After three warnings she was put on probation. Stumped, her boss called me in to see if I could help. Tara appeared to be working very hard, eating lunch at her desk and staying late. But whenever she was asked about the status of any project, all she could ever say was, “I’m working on it.”
Tara’s delays routinely brought the department to a standstill, sapping productivity and morale. Her colleagues never knew when they were going to get things from her, making it impossible for them to effectively organize their own workdays. Everyone was weary of canceling evening plans and working weekends to compensate for Tara’s unpredictable output.
In our first coaching session, Tara told me her workload had swelled to massive proportions when the company shifted its market strategy and technology. In the face of too much to do and not enough time to do it, Tara’s anxiety skyrocketed. She calmed herself by working on each project a little. Incremental progress on each task made Tara feel “in control.” Of course, that very strategy was a disaster for her colleagues.
Bottlenecking puts your career and reputation at risk and takes a significant emotional toll. Here are four root causes of it — and solutions for each:
This scattered, shallow approach to managing multiple projects derailed Tara. Feeling overwhelmed or simply being disorganized can make it hard to feel confident that whatever you are working on at that moment is indeed the most important thing.
To get out of plate-spinning mode:
- Ask your boss to help set priorities. Most bosses prefer that you come to them for guidance, and will willingly give it to you. Priorities can often be shuffled. You just have to ask.
- Organize your time and your tasks. Tara needed to allocate her time between generating ideas, editing, developing relationships with freelancers, and supporting her direct reports. To become more effective, she organized her to-do list by those categories so she could quickly spot the most important task in each and then work in calendar blocks assigned to each category. As work came in, she acknowledged receipt and let people know when to expect a response.
- Treat each day like a resume. Effective resumes list accomplishments, not activities. Similarly, decide in advance on your deliverables for the day and stick to the plan. Create a daily report of what you completed to close the loop. After Tara started tracking her time and accomplishments each day, she was successfully able to make the case to her boss to hire an assistant editor.
Sometimes we struggle to say no because we see our own value in terms of our accessibility rather than in terms of our ability to solve problems. Saying yes to quick wins can also compensate for feeling unable to get the important work done.
To get out of people-pleasing mode:
- Get clear on what you’re being paid to produce. Whether you’re paid to supervise, share knowledge, or create things, you have a job to do. Most of your time should be spent on your core job and existing commitments. Cull the rest ruthlessly.
- Set aside an overflow block. Some unexpected requests are part of the job and are truly important, but most aren’t urgent, important, or even relevant to our work. Still, you want to be a good citizen and build your work relationships. Reserve a daily or weekly block to tackle last-minute requests. By limiting the time you can spend on them, you will develop better criteria for deciding what to take on.
- Develop the art of the elegant no. If an incoming request isn’t the best use of your time, talk about it objectively. You’re not busy doing “your work” or “this person’s work” — you are all doing the company’s work. Prepare a script: “I’m flattered you thought of me for this. But the company/my boss/the client is counting on me to focus my attention on Y. I couldn’t do your task justice right now. Here is a guide/FAQ that might help.”
Perfectionists spend more time than necessary on projects, struggling to complete things. To them, work is either brilliant or horrible and every decision is equally important, from the menu for a board meeting to the decision to fire someone.
To avoid the perfectionism trap, you need to:
- Create simple policies for decisions you make regularly. Decisions take a cognitive toll; preserve your decision making for issues that are worth brainpower, and create policies for the rest. For example, limit internal memos to two revision rounds, and set objective criteria for quickly filtering sales leads.
- Determine the MAX-MIN-MOD before you start. Define three concrete levels of performance for large tasks: the maximum, minimum, and moderate contribution you can make, with specific steps and a time estimate. You’ll be better able to choose the appropriate level of engagement given the stakes and everything else on your plate.
- Partner with a finisher. Pair with a colleague with a complementary skill set. If you’re writing something, find a good editor. Some of my clients carve out a decision hour for the boring, tedious stuff, using an assistant as a sounding board.
“Intuitive doers” operate by feel, knowing what “good” looks like when they see it but struggling to describe it to others when delegating. Talented ones are promoted to managerial roles, where they flounder because they can’t handle the scale they’ve grown into.
To get out of intuitive processing mode:
- Identify the building blocks of your process. Delegation begins by figuring out exactly what you can delegate. Break your work into clear stages and hand the heavy lifting to others. Devote your time to where you can best make your unique contribution.
- Provide guidance. Spend time up front to clearly articulate what you instinctively do. Ask yourself: “When this comes back, what will I be looking for?” Communicate those criteria to the team.
- Don’t do other people’s jobs. Build in checkpoints to evaluate progress, ensure that things are on track, and correct course if necessary — but let people do their own work.
Completing tasks and achieving goals energizes everyone on the team. In my years as a productivity coach, I’ve found that nothing solves the dilemma more effectively and conclusively than a quick and thorough diagnosis and application of these principles. Take action now and you’ll be amazed at the momentum you can achieve.