Ignore Their To-Do Lists

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Originally published in Inc. 

By Joel Peterson

The to-do list can become the boulder in a modern version of the myth of Sisyphus. You may recall the Greek myth in which the hero was condemned for eternity to the hideous punishment of pushing a boulder up a mountain only to see it roll down every time he neared the top.

Every executive can sympathize. Crossing off a chore, only to see another appear in its place can feel like an eternal struggle with about as much meaning. For those who’ve concluded that managing to-do’s is the essence of their jobs, it’s time to gain some altitude, to separate tasks from priorities.

Left to nature, to-do lists crowd out–rather than serve–priorities. Such boulder-nudging can exhaust the leader, frustrate the team, and subordinate what matters most to what’s easiest to cross off. Worse, to-do’s can hide what’s most important, wasting everyone’s energy in task-only management.

As a leader, your primary job is to help teams achieve a limited number of mutually agreed-to, measurable and important goals. To be meaningful, goals must fit under the rubric of a mission or vision. For example, Bill Gates had a heck of a mission: to put a personal computer on every desk and in every home.

Some so-called leaders lose the mission for the to-do list. After all, it can be momentarily satisfying to cross items off.

I once worked with a lawyer who kept a legal pad with several dozen to-do’s on it at all times. This regimen kept him busy and able to charge clients for his work. It also kept him from anticipating tomorrow’s problems and opportunities.

The really important things will rarely “appear” on your to-do list–or in your inbox–because it’s hard to identify what’s truly important. Once you figure it out, you’ll need to create a budget, a time frame, a list of deliverables and a champion empowered to deliver results.

Out of that process comes a more powerful to-do list. And if the execution plan requires many people to coordinate, then the to-do lists must also be dynamic and shared between team members.

See? To-do lists aren’t entirely bad. The key is to make sure you never start with one.

It’s a subordinate tool, derivative of a goal, which is in turn derivative of a mission. The meaning derives from the mission from which the measurable goal was set in the first place to generate the to-do list. This hierarchy will make to-do lists a valuable tool, one that is servant, not master, and keep to-do lists from becoming Sisyphus’s rock to your modern management team.

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