The art of getting things done

October 17, 2008 

Two occurrences in just the past five days got have gotten my attention about the proverbial challenge of getting things done. One was a luncheon program I attended; the other a book that I have only just begun to read. Hopefully the former will help me in completing the latter.

As a sidebar, it's motivating to discover that spending one hour at a luncheon program and reading fewer than a dozen pages of a well-selected book can have such a positive impact. So the point, before what I hope will be several helpful points, is to never stop seeking opportunities to learn something new — even opportunities that, in the scheme of things, appear to be insignificant. Getting back on topic, I'd like to share some thoughts about the art of getting things done — on both the individual and organizational levels. If you're looking for a list of tips for marking items off of your To Do list, it won't be here. Rather, my goal is to share a more philosophical view of the capacity to get things done, and from that perhaps you can determine for yourself how to make decisions about actions required for completing your tasks and commitments.

First, let's look at the No. 1 reason individuals don't get things done: procrastination. The luncheon program I attended featured keynote speaker Derrick Shields, a local realtor, who offered the best definition of procrastination I've ever heard. “Procrastination,” Shields said, “is putting off things for such a period of time that it becomes a problem.”

We've all dragged our feet, postponed, delayed and put off tasks at one time or another. And when it doesn't cause a problem, it's a darned good way to gain more time. But when it becomes a problem, it affects not only the procrastinator, but often others as well.

To understand the cost of procrastination, Shields proposed that one not only consider the unpleasant consequences of not doing the task, but also to take into account what it costs others by not doing something that needs to be done. Looking outward rather than inward can be very motivating.

Shields also drilled it down to the two main reasons people procrastinate. Either the task is unpleasant or it's overwhelming.

Think about the things you are putting off which need to be done. More than likely they fall into one of these categories. By understanding the basis of your procrastination, you can pragmatically decide how to handle it.

Water is wet, rocks are hard, and not all responsibilities are pleasant. But the sooner they are faced, then the sooner the unpleasant tasks are behind you and the sooner you can quit beating yourself up about not doing them.

Unpleasant tasks always look much better when they are in your rearview mirror as opposed to staring you down from ahead. Overwhelming projects can be broken down. Shields shared an inspiring Martin Luther King, Jr. quote: “You don't have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”  And another by St. Francis of Assisi: “Start by doing what is necessary; then do what is possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”

It really is that straightforward.

What about organizations that can't seem to get off center point? There is much written about organizational change, and the book I just began reading is "A Sense of Urgency" by John Kotter.

Kotter writes about an analysis of 100 efforts in organizations to produce large-scale change, from complete reorganization of a department to introducing new IT systems. It was found that in more than 70 percent of the cases, these changes failed or achieved less than desired success at best.

But in 10 percent of the cases, what was achieved was above and beyond what anyone could have imagined in the way of a success. Among the 10 percent that realized success, some common characteristics were clearly identified.

As you read these six organizational traits and/or discernments that led to successful change, think about how your company or department compares.

Have a sense of urgency — Organizations that get things done understand and communicate that the time is now. The message is so compelling that it results in a catalyst for commitment to change. Without a sense of urgency, people will continue to put things off until tomorrow. Crafting such a message is a leadership issue, the leader's ability to share a vision in such a compelling way that everyone is on board.

Low tolerance for complacency — For organizations with a low tolerance for complacency, good isn't good enough. Past successes are just that — in the past. They don't rest on their laurels and even if competition or the market is not requiring it, these organizations continually raise the bar on themselves.

A false or misguided sense of urgency — These organizations are so busy with their sense of urgency that they fail to realize they're chasing the wrong issues. They are so busy putting out fires and creating “busyness” in other areas that they fail to address the real opportunities and threats before them. Sorta like not seeing the forest for the trees, or the small business owner who is so busy working in his business that he never stops and thinks to work on the business.

Not knowing the difference between real and false urgencies — In the course of misguided frenzied action, the results could be worse than if the business had settled for complacency. Imagine seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and barreling forward only to find it's a train. Yikes.

Created a strategy with tactics — Talk is cheap; what are you gonna do? With a strategy in place and everyone on board, the next question addressed should be, “What is our next best step?” That's the beginning of implementing tactics. Don't let a meeting end without concrete steps, or tactics, for implementing a strategy. The best of intentions and a buck will get you a cup of coffee. Hold people accountable. It may mean that you are asking others to hold you accountable.

Move from episodic to continual — Kotter describes the sense of urgency associated with episodic change as coming in occasional spurts. Like a lunch rush in a restaurant, it handles a current situation but does nothing to improve the overall business. But with continual improvement, a sustained sense of urgency is always necessary. Change is constant. Constant change plus episodic urgency is not the formula for sustained success. If you want to run with the big dogs, you can't take time-outs on the porch.

What do you need to do to get yourself or your business moving forward and accomplishing what needs to be done? Gain an understanding of what's getting in your way, and break through the barriers that are putting limits on you and your organization's success.

Contact Susan Miller at miller_susan@colstate.edu and visit the Cunningham Center Web site at http://ccld.colstate.edu.

Ledger-Enquirer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service