This is a story about what I did to help myself and my team start finishing projects, get more done, and feel good about what we had accomplished each day.
Focus. Discipline. Becoming comfortable with saying ‘no.’
At a high level, that’s how you get things done and start finishing.
All too often, we fail to do these things because we want to please others. We want to be helpful. We’re afraid that if we say ‘no’ to someone, they’ll never ask for our help again.
After all, it feels good to be helpful. It feels good to be asked to do things.
It is really a bad thing if they start coming to you less frequently with these questions?
Are they coming to you with a strategic project that will move the needle, or are they pawning off their tasks to you because they don’t have time or don’t feel like doing it? Are they coming to you with something they could quickly lookup on Google themselves but don’t want to?
The Art of Being Agile
Don’t get me wrong, there’s something to be said for being agile and open to pivoting. Still, it’s an art mixed with somewhat rational decision-making abilities.
I used to feel like I was always busy but never got anything done. Then, the marketing team I lead began to feel the same way.
We were too agile. We were too unfocused. We were too undisciplined. Most of all, we always said ‘yes.’
Something had to change. Busy and productive are not the same things. Making progress is not the same as finishing.
My team and I were juggling too many things at any given time and continued piling on more.
People are happy when you say ‘yes’ to help them with their tasks and projects but not happy when it never gets done.
As a Leader, Become a Buffer
The President of our company was the worst offender when it came to asking my team to pivot their attention to ideas and projects that he came up with within the spur of the moment. It’s hard to say ‘no’ to the President of the company.
But it’s necessary.
I had to find a way to buffer and protect my team from these requests while also helping them get their projects and campaigns across the finish line.
So, back in February of 2020, I decided to limit the number of projects and campaigns we focused on at any given time to no more than five.
It Started with an Experiment
I decided to experiment with short, highly-focused, two-week sprints. We protected our focus and our time during these sprints.
Once the pre-sprint activities and tasks were finalized, nothing new would be added. If there were truly an emergency task requiring immediate attention, the marketing program manager or I would help vet it.
Even small tasks were vetted. Sure, they may feel insignificant when you’re talking about one here and there. But one quickly turns into multiple, and then your time is gone, and nothing moves forward.
To ensure this was successful, I communicated what we were doing and why to the President and other leaders. I set expectations that their project, task, or request would get slotted into the next sprint. I let him know that by saying ‘yes’ to his request, we were saying ‘no’ to the more important things we were working on. Explaining it this way resonated with him.
It worked. We started getting projects done - and much faster than in the past. The team was focused. Their morale was boosted. They could go home at night feeling like they were getting things done and making progress toward our goals and objectives.
The timing also couldn’t have been better - a month later we, like many other companies, went into lockdown as the COVID pandemic began to spread.
With the team working from home, it was vitally important that they knew exactly what they needed to work on. They needed to understand priorities and where to focus their time and attention.
This was crucial to ensuring job satisfaction. Especially since one of the biggest reasons people become unhappy with their roles and their companies is when there’s too much ambiguity around what they should focus on.
I began planning each day at a personal level, blocking off (and protecting) my time to focus on tasks, thinking about strategy and analysis that I needed to do to keep our marketing program on track and moving forward.
Eliminate Distractions and Set Expectations
For some time now, I have eliminated all dings and pop-ups associated with emails and other messaging, except for calendar reminders. Still, I became very disciplined about how and when I checked email.
I made it clear to everyone I worked with that I only checked email every couple of hours and respond more quickly to Slack messages that @’ed me.
I also let people know that moving meetings around or scheduling same-day, pop-up meetings that weren’t an emergency would likely get declined.
Of course, there are exceptions, and there has to be some degree of flexibility, but you have to be disciplined and protect your time and if you’re a leader, your team’s time.
No one else will. They’re trying to get their work done as efficiently as possible, which sometimes means they don’t do it. You do.
The bottom line is to be flexible but rigid, agile but disciplined. Be diplomatic and set expectations. Let others know why you’re doing it and that it’s nothing personal against them.
Above all else, protect your time. It’s a finite resource. You won’t get more of it tomorrow or the next day. You’ll have less time to get things done and to live.
Make the most of it.