On My Mind / Essays On Success

Work Less and Focus More on What Matters to You


"Still going.  Still going."  You know that pink bunny in the commercials with the cool shades banging the drum?  To me the "Energizer bunny" is a symbol for boundless energy and the "just keep going" attitude.  At times, I felt like I was him.


In graduate school I was determined to complete my master's thesis while doing 100 other things simultaneously.  I had a full course load that required endless reading, spent many hours a week as a teaching assistant, worked part-time, and then was trying to write my master's thesis as well.


My mentor was a fabulous woman with Austrian roots who brought out my German rigor for timeliness and completion.  We both met deadlines easily.  That is, until it came to moving forward on my thesis. When I described to her all the balls I had in the air she said to me quite matter-of-factly, "Jeanine, you cannot possibly do all the course work every instructor assigns so don't even try.  Your priority is your master's thesis."


What?  Did I hear her correctly - she was a professor telling me not to do my homework.  Does not compute.  Does not compute.  The Energizer Bunny hit a wall.


This was a turning point for me.  I learned two key lessons.  The first lesson is that I cannot get everything done, so as Esther put it, "don't even try!" Period. It's impossible to be done with work.  Especially in today's fast-paced, technology driven everything-is-due-yesterday-mentality. We can work 60 hours a week and still there is more to do. We need to let go of the expectation that we will get everything done.


The constant sense of not getting everything done is taking quite a toll on us. Millions of Americans suffer from unhealthy levels of stress at the workplace.  And with that comes stress-related illnesses (e.g., heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes, lowered immune system, which protects against many serious diseases).  In fact, the U.S. Public Health Service made reducing stress one of its main goals for health promotion. Thus freeing yourself from the "I can get it all done expectation" is not simply a benign goal -- it could help save your life.


One coaching client I worked with was an executive director of a large non-profit organization.  Jane had recovered from breast cancer, which brought a new-found perspective where she realized the importance of work/life balance. Having come so close to death brought in clear focus what was most important and precious in her life - her family. Jane was able to take more time to spend with family and friends, and that was an enormous change for her.


What she still found challenging was to leave the office at a reasonable hour and call it a day.  She felt compelled to email from home, review projects, prepare for meetings, etc.  And doing this meant she never really allowed herself to be finished.  Going home was simply a break, not an end point for the day.


Jane is not atypical.  Many professionals are working longer hours today than ever before.  So much for all the new technology helping us become more efficient.  Instead, we are doing more and bringing work home, on vacation, in the car, everywhere. Whether you are an executive director, a political adviser or an independent entrepreneur, your work is never done because there is always more you can do in a given day. 


The time has come to create boundaries and say "I've done enough today."  No matter what your profession, liberate yourself from the expectation that "I can get it all done."  You can't.  Don't try.  It is as simple as that.  No guilt.  No self-flagellation.


The second lesson from Esther was the necessity to prioritize my tasks based on what was important to me.  If I didn't complete all my reading for a course, I would at times be lost in class discussion, but that's about it. 


But the long-term consequence of completing my master's thesis was enormous.  It allowed me to graduate, go on to earn my Ph.D., get a post doctoral placement, win a competitive congressional science fellowship, open my own consulting business, be trained as an executive coach -- all of which led me here today writing this essay for the Washington Post. By prioritizing my master's thesis I achieved goals that were essential to my career success. 


Another client I worked with was an energetic new academic who couldn't figure out how to manage her time so she could publish an article in a professional journal.  Susan was an over achiever and super smart.  She had read dozens of books on time management and tried endless techniques. Therefore her challenge with time wasn't simply a matter of finding the right trick. She was stuck.


What we uncovered in the coaching was that she always said yes to requests for her time.  Whether she was asked to write a new paper, take on additional responsibility in her role as a manager, or attend a last-minute meeting, she could not say no. (For more information on the power of saying no - see my previous essay at http://views.washingtonpost.com/on-success/on-my-mind/2010/08/saying_no_can_save_your_career.html) 


We explored her criteria for saying yes or no to a new request.  And she basically said, "If it is humanly possible, then I say yes."  Well, what is humanly possible?  For Susan it was basically anything that didn't kill her.  Imagine that!  Yet how many of us can relate? 


This discovery was a bit stunning for Susan.  She realized that saying yes to everyone else's requests meant that she was basically saying no to herself, over and over again.  She was saying no to a regular exercise routine.  She was saying no to eating well.  She was saying no to time with her husband.  She was saying no to leisure time.  She was saying no to work-life balance.  She was saying no to publishing an article.  Susan realized that she needed to prioritize what was most important to her.


Focusing on the coaching goal of publishing an article, she set aside four hours a week to write and then protect that time the same way she would if it were an appointment with someone else. She began to practice saying no to other people's demands and requests and created more time for what was really important to her.  For Susan to prioritize her goal was satisfying and this reinforced her continued effort to focus on writing and publishing an article.


Many of my clients have struggled similarly with time management and used the following strategy with good results:


-- Make a list every day (or week) of tasks to be completed and practice prioritizing, delegating and deleting them as appropriate.


-- To prioritize tasks, select two or three that are most important to you.  Spend time on those first.


-- Next, determine which tasks you can delegate.  Is there anyone else who could do this?  Even if you are not a manager, there may be tasks on your list that are more suited for another person/colleague/employee.  Ask if they can do it instead. Some people find delegation the most challenging part of this strategy.


-- Lastly, which tasks can you delete all together?  This is often a tough exercise for most of us.  Yet deleting can be liberating.  For 10 years, I was working on a manuscript. The problem was that I hadn't done much on it for the last seven years or so, and the idea of finishing and publishing it was always hanging over me.  When I finally deleted it from my to-do list I felt liberated. The time for that book had come and gone.  I could let it go.  Doing this opened up space for a new book idea to emerge. 


If you don't have the ultimate say over what gets delegated and deleted, you still have the power to convince your boss to support your time-management goals.  Engage him or her in conversations and you can practice prioritizing, delegating and deleting together.


So what can you currently delete from your to-do-list at work or in your personal life?  It can be something as big as a possible book or as small as a lunch date that you really are not interested in keeping.


What are you currently putting on the back burner that is really most important to you?  What tasks are taking precedence?  What is the consequence? (Be sure to reflect on how this impacts your mood and energy level.) Move what really matters to you to the top of your to-do list.  Do it first.



Note: The names of clients in this article were changed to maintain confidentiality.


Jeanine Cogan

 |  November 4, 2010; 7:08 PM ET  |  Category:  Personal essays Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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If I followed your advice, I would never have read your essay. What does that say?

Posted by: Marty_Chicago | November 5, 2010 3:36 PM
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Great philosophy for looking at priorities. Unfortunately, unless your boss buys in, ain't gonna work.

Posted by: tomguy1 | November 4, 2010 10:33 PM
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Reading this causes some random unrelated thoughts...

First: Perfect is the enemy of good. (and takes much less time).

Second: I've worked for managers whose opinion of me was based on the number of hours spentat work, not the quality or quantity of work product. This is an almost impossible barrier to circumvent. It's particularly demoralizing.

Third: The vast majority of my life I've always worked hard to the point I can enjoy very little. I'm retired and in my late sixties. This is a depressing position to be in and even with therapy there has not been a way out. Avoid this trap.

Posted by: billsecure | November 4, 2010 10:03 PM
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It is all up to you.

I am the son of a coal miner. In high school I remember fair grades. I also remember that the children of the merchants in town got all the attention. I was not unhappy in school. I played four years of football, and took courses, where I could make a selection, that allowed me to meet girls.

When the time came I quite and started work in the coalmines. It took about three weeks for me to realize that coal mining was not to be my profession. I stuck it out for a year and a draft notice ended that.

I did not wait for the draft and joined the Navy. I made good grades on my battery scores which gave me a choice of schools after boot camp.

About the third day of boot camp I was told that I had been picked as guide-on; you know that person that marches on the right front and carries the company flag. I would have rather have had a shot in the mouth.

I tried out and was selected as Recruit Commander of Troops, given a sword and lead the whole brigade.

Having made good grades on my battery scores I got first choice of everything available out of boot camp. I choose Aviation and Aviation Prep school at the University of Oklahoma at Norman, and Aviation Machinist Mate school at Memphis, TN.

After that I had a lot of fun in Pensacola, FL and time to get out and go home came around. All I had to return to was coal mining.

I reenlisted and set some goals: I was going to make chief, earn a college degree, and worked for Hughes Aircraft company.

I retired from the Navy as an Aircraft Maintenance chief, earned a BBA, and retired from Hughes aircraft company as a Senior Engineer.

There were many people who got in my way and, after some experience, I saw the coming.

I never failed at anything, and here in my old age I understand why. It was an attitude I developed on the football field as a runt. I played four years of lackluster football and it felt good. I never gave up on anything in my life – and I planned everything. I spent however much time it took on Friday evening making notes and planning Monday. Those people that owed me data or whatever, I met them at the front door Monday morning as they came to work. I never had a bad Monday.

Perhaps I was just lucky. However, it is mostly up to you what you make of your life. I see people who have learned to lean of mentors and they go through life expecting to follow someone. There will be a time when the Peter Principle will take hold, and they will be devastated.

Posted by: ramseytuell | November 4, 2010 6:47 PM
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A good place to start asserting control and placing limits is to lose the cell phone or blackberry.

Posted by: rebecca81 | November 4, 2010 6:36 PM
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A very wise woman once told me:
1) Make a prioritized list of things to be done. 2) Work from the top down, and 3) cross-off from the botton up. 4) Quit when you hit the middle.

Posted by: Resident3 | November 4, 2010 6:28 PM
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Just say "no" to people who try to foist their work on you under the guise of 'delegating'.

Posted by: pamschuh9 | November 4, 2010 4:45 PM
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For many of us,we are on a required schedule or we are required to perform certain tasks and leaving before they are done is not an option. Secondly, bosses don't like no for an answer.

Posted by: normster621 | November 4, 2010 3:47 PM
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I think it's just the sad reality of work life in 21st century America.

Posted by: Gator2011 | November 4, 2010 11:03 AM

Gator, I have a two six-in-one step program for the retentive over organized. You can go ahead and skip step one, because you seem to realize that having a sick kid is not a Career Choice you make, and decisions about how much Unemployment Insurance to put aside for Retirement are inherently tricky. Ms. Cogan should review ...

Step Two (#7-#12) is figuring out just where that "guilt" comes from. Here is a hint: you have been shouted down by the "Experts". Anyone with mild math skills can easily determine that there is no slack in a 10 hour portal to portal work day. That means there is no regular 10 hour schedule that has the required amount of daylight in the United States' latitudes. I think it's fair to say there never has been since way way before the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

There is a streak of anti-Science that runs through Employment practices beyond simple ignorance of technique.

Care to address that Ms. Cogan ?

Posted by: gannon_dick | November 4, 2010 2:52 PM
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It's a real drag to be around people who take on too much and 'delegate' it all over the place. They are ususally spaz-types who have no attention spans at all; generally looking at a Blackberry all the time, even when talking to a person one-on-one..they usually have unfulfilling marriages and underattended children...everything is done poorly and they make co-workers and employees miserable; hopefully their heart attack comes sooner rather than later.

Posted by: pamschuh9 | November 4, 2010 12:23 PM
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Great article. It definitely struck a nerve with me. I often stay late at work to try to get more things done, but after reading this article, I will tell myself, "I've done enough today."

But the part that had me was the part about how saying yes to other people's requests meant saying no to herself. I can't remember the last time I did anything fun for myself.

Posted by: bananabread1 | November 4, 2010 11:58 AM
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While I agree in spirit with this article, I think it ignores the work realities in which most of us live. Employers are demanding every last drop of sweat and blood that they can possibly get from us, and if we don't provide what they want as quickly as they want it, then we know we can be replaced. What is really scary is that we can be replaced or eliminated even if we provide everything that an employer wants. The employer holds all the cards. The ability to implement Dr Cogan's (humane, healthy) suggestions is a luxury that most people just do not have. I think it's just the sad reality of work life in 21st century America.

Posted by: Gator2011 | November 4, 2010 11:03 AM
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Tee hee, or just find a rich man to marry and don't have to work! GRRL POWER!

Posted by: scoran | November 4, 2010 10:37 AM
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1. I am a firm believer in pace over speed.

2.'Measure twice and cut once' is also an expression I have come to appreciate. Do it right the first time so you are not performing a half baked task.

3. If your are not certain about a project, find someone who can do it.

4. If you don't have the time than allocate accordingly.

5. If you are pushed to the limits, find someone who is willing to assist.

6. Never be afraid to admit you can't do something and always be willing to say 'I don't want to do it.'

Posted by: jakesfriend1 | November 4, 2010 9:12 AM
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was going to read this but i dont have the time!

Posted by: teamsimple | November 4, 2010 8:59 AM
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One of the most important ideas in this essay:

"...she set aside four hours a week to write and then protect that time the same way she would if it were an appointment with someone else."

Learning to keep appointments with oneself is essential to creating balance -- and to overall success. I have learned to say, "I'm very sorry, but I can't help you today. I have an appointment." I don't have to specify that the appointment may be with myself -- at the gym, running in the park, reading, writing, playing music, spending time with my spouse, or baking a loaf of bread. It's an appointment just the same, and as important as any other.

Posted by: sunrise1 | November 4, 2010 8:25 AM
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Well. You are IN my head. What's more, you've read my mind and started the repair work, too. Now I just need to finish what you've started here.

Could not be more appropriate and truly helpful.

Thank you!

Posted by: Laura27 | November 4, 2010 8:10 AM
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If you have so much on your plate that you can't possibly get it all done, yet it all must be done then you delegate work to others. How do you think business gets things done?

Posted by: bobbo2 | November 4, 2010 6:58 AM
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Thank you so much. It was about me...:)

Posted by: martafrankova | November 4, 2010 6:47 AM
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