Leadership Perspectives

Not getting anything done? Are you focused on Progress or Maintenance?

A client recently told me that the most important distinction I had shared with her was my notion of “Progress versus Maintenance.”  The concept is simple and it is one that I started working on very early in my career and adult life when I noticed how easy it was to get bogged down with “busy work” at the expense of getting to the things that I really wanted to accomplish.

Chores like processing incoming mail seemed to require a disproportionate amount of my time.  At work, completing a required report for the board could fill a day.  Sorting mail and completing reports had to be done but didn’t give me a lot of satisfaction.

On the other hand, spending weekends fixing up my new-old house gave me a satisfied joy that carried right over into work on Monday.  Similarly, carving out time to strategize and launch new products with my team made me feel as though I had really done something.

Out of these observations came the realization that maintenance was necessary but that progress was more fun.  I clearly preferred “projects (progress)” over “tasks (maintenance)” and made a resolution to minimize time spent on maintenance in my life and work.

Here’s how you can spend more time on Progress and less time on Maintenance:

Recognize what is Maintenance and what is Progress.  If it allows you to survive, it’s maintenance.  If it moves you closer to your goals, it’s progress.  For some people, painting and affixing shutters and window boxes to their home would be maintenance.  But, if one of your dreams is – as mine was – to turn a tiny WWII era bungalow into an enchanted cottage on short money, then the project would definitely be progress!

Develop strategies to efficiently cope with maintenance.  Maintenance usually has to get done, but you don’t get extra points for letting it take longer than it needs to, or sometimes, for even doing it yourself.  And sometimes, it doesn’t really need to be done at all.

  1. Ask yourself “Does this REALLY have to be done?”  Perhaps not.  Perhaps you do it because it had always been done before.  Perhaps it would be nice, but the value it adds doesn’t equal the time it requires.
  2. Ask yourself “Do I really have to do this?”  Today, you can hire someone to do most anything that is legal (and a lot of things that are not, I imagine, but I digress).  As I write this blog post, I have no intention of formatting it, uploading the picture, or doing the final proofing.  My VA (virtual assistant) does those things more efficiently than I do and, while they are maintenance to me, doing them is progress to her as her goal is to be paid to do what she can to minimize others’ maintenance.
  3. Ask yourself “How can I do this better and faster?”  I still process my mail at home but I do it with a sharp letter opener, on a countertop for sorting, next to the shredder.  The goal is to quickly handle each piece once and dispose of it.  Another strategy is to examine your current standards and challenge them.  Quality is good; unnecessary perfection is not.  My client found that producing the minutes of meetings previously took a full day just to get the details right and to research things she missed.  Now she takes notes differently, focuses on past and future deliverables, and gets them done in less than an hour.  No one has complained.

Develop strategies to push Progress to the top of the pile.  The important thing is to keep what is important to you within your sight.

  1. Write down your important goals and “someday” projects and post them where you see them.  I like Post-it™ notes on my office wall.  Others use their white board.
  2. Consider devoting the first hour of each day to something that is important to you, before you allow yourself to be swallowed up by email and firefighting, or even routine tasks.
  3. Otherwise, schedule appointments with yourself.  I have another client who feels that it is critically important to get up, walk around, visit people, and be seen by others outside her department.  To make it happen, she schedules it.  No one knows that she schedules it; it’s just an appointment that she keeps with herself.
  4. Consider turning your back on maintenance tasks for a day just to do something that you desperately would like to accomplish;  something that would make you feel great and which would move your business, your organization, or your life in a positive direction.


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