Anyone who runs a company knows that time is a precious possession and a scarce commodity. We constantly search for ways to get more of it or -- failing that -- to use what we have more efficiently. We experiment with time-management experts, but they seldom have the answers, since they can't add hours to a day or days to a week. As a result, we wind up working harder, and that's when we get into trouble.
I almost ruined my business and my health several years ago because I was so overwhelmed with work. Believe me, the problem was not that I wasn't managing my time effectively or that I didn't like to work hard. It was that I had committed myself and my company to more than we could handle.
Such behavior is typical of overachievers and often goes hand in hand with being a workaholic. It should not be confused with the behavior of high achievers, however, who are aware of their limitations and pace themselves accordingly. Today, I confess, I am still a workaholic and make no apologies for it, but as a matter of survival for myself and my company, I have become a reformed overachiever.
The turning point for me was when I understood the dramatic difference between overcommitting and overplanning. As a workaholic, I concluded that overplanning was healthy -- I always wanted a backlog of projects I was planning to do. But in the future I was consciously determined to undercommit myself.
My own predicament evolved gradually. After four years in sales and without any formal training or experience in management, I started a computer-service business. What I lacked in knowledge and experience, I made up for in long hours. That management style worked at first, since I had few customers and a small staff. But as my customer base and operations built up, I couldn't keep on top of the job; the job was on top of me.
By the end of my second year in business, I was ready to give up. Although the company was growing, I felt tired and discouraged most of the time. We were always behind on our commitments to customers, and I used being too busy as an excuse for not planning. I mostly followed the squeaking-wheel principle, responding to the greatest pressure at the time. My appointment calendar was so tight that I was getting further behind with every emergency, and emergencies were happening with greater frequency.
I was so overbooked that I couldn't meet with members of my staff on short notice or have any quality time with them. Whatever big ideas I had about participatory management went out the window. I had so many things on my mind, I found I wasn't even listening well when I did meet with my people. As for keeping them up to date on what was going on, it just didn't happen. At the same time, though, I began to feel some resentment and couldn't understand why the 30 or so people who worked for me didn't have the same interested and drive I had. I was noticeably busier and was putting in longer hours than anybody else.
The fact is, not only had I imposed unrealistic deadlines on the whole company, I was holding things up because I had assumed too many responsibilities. Instead of delegating to my staff, I was telling them what to do and later second-guessing and interfering with their work. That led to a constant parade of people in and out of my office, asking questions and checking things out with me, which meant I had even less time. Turnover was high, and morale was low -- especially among my best people.
Overachieving was taking a toll on my personal life as well. My moods were up, down, and sideways. Every time I missed going home for dinner, I felt guilty. It seemed that my children were growing up, and I hadn't spent nearly enough time with them. And that is how, quite by accident, I came by my cure.
Until then, I had not taken a real vacation, but instead took a day or two at a time. By the end of that second year, I was so burned out I decided to take my family on a trip West for about a month. I assumed that when I returned my business would be in shambles, but that somehow I could put the pieces back together. To my amazement, things were running smoothly when I got back. It came to me as a revelation that if things could go this well without me in the office, they could continue to do so with me around.
So I started on a new regimen. When people came to me with a question, I didn't offer an answer as I had before, but rather asked a question of my own: "What do you recommend?" It wasn't very long before the parade into my office thinned out. People began to think through their questions and the possible solutions before coming to me, and in the process they came up with their own answers. My staff began to think more like managers and to become more self-reliant. And since they were closer to the problem than I was, their solutions tended to be better than anything I might have suggested.
I also changed the way I delegated -- or didn't delegate -- responsibility. Previously, I had always asked myself, "Who can best assume this responsibility?" Very often the answer was, "I can." Now I started asking, "Who should handle this responsibility?" I am usually not the one. Other managers tell me they find it hard to delegate responsibility, at least at first, but I was so desperate at the time I felt I didn't have any choice.The difficulty was weaning people away from their dependence on me.
Many of the company's problems had come from my promising too much to customers, so I also took a fresh look at that relationship. I concluded that although customers may always be right, they are not always reasonable, and I started negotiating my way out of impractical requests. This not only helped our operations, but it also helped customer relations because we began meeting deadlines instead of missing unrealistic ones.
Perhaps the most significant step I took was to become almost fanatic about continually setting and reviewing my priorities and then focusing on them. Obviously, I get sidetracked at times. If someone tells me our building is on fire, I will man the water buckets, but once the fire is out, I go back to my priorities.
In order to focus on priorities, I have had to make a critical distinction between overcommitting and overplanning. In retrospect, that has enabled me to survive in business.
All of this has led me to follow an almost embarrassingly simple philosophy:
* Plan to do more than you can do.
* Prioritize what you plan to do by importance and urgency.
* Commit yourself to less than you can do and only to those projects that are the most important or urgent.
The advantages of shifting from being an overachiever to a high achiever are many. In my own case, I am more effective and get more done with less effort and with a dramatic decrease in stress, not only within myself, but also among my staff. I still have problems, of course, but very few emergencies and even fewer crises. My people are more highly challenged and motivated. My business has prospered, and the biggest payoff for me is that I enjoy my work.
This is not to suggest that it's easy to maintain this management style. As with most addicts, reformed overachievers have to be on the alert constantly to keep from backsliding. Over the course of any year, my company hires new people, and the old syndrome starts to creep back. Even experienced people begin to depend too much on me. So every year I take the cure: three weeks away to prove to myself and to the members of my staff that they can get along without me.