September 27, 2015

Don’t Let Unfinished Business Ruin Your Work

When the demands you face outpace the resources you have to address them, you’ll end up negotiating with yourself about which of your many fires you should put out, even as you painfully neglect the others.

I call this set of imperfect choices the manager’s dilemma because it is truly a no-win situation, without an obvious solution.

One side effect of this overwhelmed and scattered place is a pattern of subtle but damaging “leaks” that drain your already-fragile supply of time, energy, resources and focus. In practical terms, leaks are those unwanted, recurring experiences that make it hard for us to get great work done. Not surprisingly, these leaks require unbudgeted time, energy, resources and focus to address them.

Once these unproductive patterns of behavior are deeply rooted in our everyday routines, they become difficult to notice and even harder to shift. They silently drain our resources and erode the things we value. One of the most common of these leaks? Unfinished business.

When you constantly rush to get the next thing done, you end up with the unfinished business left over from previous hurried conversations, truncated meetings and hastily written emails. We have other discussions, meetings and messages, so we convince ourselves that half-hearted attempts are the best we can do.

But seeking premature closure due to pressure from deadlines, fatigue, or difficult issues leaves important work unfinished. Staff meetings end without resolution, discussions have no closure and problems are only partially resolved. The leak then shows up as frustration at lack of closure, disengagement in meetings and other forms of partial communication that tell only part of the story. Burnout from his merry-go-round of constant problem-chasing only compounds the dilemma.

The good news is that this leak is both recognizable and containable. Take the following steps to plug it:

1. Focus on what is important; then act like it is.

Make realistic investments of time and energy that match the need at hand. Rather than looking for quicker conversations and shorter meetings, take as much time as is needed to get the right things done.

2. Anchor everything to a concrete next step.

If closure is not achieved, deliver a clear next milestone that will facilitate it in a reasonable amount of time. If it cannot all be done, consider the next fluid increment that will spell progress.

3. Use each success to your advantage.

Nothing kills momentum like repeating the same conversation or task left unfinished the first time. Reverse this by using your renewed focus to get energized from each small win, resolved issue or achieved outcome.

Rather than quick fixes and short-term solutions that masquerade as progress, you can use these strategies to develop a more effective pattern of getting the right things done right now. The next time you catch yourself firefighting, plug this leak and avoid the unfinished business that can ruin your work.

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