More Doing Less

Man in office surrounded by balls of work. Generated by DALL-E

Last week, we began exploring ways to do less, looking at ways to leverage each hemisphere of the brain to help us identify what’s most important.

Today, I offer several strategies to experiment with putting those priorities into action, fending off the lower-priority distractions competing for your precious time.

Limiting Work-In-Progress

In agile software development, we love limiting Work-In-Progress (WIP). The term originates from supply chain management. I asked ChatGPT to summarize it for me:

“Work-in-progress” in the context of supply chain management refers to items or products that are in the process of being manufactured but are not yet completed. This term originates from the manufacturing and production sectors, where it highlights the intermediate stage of goods that are partially assembled or processed but not ready for sale. It is a key concept in inventory management, emphasizing the ongoing transformation of raw materials into finished products within the supply chain.

The concept of WIP is relevant across any discipline. The more balls we put into the air simultaneously, the less likely we will keep them all aloft. With awareness and reflection, we can better understand how much WIP is appropriate before we get out of balance.

How many activities have you started which are currently in progress? How often do you find yourself context-switching from one of those activities to another in a day? If you have too much WIP, consider deliberately pausing one or more lower-priority activities. Focus your energy on the top priority until it’s done, then move on to the next one.

If you have a boss who generates lots of ideas and is constantly adding to your plate, consider the “You Get Three” technique.

Setting Boundaries

Many of us find ourselves with too much to do because we say yes to too many things. Once you have clarity on your top priorities, you need to build the habit of setting clear boundaries.

Build awareness of the scenarios where new commitments are sneaking through the back door. How did this one get through? Did it come from your boss in a way you felt you couldn’t say no? Did you take it on voluntarily because you thought it was necessary, even though saying no was an option?

When I work with clients to set boundaries, we often find a missing conversation. A proactive conversation with the appropriate colleague to discuss the boundary sets you up for success the next time the boundary is tested.

I recently worked with a client who recognized she needed a better boundary about interruptions during her break. The shift that helped her was communicating to her key colleagues that she would not carry her work phone on breaks. This enabled her to unplug and mentally recover. If there were a true emergency, her boss and direct reports knew how to contact her via her personal phone.

Pause

Regarding setting boundaries, I’ll offer one of my favorite techniques.

Pause.

Some people have built their reputation on responsiveness (I know I have). When an issue comes in through email (or Slack or Teams or any other channel), they jump on the issue and respond right away. In so doing, they believe they are saving others time and effort, which they may be doing.

However, they are also setting themselves up for more questions in the future. More emails. Because they’ve demonstrated their responsiveness and reliability.

If an issue comes in and you are the person who should respond, by all means, do so. But if it’s someone else’s responsibility, give yourself permission not to respond.

You’ve likely experienced the phenomenon where you go on vacation for a week, stay out of your email, and discover thread after thread of issues that you would have solved if you had been working, which got solved just fine without you.

Pause and let others demonstrate their responsiveness. In so doing, you are also helping them learn and grow.

Understand Your Capacity

I remember one conversation vividly from the first time I was coached. My coach rolled into my office and asked me how I was doing. I told him I was overwhelmed.

He asked a simple question. “Where is your time going?”

Upon reflection, I realized I honestly didn’t know. “I don’t know, but I’ll find out!”

For the next week, I tracked my time in detail* to see exactly where my time was going. Looking at my calendar wasn’t sufficient. The gold lay in what happened in those spaces between meetings, not the meetings themselves.

The results were eye-opening. This has also been the case for everyone I know who has done this experiment. We have no idea where our time goes until we take the time to track it intentionally.

I have had developers who tracked 40 hours a week and discovered they were working 50 hours; the extra 10 hours were on customer support calls. Since I used their time-tracking to forecast the support burden, they were setting themselves up to work an additional 10 hours of support each week because we didn’t know it was there and didn’t know to plan for it. That realization led us to look at all the customer support calls and do a root-cause analysis to reduce the number of calls coming over in the first place.

My Experience

The final week of 2023 was quiet for me, with a reasonably open calendar. Only in that quiet did I realize how hard I had been working in the final three months of the year – as I felt the experience of not working that hard. I’ve applied several of these principles in service of my own priorities.

I examined my WIP. My task list had bloated throughout the quarter, as I started several projects without finishing them. This is especially challenging because I love my work so much – I find it much harder to set boundaries when the request for my time is to do something I love.

Ultimately, I identified six active projects in addition to my ongoing coaching engagements.

The second thing I did was examine my capacity. I built a six-month model, forecasting all my planned professional activities. This included things such as:

  • Existing and upcoming coaching engagements
  • Structured learning commitments
  • Upcoming conferences (hope to see you at Ellucian Live!)
  • Regular connections
  • Writing this blog

This exercise gave me a birds-eye view of what I’ve already committed to and how much capacity I have available for new commitments.

Putting the two work products together, I stack-ranked my list of WIP projects to bring greater focus to the most important ones. I haven’t been able to pause any of them completely, but on any given day, I’ll only let one project be the priority for the day and consciously put the others on the shelf so I am not context-switching.

The capacity model highlighted some areas where my commitments were out of alignment, and I’ve begun to scale some of them back. I thought this model would be a one-time exercise, but I now embrace it as a part of my weekly review. I’ll be adding this to the Organized Coach course I’ve been developing, as I think any solopreneur coach will find it beneficial.

Putting It Into Practice

Experiment with one or more of these techniques to support your efforts to work on the highest priority commitments:

  • Limit your work-in-progress.
  • Identify areas where you need to set stronger boundaries.
  • Pause before responding to an issue, especially when someone else is responsible for responding.
  • Understand your capacity for future work and use that to support your decisions.


I am an executive coach and life coach with software executive roots in higher education and EdTech. I coach because I love to help others accelerate their growth as leaders and humans. I frequently write about #management, #leadership, #coaching, #neuroscience, and #arete.

If you would like to learn more, schedule time with me.

Want to comment? Join the conversation on LinkedIn.

* I highly recommend this exercise, and I recommend you only do it for a week. The data and insights can be fantastic, but the added administrative effort usually isn’t worth it for more than a week or two.