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 Management Minute

Rethinking My To Do List

By Barbara Laur
Interim Chief Executive Officer, AMCHP

I lived by the “to do” list as a manager for many years. But in one of my most long-term executive jobs, the list really started to get to me. As time went on, the list got longer and longer. It included things that were more routine that I really hoped to get to, but never did, as well as a lot of really interesting ideas for the future.

Periodically, as the years went by and the list ballooned, I would stress out and talk to my best coaches, my husband Mike and my good friend Dory. Mike’s wisdom was usually the same: “Do the best you can do, and that will be enough.” This remains my ongoing mantra when things get crazy. Dory always had reassuring words as well. After talking to her or Mike, I would let my anxieties go for a while as the list continued to grow. But one time, Dory said something that stuck with me and helped me permanently reframe my thinking about the list. “Look,” she said, “you will probably never do all these things. But you know that you are very good at prioritizing, and you always get the most important things done. Why don’t you just think of this list as your ‘potentialities list’?”

This was a game changer for me. Once I understood the list was about “possibilities”, not about “musts”, I was able to breathe a huge and lasting sigh of relief. I realized that some of the routine things weren’t ultimately that important – if they stayed on the list long enough, they tended to fade and even drop off. The more creative ideas about the future, new projects, new ways to do things were a sign that my brain was still actively engaged in creative, innovative thinking about a job that could have become boring. I actually got to some of those eventually, and that made the work ever fresh and interesting.

Of course, there are still times when the real “to dos” are challenging. If those times are periodic, and not every day, they can be exciting moments when big projects get launched or come to fruition. If your list really does reflect an overwhelming daily work load that creates regular stress, ask for help. A critical part of management is delegation and partnership with others to get the job done. If you haven’t let go of the need to do it all yourself, this is the time. Give others a chance to help, collaborate and learn. You might also ask your supervisor to help you think about how to get your work to a manageable level. Finally, make sure that in the process of getting things done, you’re not always trying to “tie a bow on it”. Remember, most times, “good” is good enough - the extra effort to be perfect isn’t necessary or productive.

I know in the MCH world that many of you are trying to do all the same things – in some cases, more - with fewer and fewer resources. Look at your list. What do you see? Can you reframe it as a “potentialities list”? Could someone else help get these things done? Could you talk with your supervisor about how to rethink and restructure your job? Do you really need to tie a bow on it?

To enjoy our work over many years, and to do our best work, we have to get free of oppressive lists and open up work space where we can reflect, envision, and breathe.

P.S. I’d love to hear your wisdom and experience about making your lists and your work load more manageable. If you email me with your thoughts, I’ll include them in my next Management Minute.