Do Less

I look back on some of my early work as manager and laugh at myself. I, like many people, am able to look at something and see potential for greatness. And so, when I was young, I was pushed myself and others to keep making things better and better, often pushing boundaries far beyond where they needed to be to get the job done.

I remember one night, working late to edit a hiring guide that a Senior VP and a Director had worked on together. My job was to proofread and prep for distribution. It should have gone to the print shop that afternoon – this was long before electronic distribution and an original needed to be printed in NYC, a 3-part form completed describing how many copies, back-to-back printing, color of paper, etc., placed in an interoffice envelope, carried by van to an office park 60 miles away, where it would be photocopied 1000 times and placed in slots in a mailroom with other mail to be packed in FedEx envelopes on Tuesday and distributed across the country. So my working late on this did not just mean another long night at the office; it also meant that I had missed that van and jeopardized distribution to the recipients that week.

But I couldn’t stop editing. I kept finding more and more improvements. My own ideas – uninformed as they were – crept into the document. The Director and VP, who sat down the hall, knew I was still there, could hear me still typing, suspected I was working on their document. Finally the Director hovered in my office door wondering what on earth I was doing.

The answer now in retrospect: I was doing too much.

It is easy, when you are excited about something, to do too much. To see the potential and keep pushing it and pushing it until you miss deadlines. I see it all the time. Well-meaning people just keep tinkering with things, wanting them to “be right” when, in truth, they are fine. All this tinkering takes time, forcing the next person in the workflow to compress their work into a smaller window of time, or causing the product to be late. People who passionately want their product to “be right” work late, toss and turn all night, and try getting an early start in the morning – all to no avail. The longer they push it, the more stressed they become, and they can always find ways to make it better.

(I say “they” but I should say “we” – even recovering perfectionists fall into this trap.)

And then, after all that effort, there is always something that someone else finds to criticize anyway. There’s always some helpful soul, that sees some aspect that you didn’t see and asks why, when the document you were working on was so important, you didn’t print the cover in color instead of black-and-white. Or why you didn’t notice that the man in the picture on the holiday card had a tiny stud earring, and airbrush it out.

Burnout.

When you are killing yourself to express the potential that you see in something, the potential for it to “be right” when all anyone wants it to be is done. I sat through a meeting once where a leadership team was celebrating a team that had hit a significant milestone in their project. These leaders praised the team – who had been killing themselves to make the product live up to their own expectations – for their commitment to perfection. My heart sank. How would the team ever learn to stop the scope creep, if they were rewarded with public recognition for their perfectionistic tendencies?

The solution is simple: Do Less.

How to Do Less

At one point, I met with my team and we laid out a four-point scale for evaluating the work that came our way:

  • Do nothing.
  • Make them do it.
  • Do the minimum.
  • Give it our all.

Do Nothing work wasn’t worth the effort of arguing with the people who assigned it to us. We just passed it along and trusted that recipients would ignore it also. Someday we would tackle it anew, in a larger context but, for now, we ignored it. Things that fell into this category included things like the Audit department wanting to remind people that certain receipts must go in the pink envelope, while certain other receipts must go in the blue envelope.

Make Them Do It work got handed back to the sender, with instructions on how to improve it. Delete these extra columns and sort the list according to the needs of the recipient, and then we’ll send it out. This needs to be half as long and will need to be accompanied by an illustration.

Do the Minimum is work that we edited, proofread, and prepped for distribution. Maybe we spent a little time on the phone with the author, trying to figure out what the heck their communication meant, and helping them fix it. We maybe adjusted the timing to keep it from being overshadowed by or overshadowing other work.

Give It Our All work was just that: key things that we determined needed full effort from us. Everyone needed to look at it, to offer ideas, to invent new ways of making the work sing. For one effort, I pulled my team of 10 together on Tuesday and said, This has to be Excellent and it has to go out Friday. How will you each contribute? We went around the team and each person described how they’d use their personal skills to contribute to the success of the project, how they’d reschedule any competing meetings. The last person to speak was a junior member of the team, clearly daunted by the superpowers that the others had described. “I can’t do any of that,” she said meekly, “but I can keep the other daily work moving so the rest of you can focus on this entirely.” It was her shining moment.

This approach of categorizing the work helped the team curb their perfectionistic tendencies and do just enough on the lower-priority work that they could afford to invest their all in the higher-priority work. Without burning out.

By doing less.

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