Day 4 – Let Things Slough Off

“Sometimes you have to let go to see if there was anything worth holding on to.” – Anonymous
Your Outcome: Learn how to let things go with skill.  By letting things “slough off”, you improve your ability to focus on what counts and you make room for YOUR best results.
Welcome to day 4 of 30 Days of Getting Results.  In day 3, we looked at using three stories to drive your day.  Today we look at letting things slough off.  Letting things slough off simply means either letting things go from your plate either by design or as a natural process of focusing on higher priorities.  This is the key to starting each day with a fresh start.
If you don’t let things slough off, the problem is you weight yourself down.  This is the problem of big “To Do” lists, which either turn into lists of things that never get done, or you spend all your time managing your list of things to do, but never getting anything done.  If you’re a slave to your “To Do” list, or if you fear the sheer magnitude of its size, it’s not working for you!
Even if you could do it all, you can’t do it all at once.  You only have so much time and energy in the day.   If there’s one take away from all this remember that it’s the achievements under your belt AND the journey that you look back on.
3 Keys to Letting Things Slough Off
There are three keys to letting things slough off with skill:
  1. Each day, create a new “To Do” list.   Start with a fresh “To Do” list each day.  These are your Daily Outcomes.  A simple way to do this is use a new piece of paper and write your three outcomes at the top.  If you’re using an electronic system, then simply create a new file and name it with today’s date.  For example,  for Wednesday, August 4th, 2010, I would simply name it: 2010-08-04.  I use this approach so that I can sort it easily and flip back through my previous days whenever I want.  Rather than automatically add everything from the day before, only carry over what you think is an absolute priority for today – and let the rest go.  The key here is to focus on what’s valuable now from today’s vantage point, checking against what you want to accomplish for the overall week.
  2. Each week, create a new “To Do” list.  Start with a fresh “To Do” list each week.  These are your weekly outcomes.  Identify the three results that you really want for your week and write those down.   Simply grab a new piece of paper each week and write down your three main outcomes.  If you’re doing it electronically, then each Monday, create a new file and name it the current date.  For example, Monday, August 9th, 2010 would be: 2010-08-09.  This let’s you scroll back through your weekly lists of outcomes.  This is how you implement the Monday Vision practice from Getting Results the Agile Way.
  3. Focus on flowing value.  The real key to letting things slough off is focusing on flowing value.  Instead of focusing on your list of things to do or just getting things done, focus on flowing value.  Focus on your most extreme value and let the rest go.  Value is in the eye of the beholder.  It could be value to you, or to your family, or to your team, or to your company.  Simply by thinking in terms of your “wins” each day, each week, etc. you shine the light on your most important victories.  One way to always get back on track is to ask, “What your next best thing to do?”  Another question to ask is, “What do you want to accomplish?”
The pattern here is to shift your focus to what’s important now based on what you want to accomplish.   The other thing to remember is that if you let something go, and it truly is vital, it will continue to resurface.  You can then deal with it when it makes the most sense.
Set Up Boundaries in Time and Quantity
Setting up boundaries is another key to letting things slough off with skill:
  1. Set a limit in terms of quantity.  For example, can you prioritize your top three things? … your top 5?, etc.  Instead of making a laundry list, can you make your ‘short list.”  The Rule of 3 is your friend for setting limits whenever you are overwhelmed by quantity and you have to let things go.  If you’re a blogger, you might decide that your post will be no longer than two paragraphs or a list of 10 items.
  2. Set a limit in terms of time.  You can set limits in terms of time.  For example, you can decide up front that you’ll spend no more than 20 minutes on that.  Or you might decide that after a week, it’s just diminishing returns.  You might give yourself a maximum of spending 30 minutes a day doing email.  In XP development, there is a practice of a “40 Hour Work Week.”   if you’re a blogger, you might decide that you’ll spend no longer than 20 minutes writing your best material and sharing your best insights … anything after that sloughs off!
This means brutally focusing on spending more time on what you value, and letting the rest go.  You might thing of it as either “fierce focus” or “driving with clarity.”  Remember that you “get what you focus on” so spend more time on what you want, not what you don’t :)
Examples of Boundaries in Time and Quantity
Boundaries in terms of time and quantity will help keep your sanity and help you surf your way through producing great results.  When I first joined Microsoft, one of my colleagues said that their boundary is “dinner on the table at 5:30” and that’s how they achieved work-life balance.  When I later joined another group in Microsoft, a colleague told me that their boundary is they “take weekends off.”  They’ll work their fingers to the bone all week, but when the weekend comes it’s their time to recharge.  When I worked at Tiffany & Company, one of our director’s had an interesting boundary – Tuesday nights is date night with his wife.  Another one of the manager’s at Tiffany & Company had an interesting buffer he used – “Don’t spend $20 on a $5 problem.”  In other words, if the problem is only worth 10 minutes of your time, don’t spend more than that.  For me, using The Rule of 3 to take away three actionable insights from all the books I go through has both save me a lot of time, and generated a lot of value.
Additional Considerations for Letting Go with Skill
Here are some additional points to ponder that will help you let things go with skill:
  • Time Changes What’s Important.  “To Do” lists get stale.  Backlogs get stale.  Laundry lists get stale.  Everything gets stale.  You can spend all your time re-arranging stale things, or you can spend just enough time bubbling up what’s important and taking action on it.
  • Fresh Starts.  By creating new “To Do” lists each day and each week instead of one massive one, you give yourself a fresh start.  You carry the most important things forward.
  • Travel light. Don’t be a beast of burden.  If you bite off what you can chew, you can actually get it done.  This helps you travel light each day and each week.  Rather than start off with an over-loaded pack of things you may never need, you start off with a simple vision and stories of your most important results.
  • Spend more time doing over “paper shuffling” One of the worst things you can do is continuously reshuffle the things you have to do instead of just do them.   For all the things that you keep reshuffling but not actually doing, admit it.  Put them into a “parking lot” or “shelve” them for a later point when you will actually work on them.  Don’t keep them in your face, and don’t let them get in the way of your results.  Most of all, don’t die the “death of a thousand paper cuts.”  (If you’ve never heard this term before, paper shuffling is one way to die the death of a thousand paper cuts.”)
  • Value Delivered Over Backlog Burndown.  Rather than simply burn through your laundry lists of tasks, do the quick reality check and ask whether the task is still important.  More importantly, step back and ask the simple question, if you completed it, “Does it matter?”   Does it connect back to the outcomes that you care about now or in the future, or was it simply a good idea that’s now past it’s prime or past it’s time?  In other words, don’t look at your big task lists or backlogs as what drives you.  They are simply input.  Draw from them, but focus on delivering value, not simply blind execution of things that were important at some point, but now are no longer, “your next best thing to do.”
  • It’s a mindset thing. A large part of letting things go with skill is about shifting your mindset.  It’s about thinking in terms of value delivered over backlog burndown.  it’s about asking questions like, “What’s the next best thing for me to do?” or “What do I want to accomplish>?”  It’s about focusing on value and your wins and what you got done, over focusing on what you didn’t get done.
Today’s Assignment
  1. Write down three outcomes for today.  This is re-enforcing our daily outcomes AND practicing letting things slough off with skill.
  2. Write down your three outcomes for the week.  Consider the remaining time and energy you have for the rest of the week, where can you get the most bang for the buck?   What would three wins for the week look like?
  3. Set one simple limit on something that’s been wearing you down.  Set either a time limit or a quantity limit.