a pause. Whenever possible, avoid agreeing to new commitments on the spot. Instead slow down the decision making process to give yourself the space to make a reasoned choice. First ask clarifying questions. For example, if someone requests that you take on a presentation, say, “That sounds interesting. What did you have in mind?” Confirm the topic, format, and formality, as well, so you can ascertain how much prep work it will require. Then, ask for some time to review your commitments and get back to them with an answer: “I’ll need some time to review my current commitments. Would it be reasonable for me to get back to you tomorrow?” People want to be “reasonable” so they’ll typically say “yes.” If this correspondence happens via e-mail, you may not need to ask for the time to come to an answer — just take it.
Say “no” early and often. If you immediately know that you don’t have the capacity to take on a project, say “no” as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the harder it will be for you to decline the request and the more frustrated the other person will be when they receive your reply. A simple, “This sounds amazing but unfortunately I’m already at capacity right now,” can suffice.
Think through the project. If you want to take on the project, stop to think through what you’d need to do in order to complete it. For a presentation, that might include talking to key stakeholders, doing research, putting together the slide deck, and rehearsing. For a much larger project, the commitment may be more extensive and less clear. Map out what you know and then make rough estimates of the amount of time you think the steps might take.
Review your calendar. Once you’ve thought through the commitment, review your calendar. This allows you to see where you have — or don’t have — open space in your schedule. In the case of the presentation, if you see that your calendar has open time, then you can commit to the project with confidence and block out time for it on your schedule. If your calendar has no time free between now and the day of the event, and the presentation would require prep, you have a few options. The first is to simply decline, based on the fact that you don’t have any available time in your schedule to take on anything new. The second option would be to consider renegotiating your current commitments so that you could take on the new project. Evaluate the new request versus your current projects. Is taking this new project on worth dropping or delaying something else? If you’re not sure, you can ask your manager: “I was asked to do a presentation for XYZ. That would mean that I’ll need to take some time away from project ABC. Would you like me to adjust my priorities in this manner to accommodate the new request, or would you prefer that I not take on the presentation?” Using one of these strategies allows you to take on a reasonable amount of commitments and stay out of time debt.
Adjust your commitments. If you take on something new that will impact other projects, make people aware of what they can or can’t expect from you. They may not prefer that you made another initiative a priority, but if you’re aligned with your boss and your goals, you’re making the right choice. Also, if you let people know what to expect as soon as possible, they’re less likely to be upset. This gives you the opportunity to work with them on creating a new timeline or on delegating work to someone else with more availability.
Once you’re clear on your commitments, get them on the calendar. That way you know you have time and space for the work you’ve just committed to do. With this honesty in your scheduling, you can do the work and do it well. Give yourself hours at a time — even whole days to immerse yourself in excellence. When you’re not trying to eek out 20 or 30 minutes here and there between e-mails and meetings to move forward important initiatives, you can accomplish work of real value — and enjoy the process.