When I start working with new clients, we often want to identify what is most important to their success and the success of their company. To help with this discussion, one of the exercises I will ask them to do is to track their activities for one day – from the time they get up until they go to bed. To make it simple, I just ask they keep a running list of everything they do or touch during a typical day.

A sample list from a day might look something like this:

  • Check phone for email (I hate seeing this the first thing but it often is)
  • Go to Gym & shower for work
  • Grab coffee & bagel
  • Check & respond to email
  • Review overnight orders
  • Daily huddle
  • Call ABC Customer about complaint
  • Follow-up with Jane about customer complaint
  • Walk product back to shipping to send to ABC Customer
  • Lunch with accountant – discuss changing payroll providers
  • Stop at office supply store on way back to office
  • Check website for Analytics
  • Get stuck in Analytics & call web contractor about questions
  • Review and sign weekly check run
  • Review new accounts and approve credit limit

Review this list – can you tell how large a company this CEO is running? Does she have five employees or 50? Are sales $500,000 or $5,000,000 or $50,000,000? Does it seem reasonable that a CEO with five employees and $2,000,000 might have this kind of day? If I told you that she had 200 employees and $50,000,000 in sales – would you be surprised? There are many reasons that someone in a larger company would still be doing tasks you would no longer expect. It can be an area of interest or of specific worry. But mainly it comes from a place of habit or comfort.

For some of us, there is a perverse thrill in mastering new skills or pushing through to get to the next level. Conversely, when our lists are long and we need a win, we like completing the mundane or simple tasks because it gives us the thought we have accomplished something. And that thought makes us feel good. Because we are creatures of habit and are conditioned to do things that make us feel good, we will continue to do these things. Even if it is no longer necessary, and often, long after others have been hired or tasked to take over those responsibilities. For me, it was spending time in the shipping department because in the early days at the company, we were constantly battling to get orders out on time. Every day felt like a win – regardless of what was on my personal task list.

Fast forward to when this was no longer an issue, I always felt justified that I had helped ship an order to a customer that day. There are numerous reasons I told myself it was okay – I was setting a good example, the customer always comes first, it was good to be in touch with the employees, etc. But the truth was I just liked doing it. It gave me a sense of getting something done (even if it wasn’t the tasks that I, as a leader, needed to do.) I’m sure the shipping supervisor dreaded it each time I showed up.

This is often described as the trap of “working in the business instead of on the business.” It is a sneaky master because it masks itself in perfectly acceptable (and necessary) activities. Who can argue with making sure a shipment gets out, filing your taxes on time, dealing with customer emergencies, resolving an employee dispute? All of these tasks NEED your attention! However, our real job is to lead the business. It is often difficult to do that when we are not working on the most important tasks, driving the most necessary outcomes and looking ahead to steer the ship. The problem is not just that we’re doing these tasks, it is that we are most often not even aware of how many of these items consume our time and energy.

How do you know this “task trap” is a problem?

Track your own daily tasks for at least a day – preferably a week. Be as specific as you need to remember what you were doing. It is important to include everything – from home, your family, your office, exercise, hobbies, etc. After you have your list, ask yourself the following questions (without regards to money or resources):

1.     Is it absolutely necessary?
2.     Am I the only person who can do this?
3.     If no, who else could do this? (Doesn’t need to be a current employee or resource.)
4.     Do I enjoy doing this task?
5.     Is it important to me, my family or my business?

(Note: Don’t keep track of how much time you are spending on each task. You can optimize your time after you identify what’s important.)

 What did you notice on your list? Were there items you like doing and aren’t important to your business? Are there items that are important to your business but you don’t particularly enjoy? Are there items important to you and/or your family that are not getting the attention they deserve? This last step is usually the most difficult but most important. Identify the Top 3 things that will make your business better and you a better leader, spouse/partner, parent, friend or person.

Prioritizing your list, and most often, removing or tabling items not making it to your Top 3 will create a pathway for you. Ironically, it’s not that we have too much to do; it is that we are not selective on what we choose to work on – which is why I know what we leave behind moves us forward.