Improved Leadership. Competitive Advantage.

Research on goal setting is rather conclusive in a couple of areas. Notably, trying to fix everything at once will, almost always, result in failure. This principle should apply as we approach our To-Do list. Before we go any further, we put forth our legal jargon here. There is no single ‘right’ way to do this. There is no regression equation, F=ma, or y = mx + b answer to fix your To-Do list. Unfortunately, there is no easy fix; no silver bullet. Even worse, it will require you to make some hard, even, unpopular decisions. With that behind us, here’s a way forward.

First, look at your calendar or your recent To-Do lists. Go back and get a good sampling. Maybe the last 10 or 15 To-Do lists. Second, try to identify the single biggest culprit that derails your To-Do list. Is it your boss? An outside agency? Corporate ‘help?’ A bad employee? A lazy peer? We’ll come back to this in a minute. Third, pay yourself first. Attempt, as much as humanly possible, to start your day with one of your priorities. Block off that time. As the day gets going, you will lose more and more control and will get blown farther and farther off track. Having a say in how your day starts, though, is a big deal. In one of the more famous commencement speeches of our time, Admiral McRaven told the graduating class at the University of Texas to begin the day asserting control by doing one singular activity/priority: make your bed! Laugh it off at your own risk. The simplicity of this one act is profound. Even if you have to get to work 20 minutes early, commit to beginning the day with your priority—not someone else’s. What we’re saying is that the first activity you should tackle at work—even if it’s just minutes at a time—is to make your bed…not someone else’s.

We offer two other improvement tactics. We’ve become experts at this phenomenon and a universal truth almost always if not always emerges. Return back to our Law & Order theme. Remember the single culprit that seems to assert primary authorship of your To-Do list? It is time to initiate a conversation with him. Especially in command and control climates such as a power station, many times leaders forget that their suggestions become orders to their subordinates. One leader that took our suggestion found exactly that. When she sat down with her Director and actually showed how she wasn’t getting important work done because she was always responding to his missives, his response back was telling. He simply said that he didn’t expect her to do all of those action items, and many were just suggestions. Moving forward, they were better aligned, and she got to author more of her To-Do list. Related to this point, we suggest the strategy of cooptation. Cooptation involves assimilating or winning others over to your views and getting other stakeholders to assume your views as their own.

Put differently, if you can’t be sole author of your To-Do list, you should strive, at the very least, to be a joint author. This involves sitting down with a boss, an auditor, or a peer and saying, “I think these should be my main priorities. Do you have a problem if I really focus on them?” Strive to earn their buy-in. Once you get that buy-in, you can refer back to that conversation when the To-Do list drifts too far off course. Finally, and the tactic that invokes the most risk and could invite conflict, is just to say NO and stay true to your own priorities. We know of two cases where facility leaders were getting swamped by corporate requests. In both cases, these two leaders spent so much time responding to higher HQs, they were no longer managing or leading. After having enough, they both said NO to some corporate requests. Both lived to see another day. Neither were fired. Amazingly, the barrage of requests and To-Do’s from higher began to shrink. Performance, not surprisingly, began to grow. This takes courage, and that can often be in short supply.

You know what TO DO. Don’t forget to put on your To-Do list to reach out to Robin Bichy, a founder and principal at ELP. She’ll help you with prioritization. After all, we offer compelling solutions to strategic planning and time management that can unlock enormous value immediately. Reach her at