The Productivity Paradox: Beware the Check List! Activity doesn’t always equal productivity, January 3, 2017

By Laura Cox Kaplan

I’ve always been ruled by my checklist, and the rush I get from checking things off. Never is that more true for me than at the start of a new year! I’ve even been guilty of competing with myself for how many things I can accomplish in a day, an hour, or a week.

Working with an executive coach a few years ago, it was brought to my attention that all that “to do-ing” and “box checking” could be limiting my personal growth. How could that possibly be? I’m incredible productive! Or was I?

Checklists are terrific tools for measuring success against short-term activities, and they are incredibly effective for holding yourself to account against tactical activities that must be completed. But if you love your checklist because you get a rush from every checked box and from a long tally of items you’ve completed by the end of a day, beware of using it to push “activity” at the expense of real “productivity” and accomplishment. Activity over productivity can impact personal development.

More strategic, longer term goals and objectives – the ones that help you grow personally and professionally — often don’t lend themselves to the checklist the way shorter term activities do. While there is a short-lived psychological boost from checking things off a list, there is a trade off. Here’s why: tackling the easy items on your list takes work, effort, brain space and time. If you are putting significant energy toward the short-term rush of checking things off your list, you may not be pushing yourself to tackle the really tough, longer term, difficult and stickier issues on the list. Those are the things that take more mental energy and time, but that yield greater personal and professional benefits, including a longer term benefit to your confidence from tackling something really tough. When you use too much energy on short-term or easier tasks, you deplete resources — often substantial ones — that you need to tackle the tougher issues. Plus, you may find yourself too exhausted and distracted to challenge yourself to grow and to stretch, and that can impact your ability to build new executive level skills. And, if your list stretches on for pages and pages, one of those important executive skills may be learning to delegate.

Delegating can be especially difficult for women, particularly early on in one’s career. This may not be gender specific, but I see more evidence of this problem in my conversations with women who are working their way up the career ladder.

As a former partner and executive at PwC, a firm that prides itself on building leaders who get a great deal accomplished in a day, I was introduced to the term “highest and best use.” Essentially, spending time where you, your team, and the firm (or organization) receive the biggest payoff from your investment of time and energy.

It’s not always a question of whether you can accomplish a task, but rather whether it should be you. In other words, taking on every assignment or task limits your ability to build important skills across your team, while also limiting your bandwidth to tackle new challenges. Taking a more thoughtful and strategic approach to what needs to be done is a smarter way to plan and manage a project, while also creating opportunities for team members to grow and stretch themselves in ways that can be professionally challenging and personally meaningful.

When I raised this notion of “highest and best use” with a young woman I was coaching recently, she said, “If I delegate, the work won’t be perfect and that will be a bad reflection on me.”

As women, we often hold ourselves to impossible standards that can deplete our confidence and our energy. By not learning early on in our careers how to build greater support and to reach out for help when it’s needed, we perpetuate impossible standards — standards that can get in our way as we rise to the top. We may also miss opportunities to help other women along the way as well.

The most successful women I know have learned these skills, and get the “work-life balance” ratio right by realizing that it is impossible to do everything yourself, no matter how long your to do list may be. This is especially true when you have significant responsibility outside of work and career.

Allowing ourselves to relinquish some control and adherence to perfectionism in the interest of building additional skills and capacity is an important goal. But, it goes beyond that. Learning to delegate helps others on your team to develop much-needed skills as well, and that can be an important contributor to building a more robust pipeline of talent.

“Not all check marks are created equal related to the impact they have on your personal and professional growth.”

Make no mistake – I am still a big believer in the check list, but for me, the greatest personal payoff comes when it’s used as a tool to drive and measure effort that includes more ambitious, longer term goals and objectives as well as short-term activities. The trick is to make sure you get the balance right, while also staying mindful that not all check marks are created equal related to the impact they have on your personal and professional growth. #

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