The Missing Category on Your To-Do List


I have several “to-do” lists that crowd my brain. There’s a list of personal items in my iPhone “Notes” app. There’s a list of activities queued for me on our internal workflow tool. My email inbox has its own lineup. And then my head reminds me of items I haven’t written down: pick up dinner tonight, ask someone to take my place on a committee, get back to a friend about plans we discussed.

The common thread through every one of these lists is a definite action to be taken. This seems natural because it’s hard to measure inaction.

But is this approach missing something vitally important?

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In his book How Will You Measure Your Life? HBR professor Clayton Christiansen writes that we “unconsciously allocate time and energy to activities that yield the most tangible accomplishments.” That’s because things like shipping a product, responding to an email or fixing a problem provide immediate gratification. But, he points out, with so much of our attention devoted to these “doing” tasks, we end up underinvesting in the areas that matter most—areas like our relationships, health and spirituality, which keep us connected, energized and on course. We forget that well-being fuels well-doing.

Here’s a simple example of how well-being gives us capacity for well-doing. Recently the leader of the meeting asked each person to introduce themselves and tell everyone about their favorite pet as a child.

My initial reaction to this request was annoyance. Let’s get on with the meeting. We don’t have much time, and we have a lot to cover.

Then I watched this contrived icebreaker work its magic. People roared with laughter as childhood stories surfaced and we found shared interests. The difficult subject matter that followed in the meeting was buoyed by a light and collaborative spirit.

To be more human at work, perhaps we should all make sure that our to-do lists include being rather than just doing verbs. Here are five items I’m adding to my “to-be” list:

  1. Allow space for personal dialogue. A rushed and packed agenda won’t let it happen. We have to decide that, whether in-person or virtual, the time spent together discussing fears, joys, frustrations and excitements will provide the foundation for productivity and connection.
  2. Be still and quiet, and permit thinking time. Recently I’ve been standing in my backyard for a few minutes each night, just observing the passage of time. I find it can bring a needed calm and capacity. Give yourself the gift of thinking time. Take the scenic route. Turn off the screen. Exercise without headphones. See the value in making time to simply process and consider.
  3. Understand difficult dynamics. Sometimes we get uncomfortable in meetings and interactions, whether we’re intimidated, annoyed, afraid or just awkward. Discussing the discomfort, rather than avoiding, shines light on issues and builds trust. By the same token, moving toward and engaging with difficult or broken relationships can be challenging, but it delivers levels of trust and relief that far outweigh the pain.
  4. Appreciate people and absorb goodness. Every two weeks we have an all-company meeting, and I especially love the first five minutes. It’s an open forum for anyone to raise their hand and affirm a colleague for their kindness, support and impact. Seeing the good in others changes you. As Road Dahl said, “If you have good thoughts, they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.”
  5. Monitor over-functioning. My close friend told me that he often realizes, after the damage has been done, that he attempts to hold ten gallons of effort in his six gallon container of personal capacity. Instead of overflowing, he is depleted. When we carefully observe our levels of energy and joy, we can adjust to make proactive choices.

I have a dream that homes and workplaces are marked by humanity more than productivity. What would you add this week to your own to-be list?

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7 Comments

  • Mike Norman
    September 16, 2015 at 5:50 pm

    Matt, this is a very good message for me to read every month or so. I seek the doing that provides the instant gratification. Your suggestions will be implemented by me immediately. Thank you for the wake up call. Mike

    • Matt Norman
      September 17, 2015 at 1:51 am

      Dad, I appreciate your high level of self-awareness and willingness to improve your approach to life. Thank you.

  • Maura Cobb
    September 16, 2015 at 7:47 pm

    Matt, I really enjoy reading your blog and liked this article in particular. Thanks for putting your ideas for us to read.

    • Matt Norman
      September 17, 2015 at 1:52 am

      Maura, thank you so much for your comment and encouragement. I’m glad this one resonated with you!

  • Rick Kaufman
    September 17, 2015 at 3:37 pm

    This resonates way too well Matt. The comment about ten gallons of effort in a six gallon container is a great analogy that more isn’t always better.

    • Matt Norman
      September 22, 2015 at 10:08 pm

      Thank you, Rick! I’m glad that resonates. Let’s remember to manage our capacity!

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