Stop Flailing and Start Delivering
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Careers Jun 6, 2018

Stop Flailing and Start Delivering

Here’s how to gain clarity and focus when your tendency is to overcommit.

An overworked employee covered in postit notes.

Michael Meier

Based on insights from

Carter Cast

Given the pace of life today, it’s increasingly common to feel overwhelmed by a blizzard of professional obligations. To-do lists grow despairingly long; calendars fill with meetings and calls. Even those with laser focus can struggle to keep up.

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But some of us are more sus­cep­ti­ble than oth­ers to get­ting swept up in this fren­zied accu­mu­la­tion of tasks, strug­gling to set pri­or­i­ties or say no. By try­ing to do every­thing at once, some of us end up falling behind. 

Carter Cast, a clin­i­cal pro­fes­sor of inno­va­tion and entre­pre­neur­ship at the Kel­logg School, spent sev­er­al years exam­in­ing career derail­ment. In his new book, The Right (and Wrong) Stuff: How Bril­liant Careers Are Made — and Unmade, he explores five com­mon issues that impede career progress. Of the five, this is the issue peo­ple self-iden­ti­fy with most frequently. 

Careers can derail when peo­ple don’t deliv­er on promis­es,” Cast says. This can be a real prob­lem because fel­low work­ers start to dis­tance them­selves when they think you can’t be count­ed on.” 

Rec­og­nize this trait in your­self? Cast offers five rec­om­men­da­tions on how to get orga­nized and get ahead. 

Be Clear on What’s Expect­ed of You 

Many employ­ees, at least on paper, have more respon­si­bil­i­ties than any sin­gle per­son can real­is­ti­cal­ly tack­le. A sales exec­u­tive may have a vast client port­fo­lio. An HR exec­u­tive may be charged with the growth and devel­op­ment of hun­dreds of employ­ees. A com­pli­ance direc­tor might tech­ni­cal­ly have over­sight over dozens of com­plex ven­dor relationships. 

For an extreme exam­ple, con­sid­er the high turnover rate among Chief Mar­ket­ing Offi­cers. In 2016, the aver­age CMO tenure at top ad-spend­ing firms was just 42 months. Giv­en that CMOs are respon­si­ble for a broad range of spe­cial­ties — from adver­tis­ing to brand man­age­ment to cus­tomer expe­ri­ence — they are always in dan­ger of stretch­ing them­selves too thin. 

CMOs can find them­selves in real trou­ble by try­ing to take on too much,” says Cast, who is a for­mer CMO at eBay and online dia­mond sell­er Blue Nile. They can end up not deliv­er­ing on the most impor­tant aspects of their job and end up derailing.” 

Cast rec­om­mends approach­ing each role with an eye toward deliv­er­ing results. This means com­ing to a clear under­stand­ing of what the com­pa­ny actu­al­ly expects from you, and when. And while this is good advice for just about any­one, those of us who over­bur­den our­selves need to stay par­tic­u­lar­ly focused on the prize. 

Being clear with your boss on what suc­cess looks like is real­ly impor­tant for set­ting expec­ta­tions and ensur­ing you’re aligned,” Cast says. What are your goals and objec­tives for the year? What are the key ini­tia­tives that map to those objec­tives? What are the time­lines for those ini­tia­tives, and what sort of resources will you need?” 

If you don’t address these larg­er ques­tions ear­ly on, you may end up try­ing to focus on the wrong — or too many — objectives. 

You can win the bat­tle in get­ting a great big span of con­trol,” Cast says, but then lose the war because you have so much to do that you can’t pos­si­bly deliv­er on it.” 

Under­stand Your Organization’s Work­flow Process 

If you are strug­gling to fin­ish what you start, con­sid­er whether you are think­ing delib­er­ate­ly about what each step in a task entails. Those who over-reach tend to be cre­ative peo­ple with lots of ideas but an unstruc­tured way of approach­ing them. 

Their eyes are typ­i­cal­ly big­ger than their stom­achs,” Cast says, which is why they tend to over­promise and underdeliver.” 

To coun­ter­act that ten­den­cy, Cast rec­om­mends under­stand­ing the work­flow in an orga­ni­za­tion. Most com­pa­nies have estab­lished ways to move projects from incep­tion to com­ple­tion — project roadmaps. 

Decide which tasks will real­ly move the nee­dle for your orga­ni­za­tion, and focus on those first. You can’t treat every mes­sage in your inbox equally.”

You may need to tap some­one who knows this — per­haps a prod­uct or project man­ag­er — to take you through the steps so you under­stand what it takes to com­plete an ini­tia­tive well and on time,” Cast says. If you can draw a Gantt chart or some oth­er tool that shows the amount of work to be com­plet­ed in a cer­tain peri­od of time in rela­tion to the amount planned for that same peri­od, you’re in good shape. If not, you need to ask more ques­tions and gain a bet­ter understanding.” 

If you say you’ll launch a new food prod­uct by June, but you don’t expect FDA approval until late April, and you need that approval before order­ing the pack­ag­ing film, which takes three months to deliv­er, then you’re set­ting your­self up to fail,” Cast says. You need to know every step in the prod­uct-launch process!” 

Be Inten­tion­al about Pri­or­i­tiz­ing Your Work

By a cer­tain point in our careers, most of us are used to keep­ing lists that out­line what we have on our plate for the day. But there is a dif­fer­ence between jot­ting down a few scat­ter­shot items and tak­ing a more sys­tem­at­ic approach to pri­or­i­tiz­ing that list. 

Decide which tasks will real­ly move the nee­dle for your orga­ni­za­tion, and focus on those first,” Cast says. You can’t treat every mes­sage in your inbox equally.” 

One key part of pri­or­i­tiz­ing is know­ing when you work best. Cast sug­gests break­ing your day into seg­ments and tack­ling chal­leng­ing work dur­ing times when you are sharpest and most pro­duc­tive. If your brain is most active between six and ten in the morn­ing, for instance, that may not be the best time to respond to non­crit­i­cal emails. Save those mis­sives for a built-in time slot ded­i­cat­ed to admin­is­tra­tive tasks. 

Just as impor­tant is iso­lat­ing your­self from dis­trac­tions dur­ing your most pro­duc­tive seg­ment of the day. This could mean turn­ing off email alerts or keep­ing the phone at a safe distance. 

If you look at your phone after every ping, you put your­self in response mode, which is com­mon,” Cast says. It ends up becom­ing a major dis­trac­tion. The tail ends up wag­ging the dog. Remem­ber that, by and large, your inbox is com­posed of oth­er people’s agen­das, not yours. Try to first work on your big pri­or­i­ties, then respond to your inbox.” 

Learn How to Say No”

If you are feel­ing over­whelmed by your respon­si­bil­i­ties, con­sid­er whether you are by nature a pleas­er,” as many high achiev­ers are. Pleasers tend to take on more than they should — their default response is, yes, why not?” But learn­ing when to say no,” and learn­ing to do it tact­ful­ly, is crit­i­cal for pre­serv­ing valu­able time and energy. 

Of course, there is a rea­son that most of us are hes­i­tant to say no: we want to fos­ter rela­tion­ships and stay as con­nect­ed to oth­ers as pos­si­ble. But guard­ing your time does not require dis­con­nect­ing com­plete­ly. Carter sug­gests turn­ing requests into man­age­able favors.”

For exam­ple, instead of sit­ting down for an hour-long con­ver­sa­tion with a col­league about a project idea, you could take five min­utes to share some ideas via email or over the phone. That way you main­tain the rela­tion­ship with­out sac­ri­fic­ing too much time. 

Entre­pre­neurs often strug­gle with this,” Carter says. Espe­cial­ly if they become known, they’ll start get­ting all kinds of offers to be on pan­els and take non-essen­tial meet­ings. All of a sud­den, their time is not their own. They have to find ways to not lose their bear­ings and stay focused on the activ­i­ties that will pro­pel their start­up forward.” 

Look for Oppor­tu­ni­ties to Del­e­gate

In addi­tion to learn­ing how to say no,” any­one strug­gling to cross crit­i­cal items off of the to-do list needs to learn the art of del­e­gat­ing. Del­e­ga­tion doesn’t always come nat­u­ral­ly to high achievers. 

We tend to think the best per­son to per­form a giv­en task is our­selves,” Cast says. We may also be under the mis­tak­en impres­sion that del­e­gat­ing is viewed as a sign of weakness. 

Even in cas­es where you are the most qual­i­fied per­son to do the job, that does not mean you have to — or that you should. 

It’s easy to think that because you have a cer­tain domain knowl­edge, you should per­form every task in that area,” Cast says. But if some­one else can per­form the task even 80 per­cent as effec­tive­ly, and it’s not mis­sion-crit­i­cal, it might be a good idea to delegate.” 

Apart from free­ing up time to focus on more impor­tant tasks, del­e­gat­ing also helps oth­ers gain valu­able expe­ri­ence and build new capabilities. 

In many cas­es, you have to learn to let go a bit,” Cast says. Things won’t go exact­ly the way you’d like, but you have to move for­ward and avoid need­less distractions.” 

Featured Faculty

Carter Cast

Clinical Associate Professor of Innovation & Entrepreneurship

About the Writer

Marc Zarefsky is a freelance writer based in Evanston, Illinois.

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