To Do: Kill Your To-Do List

Mark Strategy Planning Hand Check To Do List

What junk is building up around you and keeping you stuck?

I’m not talking about hoarders here. I’m talking about out-dated agreements that are keeping us stuck or that we never got around to fulfilling.

Much like all those apps running in the background on your phone, unkept and out-of-date agreements sap our energy. The best agreements are those we really want to fulfill because they align with our goals and what we want to create in the world. All the others are holding us back.

This is not a moral consideration; it’s an energetic one. Unkept agreements waste our energy and divert our attention.

Just think about what happens whenever you are reminded of something you said you’d do but haven’t yet gotten around to. Now think about how many times a day that thought pops up. In extreme cases, we go to elaborate lengths to dream up excuses or avoid the people we owe things to. That’s all wasted energy and attention — energy and attention we could be using to accomplish the things we really want to do.

Take an Energy Inventory

So, close down those energy-leaking commitments with a simple inventory.

Write down on a piece of paper (you techies might want to use a spreadsheet program) all the things you believe you have agreed to. That includes household chores, work assignments, expectations around when you arrive at work and when you return home at the end of the day, vacation plans, etc.

Next, go down the list and give a moment of your attention to each agreement. Notice whether your energy rises or falls as you consider each item. If your energy goes down, or you feel heavy or anything less than willing, put a minus sign by that commitment. Put a plus sign by the ones where you feel your energy and excitement rising. You can put in equal sign next to ones where you aren’t feeling much either way.

Now, look at all the minus signs. Those are items you are doing out of obligation or fear or duty. Those are also items you’ll be better off renegotiating, off-loading to someone else, or eliminating altogether (does anyone really have to send out another round of holiday cards?).

If you want to take things to the next level, do the same with all those ones you felt neutral about – the “meh” items. “Meh” is not a great way to live life; get rid of them.

Agreeing with Yourself

What about those agreements we make to ourselves — working out every day, updating that resume, cleaning out the basement? If we have no intention of getting around to these things — and the best indicator of that is how long it’s been since we said we’d do it and actually took action — then they, too, are draining energy and attention.

Go down your personal agreements list and consider each item: do you really want to do this? Notice if your energy rises or falls. Be brutally honest (after all, it’s you making promises to yourself). If it’s anything other than a full yes, cross it off the list. And then get honest with yourself about what you’re really committed to. (Not feeling it for that resume update? Then own the fact that you don’t really want to land that new job.)

What’s Left

Once you’ve pared down your commitments and agreements to those you genuinely want to do, chances are you’ll actually do them. Not only will you have more energy, but you will clearly see the value in accomplishing these things.

This is the power of aligning your actions with what you really want to accomplish, instead of what you think you should be doing.

PHOTO: MaxPixel

Avoiding the Trap of Excellence

steel trap

I was one of the best in my business.

My business was covering breaking news for the NBC network, and I did it better than almost anyone: the 9/11 attacks, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, mass shootings, natural disasters. I loved my work and was well rewarded and respected for it.

And then I gave all that up to do what I was really good at.

You see, I was excellent at covering breaking news. But I’m a genius at creating new possibilities for people as a corporate coach. Once I learned the difference between excellence and genius my life got easier, I had more fun, and I started accomplishing important things with less effort.

For me – and for many of the executives I work with – excellence is a trap that not only costs us dearly every day, but blinds us to what we’re really here to do with our lives.

What Excellence Looks Like

As a breaking news producer, I was doing important work, getting lots done, and literally saving the day for my company. I was lauded with big awards, showered with praise and a big salary, and felt important in my prestigious job at 30 Rock.

And it was extremely costly.

After a typical day meeting deadline (and often those days were 24-hour days), I would be so shattered from the frenetic tension that all I could do was ask someone to lead me to the bar, get me a double and put me in a black car home, where I’d have another double and sit alone in the living room until I could face my family.

My health, my family, and my friendships all paid a price for my success.

And that’s how I knew I wasn’t doing my best work.

What Genius Looks Like

You see, excellence can accomplish great things and earn you great rewards, but it’s costly. It’s work — you know you’re pushing to get your wins. But the wins are undeniable, and that’s why excellence is such a trap.

When I thought about changing my game and doing something else that wasn’t as costly (something my wife had pushed for year after year, to the point of threatening divorce), I felt a panic because I couldn’t conceive of another way to make a living. And then I felt hopeless, that I would be in this endless race forever.

But I did find another way, and it’s called genius.

Our genius is that thing we do well and find meaning in and yet it’s not costly. It’s that state of flow athletes know so well: we are accomplishing a lot and yet it doesn’t seem like work; time flies and we feel energized instead of depleted.

For many people it’s not so much a specific skill that is their genius as it is a more general approach to life, an underlying ability that they bring to many areas.

For me, genius is creating possibilities. Once I looked back across my life and saw how I’d been creating startups since I was a teenager, or how colleagues sought me out to get ideas for clearing some professional hurdle, or how young people looking to advance in their careers would thank me for helping see new avenues for growth — then I could see a pattern of creating value without suffering for it.

How to Escape Your Trap of Excellence

Sounds good, you say, but how can I move from my successful-but-costly life of excellence to one built around genius?

Here’s what I did:

First, inventory the costs of business as usual:

Write this stuff down so it’s there on paper, undeniable:

  1. Your health: Are you over/under weight, out of shape, sleep-deprived, etc.? How often are you sick? Do you feel as energetic as you want to be?
  2. Your relationships: How would you rate your marriage or intimate relationship on a 1-10 scale? Do you hear recurring complaints from your friends and family? How close are you to your kids? Do you have all the close friends you want?
  3. Your mind: Is your head full of thoughts all the time, things that must be done now? Can you fully enjoy what you’re doing at any one moment, or are you preoccupied and drifting? Can you focus or do you multi-task to the point of distraction? Do you have insightful breakthroughs, or do you feel like you’re just going in circles? Are you calm or peevish? Angry or forgiving?
  4. Your spirit: Do you feel fulfilled? Does your work seem meaningful? How much do you do because you want to do it versus feeling you have no choice but to do it? Do you feel connected to something bigger than yourself and your occupation?

Give each of these indicator areas (and any others you can think of that are meaningful) a 1-10 rating with 1 being poor and 10 being super. Then take a look — if you’re mostly in the 7 or below territory you’re probably living a costly existence despite the success you’re having.

(For more on this, the book “The Power of Full Engagement” contains some excellent lifestyle inventory tools.)

Next, consider flow. Think about the times in your life when you’ve accomplished meaningful things and yet it seemed easy. Perhaps it was leading your friends on a hiking trip, or helping your mother make dinner, or mentoring younger colleagues. Pick things that were meaningful to you regardless of whether they got you recognition from others.

Make a list of 5-10 of these “best stuff” moments and look for common threads. It’s those commonalities across diverse accomplishments that point to your genius qualities.

Your Choice Point

Now you have a choice. It’s not a black-and-white, either/or choice. You don’t have to abandon your work in excellence.

Instead, think about what it would take for you to spend an extra hour each week living in your zone of genius. After all, this is when you’re at your most creative and productive — think what another hour of you at your very best would do for you and those around you.

PHOTO: Minnesota Historical Society

Forget About Getting it Right (Learn Instead)

baconSuccess: It’s not about the bacon; it’s about learning.

If you’re like most people, you spend a lot of time trying to get things right. Problem is, things move so quickly today that it’s almost impossible to know what the right move is. So why not just give up on being right and focus on learning instead?

Ray Stata, CEO of Analog Devices, puts it succinctly: “I would argue that the rate at which individuals and organizations learn may become the only sustainable competitive advantage, especially in knowledge intensive industries.”

It’s all about increasing your learning agility. This is a skill that you and your team can learn, and it’s based on three key practices:

  • Connection
  • Feedback
  • Responsibility

(If you want to skip ahead and take the short-cut to increasing your learning agility, click here to sign up for the 21st Century Leadership Skills workshop I’m leading in NYC next month.)


If learning from experience is the secret to improvement, then the first essential step is connecting with customers and colleagues so that you can actually get the full experience.

As humans, we connect at the emotional level. Facts can inform us, but feelings connect us. Not only is emotional intelligence — the ability to know and regulate your own emotional state, intuit others’ emotional states, and respond accordingly – one of the keys to success in business; it’s also how you deeply connect with others to hear what’s really going on.

I learned this the hard way when I was one of the leaders of a huge technology project at NBC. As we gathered input from various business groups, we kept hearing pleas to customize the tools or add features. We dutifully enhanced the system to address these requests, only to find users were still not interested.

If we had really listened, we would have heard that users were afraid of the new system: afraid they would not be able to learn it, afraid of leaving behind the inefficient old system they know so well, afraid of staff realignments and cuts stemming from the modernization.

We were hearing requests for technical fixes. We missed the deeper message and as a result, the system essentially died on the vine: $30 million and three years wasted.


Feedback is essential to improvement, and yet most of us will go to absurd lengths to avoid it.

One of my clients is a major resort company. They put on a lot of brunches, and they have a bunch of standard practices that help them get good food to the banquet table at the right time.

One recent Sunday the weather was worse than usual, and so instead of playing outside, guests decided to stay in and go to brunch. As a result, the chafing dish of bacon emptied out almost immediately.

It so happens that there is someone whose job it is to make sure there is enough bacon cooked. His usual practice is to cook six pans of bacon; usually that is more than enough. Not today. When told that he was out of bacon, the bacon chef said: “That can’t be. I cooked six pans. There should be plenty of bacon.” The rest of the conversation was an argument about the six pans not being enough. Meanwhile, the line at the bacon station was only getting longer.

Rather than taking the feedback and using it to adjust his actions, this particular bacon chef was more attached to defending his usual practice.

Agile learners put learning above defending. They don’t argue with reality; they find the fastest way to adjust to the new reality.


Usually when we are talking about responsibility, we are looking for who is to blame for something. But what if, instead of sticking someone else with responsibility for something we don’t like, we looked at how we can claim our own responsibility for creating the outcome we really want?

Like my friend Jack. He noticed that customers were routinely reversing the wiring on the solar inverters his company sold. The engineering team was frustrated because to them, it was obvious which way the wires should go. But experience showed a lot of customers were getting it backwards.

Instead of arguing about how wrong their customers were, Jack asked what his company could do to solve this problem once and for all. The answer: label the wires.

Dive in Deeper

Want to create your own personal plan for learning agility? Executive coach Meg Dennison and I will be leading a workshop on these building blocks for effective leadership in New York City April 27, 2016. 

You’ll get specific tools and strategies for solving your most important issues and upping your learning agility as you gather with other agile leaders in Manhattan 10am-3pm. Here’s the link to find out more. And here’s the link to sign up.

PHOTO: Nick Gray via Flickr

How to Turn a Miss into a Win


Good post on the Harvard Business Review site on how to tell someone you dropped the ball. It hits the important points like:

  • Communicate as soon as you see danger signs
  • Don’t avoid the people you are letting down
  • Be direct and own that you fell short of what you agreed to do
  • Work together to create a path forward
  • Avoid trouble in the first place by allowing yourself to say no to requests you aren’t all in for

All these are essential to maintaining trust and connection with people you may be letting down.

And there are a couple more essential ingredients that can take this to the next level:

Don’t leave out the emotions

Notice what you are feeling when you think about telling your colleague/customer/boss that you will not fulfill your agreement. Do you feel afraid? Angry? Sad? Give yourself permission to fully experience whatever you are feeling so that you can move through it. This will keep you from being run by those emotions going forward — like that desire to avoid facing people you feel you have let down. You might even want to express what you’re feeling to those folks you had the agreement with.

And give the other party to your agreement the chance to feel their emotions, too. You don’t have to “fix” what they are feeling, but creating space for them to express whatever anger, sadness or fear they are facing in the wake of your broken agreement will allow them to move beyond those feelings, too.

The benefit of noticing and expressing these emotions is that you can both stay in connection with each other, perhaps even feeling more connected in the wake of this upset.

What can you learn from this?

It’s one thing to fall short, acknowledge you broke your agreement, express and clean up any hurt feelings, and then move forward. But to take it to the next level, dig into the root causes and learn all you can from the incident. Did you agree too readily to the assignment because you feel insecure? Does this illustrate a pattern of overcommitting? Do you have a habit of running your schedule loosely so that competing events get in the way?

You’ve already paid the price by owning up to your broken agreement, so you might as well get the benefit of learning so you can make root changes and avoid similar problems in the future.

Emotional intelligence and learning agility are the big differentiators in successful leaders and teams, even (or especially) when they miss the target.

PHOTO: ThisParticularGreg via Flickr