3 sneaky excuses for procrastination: Are you guilty?

I’m guilty. Yes.

There are some really legitimate-sounding excuses that executives like me hide behind when it comes to Getting Stuff Done. Or “GSD” as they call it at HubSpot, my daughter Lindsay Kolowich’s hip, highly successful, and fast-growing software company headquartered in Boston. (Where “Stuff” is probably not GSD’s middle name.)

According to Lindsay’s recent blog post “How Effective Managers Use Their Time: 9 Pro Tips from Real HubSpot Managers”, leaders at Hubspot who are thought to have “high GSD” have an uncanny ability to churn out the really crucial stuff, while doing end-runs around distractions which masquerade as important.

Really crucial stuff is rarely the chowder on our to-do lists. Rather it involves the bigger, game-changing, or mission-critical items which boost your business or improve what people think about you or your products. It might include the strategic or operational plan for next quarter or next year. Or the paper, report, website, or article which — once written and published — is likely to bring in new leads or additional funding sources. It might involve long-postponed check-in’s with top clients or employees. Or getting your recently-approved research project off the ground. Or making time to actually HIRE for your open team position (which you’re so busy back-filling for personally that you have no time to scan resumes.)

So… what are the legitimate-sounding distractions that most typically get in our way?

After talking with hundreds of executives in my leadership programs, here are what I find to be the big 3:

1. Other to-do list items.

If you look closely, most to-do lists contain 1 or 2 “big rocks” (i.e. the really crucial stuff) and lots of pebbles.   The problem is that items of vastly different importance may each deliver one equal-sized dollop of self-satisfaction in the form of a “check mark.”   Especially to people like me, who are addicted to both their to-do lists AND to the process of accomplishing lots of things each day.    I’m not going to lie:  if I can shorten my to-do list by checking off 6 smaller items on my list over the next 60 minutes, I may put off that very important three-hour chore that’s going to take intense concentration and possibly leave me feeling I somehow got “fewer things” done today.   

The solution?  First, recognize what’s happening. Then re-jigger your to-do list or time management strategy.  Prioritize more ruthlessly.  Consciously crown 1-2 items on your list as your “big rocks” each morning or each week.  Then set aside blocks of time for them – maybe early in the day before prime energy wanes or before you allow yourself to meander among smaller action items.  Or break each big, juicy, or hairy-but-important project into multiple smaller steps.  Then put THOSE sub-steps on your to-do list (Which – YEAH! – will each generate its own lovely reward of a check mark, when done.)

2.  Your direct reports

I know, I know.  I hear you reminding me over narrowed eyes that your “open door policy” is absolutely crucial to your leadership brand.  However, it is all-too-easy for a whole day to slither by while your most precious leadership asset – your time – gets eaten alive by others’ problems and opportunities.   Not your own.  But I know many leaders who will happily shut their door for an hour to meet with a direct report.   So why is shutting the door for their own projects so much more difficult?

Many successful executives have calendars crammed wall-to-wall with meetings, so they’ve had to learn the essential 21st century art of booking themselves on their own calendars for critical project work.  (Regularly tackling crucial projects late at night also works for some, but comes with a warning label and way too many long-term, unwanted side effects.)

So don’t be shy.  After finishing this post, jump onto your calendar and book a 1-2 hour time slot tomorrow for one of this week’s most important undone action items, and see how it feels.

3. Email

Yes, checking email in 2015 seems about as natural as breathing.  We’re on a high of “connection” the likes of which the world has never seen.  What if something — or someone — of great import floats into our inbox while we’re not looking?

According to the Fortune article Stop Checking Your Email Now by Laura Vanderkama July 2012 McKinsey Global Institute report found the average office worker spends 28% of his/ her time (14 hours a week) handling email.

How can you (and your direct reports) reclaim some of that time, with no ill effects?  Most experts sing the time-saving praises of “batch processing” email.   Which might mean checking email just three times a day.  Or if that makes you feel nervous – limit email processing to just 10 minutes of each hour.  Knowing you’ve got limited time, you’ll be more likely to write shorter notes, gloss quickly over emails of lesser import, and replace long email-drafting exercises with quick phone calls / voicemails.

So what’s standing between you …. and finishing YOUR most crucial initiatives?