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4 counterintuitive strategies to finally tackle those nagging projects

We all have those things on our to-do list that just never get crossed off. Here’s how to change that.

4 counterintuitive strategies to finally tackle those nagging projects
[Photo: AndrewScherbackov/Getty Images]

Do you have projects you’ve sidelined? Perhaps you’ve tried to implement time management strategies to tackle those to-do items—yet they still never get done. But, as these projects sit untended, they are taking up mental real estate and costing you peace. Here are some counterintuitive approaches to help you gain traction on those nagging projects.

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Be late for meetings

You may view it as a point of pride to always arrive at meetings five to ten minutes early. However, those minutes add up. You could be over-preparing and losing precious hours in your week. Consider redirecting that time toward projects that are waiting for your attention. Try being right on time—or even five minutes late—to some of your meetings. With the time you gain back, you can start planning the project you wish to start.

One client I coached would jump on Zoom at least ten minutes before the start of a meeting to ensure that all the technology worked. Every once in a while, he found something that was off; however, most of the time the tech presented no problems. This client complained to me that he didn’t have enough thinking time during the week.

We looked at his calendar. All of those ten minutes were adding up to large chunks of his week. As an experiment, the client decided to arrive at his virtual meetings right on time. He learned he could use these small pockets of time to do something productive instead of sitting on Zoom, alone.

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Another leader I coached used this same strategy. She discovered that in her organization, meetings never started on time, anyway. Instead of sitting alone on Zoom, the leader decided that she would also show up “late.” Look at your organization’s trend: Is it okay to be late? Use those extra minutes for your pressing projects. 

Add more to your calendar

I coach most leaders to look at their calendars and make a sweeping cut of all meetings they don’t need to attend. Many are attending more meetings than necessary as a means to provide cover for their teams or over-communicate their points of view. 

However, there are certain instances in which adding more meetings will help you accomplish the work. To tackle your nagging projects, identify accountability partners and schedule regular check-ins with them. A couple of 30-minute meetings during the week with a partner can provide you with accountability, a new viewpoint, or a means to delegate some of the work you’ve outlined. Some leaders can accomplish more if their calendars are full, because the full calendar forces them to act efficiently. This approach, while hard to sustain long-term, is perfect for short bursts of work.  

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Layer your activities

Consider: How can you layer work and tackle nagging projects while you’re objectively engaged in something else? For example, when you’re exercising, could you speak through the talking points of an upcoming presentation and record yourself? Later, transcribe your audio. Or, if you want to squeeze in some extra reading, try listening to an audiobook while taking a walk. Consider where you can layer work and use your time more effectively to accomplish meaningful projects.

Eliminate work and determine your “good enough”

Look at all of the work you need to accomplish. What is not a short-term priority? Where can you cut corners? Consider: What are your essential projects and your “nice-to-have” projects? For the tasks you deem imperative, determine your “good enough.” Weigh the value of more time dedicated to a project versus the impact that spending extra time will take on your team’s morale. 

For example, you can make your group stay late and get the last 15% of a task accomplished—but would that add exponential value? If you’re always asking the team to stay late, you will deplete your team’s creativity. That extra time won’t add much (if anything) to the project overall. This is one of the areas that I coach on most frequently: Not all of your work has to be perfect. Rather than pushing for perfection and making draining demands on your team (or yourself), ask: “Will this matter to the client or end-user?” If your team submitted a proposal and the ideas are there, though not exactly in your words or how you would like it, again, ask: “Will the client care?” Most often, the answer is “No.” It’s good enough. 

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Anne Sugar is an executive coach and keynote speaker who has advised top leaders in verticals such as biotech, technology, and finance. Anne serves as an executive coach for Harvard Business School Executive Education and has guest lectured at MIT.


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