The Never-Ending List Of Things To Do

I had my last of three Chairman Mom events late last week. Let me start by saying that I have a total crush on the Founder, Sarah Lacey. I remember the first time we met, thanks to the continued nudging of our mutual amplifier Robin Wolaner; I thought, “Wow, this woman will not be stopped. I want a smidgen of her energy to rub off on me.” That was three years ago, and we’ve been up to shenanigans ever since. 

All three of the events opened up interesting discussions and questions on how to navigate the future of work. As I interacted with this dynamic community, I kept seeing the faces look back at me and almost say, “Seriously, Joanna; you want me to add one more thing to my list?” It culminated this week with the never-to-shy-away-from-the-tough-questions – Adamika Arthur calling me out. I don’t remember what she said exactly, but it was something to the tune of “And when exactly do I have the time to do this magic work you speak of? I have responsibilities to my family, to my work, to my….” the list kept going.

Adamika is right to be frustrated and frankly a bit exhausted. For most of us, there is no more time. Adding one more thing just isn’t possible. While yes, exacerbated by recent events, the lack of time and resources isn’t a new problem. So how do you solve the problem of no time?

I think we all need to start thinking about our time the same way a business thinks about its future. Borrowing the Harvard Business School lesson of breaking your strategic thinking into “now,” “near,” and “future” strategies, I think we can apply the same concept to ourselves. In doing so, not only do we get to wrap our arms around priorities, but others understand them too. No is a perfectly acceptable word in the English language. We just need to learn to remove the surprise when we say it.

Let me explain.

First, the Now-Near-Future approach requires you to admit a couple of truths about this world of work.

  1. The list of things “to do” is never-ending. There is always more you should and could do. 
  2. You make brilliant decisions every day to do somethings and not others. You’re surprisingly great at prioritizing what’s important to you and what isn’t. 
  3. As humans, our value has been measured by what we do for years. What’s worrying is the increase in ways we can measure ourselves and what we’ve done. We’ve gone from parents casually asking us, “What did you do today?” to a world where everything is measured. Employers, co-workers, and investors ask for goals and “measurable results.” We get immediate feedback on the various social networks from our friends and family through the innocuous thumbs up. The management consultant Peter Drucker is known for saying, “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.”

It’s my opinion that we’ve been brainwashed to believe that our value is entirely based on our ability to cross items off the “to do” list. Our ability to say “yes” to everything is seen as the goal and creating a world where a “no” is just not done. 

Go and re-read the three truths about work. Saying “yes” to everything is a recipe for disaster. As much as you’d like to, you cannot do it all.

Plus – and here’s the significant bit – your value is also based on your ability to think in the future. Your ability to rapidly question, learn, reason, and adapt in the face of an endless stream of new information is what makes us uniquely human. It’s why most successful leaders will talk about why their people are the most critical part of an organization. It’s why YOU are awesome.

Therefore I conclude that your value is both what you did today AND what you can do tomorrow. So isn’t it time we started talking about the Future You

So how to can you apply the concept of Now, Near, and Future and how you can manage both what you did today and what you are going to do tomorrow? I’d like you to answer the following questions.

  • How much time should you spend in the “Now” – crossing things off the never-ending “to-do” list? Action Time.
  • How much time should you spend in the “Near” – thinking about strategies and considerations that might have implications 6-12 months from now? Thinking Time.
  • How much time should you spend in the “Future” – researching and learning about what you don’t know and need to know? Learning Time.

So do a quick math exercise. What percentage of your time is in Now, in Near, and in the Future buckets? Most people (at all levels of an organization) often tell me their percentages are close to 90% Now, 8% Near, and 2% Future.

Here’s a key question for you. Based on your role, what do you think your numbers should be? Is there a difference?

I did this exercise with a brilliant executive who used to work with me. When I asked him what his numbers were, he told me he “spent 98% of his time in the now, 2% in the near, and he thought about the future in the shower.” We were talking about promoting him to VP. He was THAT critical to the strategic vision of the company. He was also THAT smart. What we both knew is he needed to let go of the “Now.” The only person who could do that was him. He did, from what I understand he still is, and boy is he crushing it, both for him but also for the organization.

Here are some other examples: 

Imagine you’re Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce. My guess is that his numbers are something like 2% – Now, 8% – Near, and 90% – Future.

Imagine this is your first role, a client services representative. My guess is your numbers are the opposite 90% Now, 8% Near, and 2% Future.

Now imagine you’re Adimika. She’s the Executive Director of her organization. She has about a million things she needs to have done yesterday. But she has limited resources of time and money. She cannot get everything done. And, as we already discussed, the list of things she could do will never end.

Does her board want her only to focus on the “Now” items on her list? Or would they prefer, even in these unusual times, for her to take time to think (Near) and learn (Future)? Would her board want her to de-prioritize crossing every last thing off the list and prioritize her, and the organization’s Future?

Adamika and her board can only answer this question. If they decide to shift from a 100%, 0%, 0% allocation to something else, it means she’s going to have to say, “It didn’t get x done.” Better yet, she’s going to have to throw in the odd “no” into her vocabulary. Adamika is a smart woman. I have no doubt she’s going to navigate this future with aplomb. Now, all she needs is alignment with her board on her NNF numbers.

Back to you. What I’m asking you to do is break the pattern of being rewarded daily for getting things done. It’s hard. As a leader, I have to check myself daily—both in my work and my team’s. But I know, and you know, that what we can do is as important as what we’ve done. So isn’t it time we started thinking that way?

Whatever your role, I challenge you to have a conversation with your manager about Now-Near-Future allocations of your time. Yes, even in this crazy time of working-from-here. Share this article with them with a note saying, “Can we talk about this?” My guess, they’ll probably find this helpful for themselves.

Here’s my last thought on the framework of Now, Near, Future thinking when it comes to your time. These numbers change over time the same way your role evolves. It’s worth revisiting the conversation and getting aligned on what your “NNF Numbers” should be. 

PS. If you’re interested in rolling out this framework to your team, we do have a program.  Drop me a note, and we’ll schedule a time to talk.


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