Leave the gun. Take the cannoli. (Too much to do! Part II)

Leave the gun. Take the cannoli. Matt Wunderle
Leave the gun. Take the cannoli. Matt Wunderle

One of the biggest challenges for emerging leaders is deciding how to focus, what to stay involved in, and what to sacrifice. Sometimes we tell ourselves we have to “do it all” without taking time to figure out what exactly that means.

When we are threatened with overwhelm, it’s important that we question our choices and habits before we find ourselves headed down the path to a future we didn’t want. I have found helpful to use questions like these in organizing overwhelming amounts of information and tasks:

  1. What are the patterns, and how can I anticipate and plan for them?
  2. What is most important that I need to keep? What could I sacrifice without losing what’s most important?
  3. What do the problems have in common? What systems can solve these problems ahead of time?

The patterns

If you are lost in the woods, pay attention to what you’ve come across. Are you going in circles?

When I was managing an office, it took me the first two years to see the cyclical nature of our work and the recurring patterns. When I started facilitating and training, it took me a few months of delivery before I saw the patterns underlying our different ways of presenting the material.

After you’ve had a year or two of experience in your role, questions like these can help you work with patterns:

  • What has happened again?
  • What benefit would there be if I knew it was coming?
  • If I could advise myself ahead of time about how to handle this, what would I say?
  • When would I need that piece of information?
  • When will that come up again?
  • What tool can I use to deliver that reminder?

What’s most important

When it’s clear that you are about to lose something, it’s very important to ask, “What is most important that I need to keep? What could I sacrifice without losing what’s most important?”

A recent experience brought to my attention just how important these questions are. I’d started a “Meetup” group for the purpose of drawing together people who were ready to look at change and interested in partnering with others to make change in their own lives and work. Drawing on ideas from a friend, I decided that an effective way of drawing interested parties would be to offer a “book talk,” a way in which people could learn together from some of the useful information offered in books about change.

The group kicked off with great energy, but that energy faded quickly. The remaining members of the group and I discussed what the cause of this energy lag might be. We realized that there’s great value in bringing people together to try to understand change, to support each other through change, and to engage in conversation. What was unnecessary and possibly even problematic was the “book talk.”

It would have been very tempting to defend the book-talk idea. It was, after all, what I’d invested most of my energy into when preparing for these groups. It was the means by which I had advertised the meetup.

However, taking a step back to identify the purpose of the group and what would help us achieve that purpose made it very easy to let go of the books.

I realized I needed to leave the gun if I wanted to keep the cannoli.

Some questions that can be helpful when you are facing loss in your own situation:

  • Who am I in this situation? Who do I most want to be?
  • What is the essence of what I need to convey or use?
  • What was the original purpose that brought me here in the first place? Has that purpose been achieved? What is critical for achieving that purpose?
  • When the loss has happened, how will I continue to hold my true self?

The commonalities

When I started managing a cafe, we seemed constantly short-handed because some crisis was always drawing our attention away from simply serving customers.

The drinks refrigerator stopped working, so we had to move all the drinks to a refrigerator in the back.  The initial moving project took time, and the situation increased the time for taking care of each customer’s needs.

Our espresso machine developed a problem so we could only make one drink at a time instead of the two for which it had been designed.

The panini machine stopped working, forcing us to reduce the menu, accommodate a repairman behind the counter, and we lost lunch customers.

I realized we were facing patterns of mechanical issues that drew too much of everyone’s attention and obstructed normal operations. We had no practices in place for maintaining these machines on a regular schedule–they couldn’t survive our neglect.

Initiating a series of scheduled maintenance tasks triggered resistance both in myself and in the crew that had become used to ignoring the machines, but I created the systems anyway. I also worked alongside the crew to make sure all of us knew what to do and when to do it.

Within a month our operation was a “well-oiled machine” again.

Some questions that might be useful as you look for commonalities:

  • What needs to be in place for things to work well?
  • How can I organize all of these things into broad categories?
  • What system would create positive outcomes for each category?
  • What resources and allies can help me create those systems?
  • What barriers do I need to overcome or clear in order for changes to take place?

Emerging leaders can find themselves overwhelmed with how much there is to do and everything that demands their attention. By attending to the patterns, we can save time by anticipating and planning for them. By attending to what is most important we can save ourselves time and energy by letting go of the inner resistance we experience to losing what isn’t even very important. By creating systems to handle common problems, we save tons of time and energy by solving problems before they begin.

You may have to sacrifice some expediency in the moment to create it down the line, but the momentary sacrifice has great future dividends.

What can you do today to create some time for your future self?

(Read Too Much to Do! Part I here.)


Career Leadership Alignment offers coaching for how to be rather than what to do–supporting you in change from the inside out. Ignite the passions and unleash the natural powers that drive high performance in your team!

Amy Kay Watson is a specialist in leadership development as well as cultural and personal transformation. Working with thousands of professionals across North America, Amy has helped individuals and companies re-think organizational culture while implementing effective change. She focuses on leadership, culture, and employee engagement.

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