Stop To-Do

          When Peter F. Drucker was alive, I tried to attend his Foundation’s annual leadership conference every year.  For me, it Screen Shot 2021-01-04 at 11.47.39 AMwas always a time to reflect and refocus on the coming year.  In 1998, Jim Collins, author of Built to Last, was on the conference program. During his presentation, he talked of his goal to read 70 books annually.  Up to that point in his life, he had read about 35 books in a year’s time.  Collins told us how he bought a new chair and lamp to facilitate his anticipated increase in reading.  At the end of the year, however, he hadn’t reached his goal – he still read “only” 35 books.

            Collins and his wife tried to determine why they hadn’t increased their reading and they came to the realization that they would have to make some serious adjustments to do so. They got rid of the cable television hookup in their home—and every year after that they consistently reached their goal.  “Most of us have a to-do list,” Collins said,  “but I think as leaders we also need a ‘stop to-do list.’ We can’t keep adding to what we do without at some point taking away something we’re already doing to make room for the new activity.”

            A “stop-to-do” list.  What a novel idea!  Imagine if you and I and the organizations that we serve began to evaluate our activities with a view toward eliminating those that were outdated. Or stopped doing some things because there were other opportunities that would or could produce greater results. Or had some mechanism that helped us recognize when an activity, even a good activity, no longer served the vision or mission of the organization. 

            Peter Drucker speaks the concept behind a stop-to-do list in several of his publications. I quote here from his book, Managing in a Time of Great Change:

What, then, needs to be done?  There is a need for preventive care—that is, for building into the organization systematic monitoring and testing of its theory of the business.  There is a need for early diagnosis.  Finally, there is a need to rethink a theory that is stagnating and to take effective action in order to change policies and practices, bringing the organization’s behavior in line with the new realities of its environment, with a new definition of its mission, and with new core competencies to be developed and acquired.

There are only two preventive measures. But if used consistently, they should keep an organization alert and capable of rapidly changing itself and its theory. The first measure is what I call abandonment. Every three years an organization should challenge every product, every service, every policy, every distribution channel with the question, If we were not in it already, would we be going into it now? By questioning accepted policies and routines, the organization forces itself to think about its theory. It forces itself to test assumptions. It forces itself to ask: Why didn’t this work, even though it looked so promising when we went into it five years ago? Is it because we made a mistake?  Is it because we did the wrong things?  Or is it because the right things didn’t work?

Without systematic and purposeful abandonment, an organization will be overtaken by events. It will squander its best resources on things it should never have been doing or should no longer do. As a result, it will lack the resources, especially capable people, needed to exploit the opportunities that arise when markets, technologies, and core competencies change. In other words, it will be unable to respond constructively to the opportunities that are created when its theory of the business becomes obsolete.[i]

            It’s the job of the board of directors or leadership team in any organization to see to it that the limited resources of that entity are directed to activities that are most consistent with the purpose of that entity. Leaders must make sure that the money and people are devoted to the right cause. But often the day-to-day leaders are more in touch with the pulse of the business than the board members and need to help the board understand reality. They need to educate the board members that just because the organization can do something doesn’t necessarily mean that it should do something. It’s at that point that leadership has to make the hard decisions, and that too constitutes the price of leadership.

            At other times, the founder or long-standing leaders have favorite, “pet” projects. They want these projects to continue because they like them, not because they’re effective or productive. What’s needed is some mechanism to evaluate activities that will clearly identify those that have outlived their usefulness. Leaders must also do this on a personal basis and learn to say “no.” It’s hard to say “no,” however, if you’re not sure what your “yes” is. One of my favorite stories is found in Acts 6.

In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.  So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.  Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:1-3).

            There are three lessons in this passage that will help you or your organization to stop doing one thing in order to do something new.

1. Face reality – As a leader, you must look at reality.  Often the phrase “facing reality” is used to refer to the downside of something.  But it can also be used for the positive.  The apostles faced reality.  The early church was growing, and that was good.  Growth brought problems, however, and this gave rise to a significant complaint from one of the groups in the church.

Look at all the things that are going well in your life or in your organization.  Are you making these things all that they can be?  Do you need to pay even more attention to these unexpected success stories.  And what about the things that are not going so well?  Do you need to keep pouring time and resources into these situations, or is it time to let them go gracefully?

2. Embrace change – Letting something go means that there will be change.  Up to this point in the life of the early church, the 12 apostles had been involved in everything.  But as the church grew, they could no longer be everything to everyone.  They had to delegate and focus on what it was that they did that no one else could do.  They didn’t personally help the widows, but rather came up with a plan to make sure that the widows were helped.

When I say “embrace” change, I mean just that – enthusiastically accept it as a part of life. While change is necessary for growth and for effective leadership, you can’t minimize its impact. As a leader, you must be personally involved in helping followers understand the need for the change. Remember how long it took you to get used to the idea of the change, then be patient and give followers the same time to consume and digest the implications of the change. You must also be accessible to develop the plans for change and to help talk out the implications for followers.  It’s during times of change that followers need to have their closest contact with those in leadership.

One thing that can help others embrace the change is when you embrace change as a way of life and leadership. Gandhi once said, “We must become the change that we seek.” Therefore, you must model the tendency and practice of embracing change before you start dumping change on others.

3. Feed your opportunities; starve your problems – Peter Drucker provided me with this phrase and it’s profound.  Too often we do the opposite – we feed our problems and starve our opportunities. Drucker also gave a good rule of thumb where this concept is concerned. He advised that every three years an organization (or an individual for that matter) should evaluate all their activities by asking this one question: “If we had known three years ago what we know today, would we have started to do, or kept doing, this particular activity?” If the answer is a resounding “No!”, then it’s time to stop doing that activity. If you had known three years ago, for example, that you were going to have spend so much money and time on a venture, would you do it all over again? If the answer is no, then it’s time to stop it – NOW!

The apostles in Acts 6 didn’t get personally involved in the widow problem; in that sense they “starved” it.  Instead they fed the opportunity to pray and preach the word.  The outcome of this strategy was a good one. Acts 6:7 tells us that “the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.”

Robert Greenleaf also has something to say to leaders about the need to let go of something old in order to embrace the new. He called it “systematic neglect.” 

The ability to withdraw and reorient oneself, if only for a moment, presumes that one has learned the art of systematic neglect, to sort out the more important from the less important—and the important from the urgent—and attend to the more important, even though there may be penalties and censure for the neglect of something else.  One may govern one’s life by the law of the optimum (optimum being that pace and set of choices that give one the best performance over a lifespan)—bearing in mind that there are always emergencies and the optimum includes carrying an unused reserve of energy in all periods of normal demand so that one has the resilience to cope with the emergency.[ii]

How about you? What do you need to stop doing in order to undertake a new opportunity? What is no longer yielding the returns that it once did in your life? And how about in the organization you lead? What new opportunities are knocking at the door but can’t get in because the “waiting room” is filled with problems? Take out a sheet of paper and make a stop-to-do list and then have the courage to dialogue with yourself and others about the changes that need to take place.

[i] Peter F. Drucker, Managing in a Time of Great Change (New York: Truman Talley Books/Dutton, 1995), pages 32-33.

[ii] Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant Leadership (New York: Paulist Press, 1977), page 19.

Life Matter: Urgency

“Show me, Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is. You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Everyone is but a breath, even those who seem secure" (Psalm 39:4-5).

As I write, I'm asking myself, "Where have the years gone?" I'm not complaining, for I have lived a rich, full life and of course I hope I have many years remaining. Today, however, may be my last day, for I am not guaranteed anything beyond this moment. With that in mind and looking at today's passage, I want to make the most of every day I have left, doing what is in my heart to do and being as productive as possible. Is that your attitude? Are you putting off doing things in your heart, acting like you have ten, twenty, or thirty years more? If you knew you had two years to live, what would you be doing? You should act with that kind of urgency every day if you are going to make your mark and leave a legacy for others to follow and remember.

Today's reading - Psalms 36-40

W50D6 - Time Management

"Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd
gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even
able to eat" - Mark 3:20.

When Jesus went public, He was a busy man. He traveled, taught, discipled and trained his team, answered questions, dealt with opponents and critics, and healed all who came with a need. There were times when He tried to get away from it all, only to have the crowds eagerly pursue Him, so much so that He had to stay up all night to fit in His prayer times. Jesus was operating with a sense of urgency for He knew that ultimately He had to return to the Father so the disciples could continue the work. The point is that leaders are usually busy people because no one can quite match their experience, talents and gifts. Therefore leaders must learn to manage time by setting deadlines, delegation, priorities, saying no and accepting the fact that their time is often not their own.

LEADERSHIP STEP: Your Step today is to see if you have accepted the lifestyle that often goes with leadership. Have you made peace with the fact that your time is often not your own, but is needed and spoken for by many others? Do you handle your own calendar to make sure your highest priority tasks are being performed well? Do you resent or accept that there are things that only you can do and you must sacrifice your freedom for the needs of others?

W45D6 - Time Management

"Moses’ father-in-law replied, 'What you are doing is not good.
You and these people who come to you will only wear
yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you;
you cannot handle it alone'" - Exodus 18:17-18.

Moses' father-in-law served as Moses' life coach and consultant when he came to pay a family visit. He observed Moses' work habits and work load and informed Moses that he was a workaholic who was incapable or unwilling to delegate his responsibilities as they increased. The result was that Moses was tired and the people were tired too, having to wait for Moses to get to their cases and then decide the outcome. Leaders need input from others to help evaluate their work habits and then need to realize they cannot do it all - so they must delegate duties and increase the responsibilities of others

LEADERSHIP STEP: Your Step today is to get some outside input into your work habits, especially if what you are doing is 'not good" as Jethro described above. Are you exhausted? Is not delegating the possible cause? Is it time you change your work habits and philosophy, which would mean changing the way you use your time? Why don't you trust others to do the work? Are you ready to let go of how you have done your work up to this point in time and do it differently?

W40D6 - Time Management

"But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you" - Exodus 18:21-22.

Moses' father-in-law gave him some good advice to stop trying to do all the work and instead establish clear time priorities based on what it was that only he (Moses) could do, allowing others to do what they could do. In other words, Moses needed to delegate more of his responsibilities and let go of the day-to-day operations. Most leaders need to delegate more, but there are many reasons why they don't or can't. Some are afraid the work won't be done as well as it is when they do it. Others are perfectionists. Still others don't have a vision or the skills (or desire) to develop other people through the work delegated to them. And finally, some have a faulty view of leadership that requires them to have their hands in all aspects of the work instead of releasing it to other trusted associates.

LEADERSHIP STEP: Your Step today is to determine how many hours you are working every week. Keep track of your work hours for the next two weeks, including commute time.Then keep a general log of how you spend that work time. After two weeks, look at the patterns of work and see where you are investing time in projects that you can and should delegate to others. That will enable you either to work less hours or to devote that saved time to other projects.

W35D6 - Time Management

"You yourselves know that these hands of mine
have supplied my own needs and the needs of
my companions" - Acts 20:34.

Paul had a life value not to be a financial burden on his converts so that the gospel would not be criticized or connected to traveling teachers common in his day. He did not just talk about that value, or think about that value. That value impacted his time and determined how he was going to spend the hours in his day. So Paul did not work first and foremost to make money; he worked to express his values and to support and further his apostolic mission. Leaders are values-driven just like Paul was, and their values show up in their calendar and their checkbook. They know that their values must be translated into action or they are just useless words

LEADERSHIP STEP: Your Step today is to review the values you have written out from previous steps to see if you are following through on your priorities in life. How are you spending your time? Is your time management values-driven, or do you sell yourself to the loudest, most urgent bidder? Why do you work and do what you do? Is it simply to make money? If so, then money is your highest value! Is that how you want it to be? What changes do you need to make?

W30D6 - Time Management

"Then the king, with the queen sitting beside him,
asked me, 'How long will your journey take, and
when will you get back?' It pleased the king to send
me; so I set a time" - Nehemiah 2:6.

Nehemiah set a time when he would be finished with the project of rebuilding the walls.  He had never been to Jerusalem, did not really know much about building, and had no idea what he was going to find when he got there. How did he know how long it would take? He probably made his best guess, and it satisfied the royal couple. Leaders need to set time limits on what they set out to do, otherwise things may drag on and there is no urgency in the work being done either personally or corporately.

LEADERSHIP STEP: You may be facing a similar situation, but are hesitant about making a commitment. Today's Step is to look at your most important projects and make your best guess, get to work and trust the Lord! Where are you holding back because you cannot be as precise as you would like? Where would making your best guess as to the time it will take help you get started? Where can you have faith to get it done in even less time than you estimate?

W25D6 - Time Management

"When his father-in-law saw all that Moses
was doing for the people, he said, 'What is this
you are doing for the people? Why do you alone
sit as judge, while all these people stand around
you from morning till evening?” - Exodus 18:14.

Moses was a busy man, but it did not have to be that way. He had no vision or concept of the importance of and strategy for involving others. In other words, he tried to do the work of 100 people rather than find 100 people to do the work. It was not only hard on Moses, but also on the people who were affected by this bottleneck he had created. Leaders must not believe they are indispensible, that they are the only ones who can do certain things, or that their way of doing things is the only correct way. When they have any of those three attitudes, they can act just like Moses and actually wear out their people who are waiting for the leader's decision so they can do their work! 

LEADERSHIP STEP: First, begin today doing a time inventory, keeping track of how many hours you are working every week. Then do a careful assessment of the work you are doing, keeping only those things that are part of your job description or that only you can do better than anyone on your team. In other words, your Step is to get as many things off your desk and mind as possible so you can focus on the important work you have to do - and that's leading!

W20D6 - Time Management

"Now that you know these things,
you will be blessed if you do them" - John 13:17.

Jesus was clear that knowing something that you don't do is worthless and useless. It is action that counts most and not good intentions or talking about what needs to be or could be done. Leaders understand this and have a bias for action whenever and wherever possible. This means they know how to manage and direct the most limited resource of all, and that is time - both for individuals and the teams of which they are a part. To do this, leaders must help the organization prioritize their time so that they are putting first things first and avoiding the urgent in order to perform the truly important things.

LEADERSHIP STEP: It's time to examine your team's time management practices, and first you will look at the time wasters that are inherent in your organization's operations. Are the offices or plant laid out in a way that saves time? Do policies and procedures facilitate decisions or cause them to be delayed? How is the computer system? Filing system? Then go to the tougher evaluation: are you pursuing the highest priorities for the organization that will render the greatest returns?

W15D6 - Time Management

"Then he said, 'Jesus, remember me when you come
into your kingdom.' Jesus answered him, 'Truly I tell
you, today you will be with me in paradise'" - Luke 23:42-43.

In these verses, Luke described what Jesus did in the last minutes before He died. Jesus was hanging on a cross, suffering one of the most agonizing deaths man has ever devised against his fellow man. When the thief hanging next to Jesus made his petition, Jesus could have said, "Excuse me, I'm a little busy dying right now." Instead Jesus granted the man's petition and then proceeded to yield His spirit to the Father, staying true to His mission, purpose and priorities up to the very end. Leaders train themselves to keep the main thing the main thing and to focus on their priorities with the limited time resources available to them.

LEADERSHIP STEP: In W10D6, you are directed to write out a to-do list and make an effort to prioritize that list. How did it go? Today's Step is to do the same but to do it for all of the next week. Write out a plan of what you would like or hope to do for each day next week. Then establish the order in which you will do those things. That is how you prioritize your time, putting more important things ahead of other possible activities and following the plan as best you can.