It’s a definitive characteristic of the people I work with that they sign up for too much. They’re optimists. They believe they can do anything. They’re eternally growing. That’s the poetry, here’s the reality.
There are two paths for these eager optimists. The first path is the individual who is capable of both signing up for everything and also completing everything. These unicorns exist and I am fascinated by them because I am so completely on the second path. It’s on this path where I sign up for too much, which I invariably learn three weeks later when my eyes pop open for my 4am Panic.
The 4am Panic is achieved when the work I need to complete exceeds my mental capacity to consider it. Something annoyingly biologically chemical is triggered at 4am where apparently I must uselessly consider all of my current work on my plate for no productive reason at all. Just stare at the ceiling and fret until I fall back to sleep.
You might not have the 4am panic, but you know the state because you’ve probably been there. It’s the state of constant reaction. It’s when you start blocking time off on your calendar just to keep up. You reinvent your productivity system, you write list after list after list, and you sleep poorly.
It’s worth taking some time to think about how you got here, but that’s not the point of this piece. I have simple advice and, well, it involves two more lists.
The First List
We’re going to write two lists and my request is that you don’t read about the second list until you’ve completed the first. I suspect if you understand the full exercise right now that your first list will be skewed and biased, so when I say “go”, stop reading, grab your favorite pen, and write the first list.
This is a list of the impossible things on your plate right now. Now, they aren’t actually impossible, but they’re big rocks. They’re sitting in your inbox or in your favorite productivity tool and each time you see them, you’re brain freezes and thinks, “That’s big – skip it for now.”
Now, you can skip it a few times, but at some point you start to take some type of small credibility hit because forward progress isn’t being made. When you take that hit and multiply it by the fact there are four other impossible tasks on your list, you’ve got a date with the ceiling at 4am.
Make a list of the impossible tasks. The big rocks. Everything that is weighing on you. Don’t worry, this is just for you.
The Second List
I’m really curious about the size of your impossible list. Three? Twenty? Any cathartic moments as you wrote? Revelations? It’s not the point of this piece, but one of the reasons to make a simple list is to get it out of your unstructured and emotional head and onto structured and readable paper.
Ok, turn that piece of paper over. We’re going to make a second list and, as much as possible, I want you to forget about the first list. List the people who merit your belief in their reliability, truth, ability, or strength. We’re talking about work here so I’m assuming these are co-workers, but don’t limit yourself to your immediate team or leads. Who is everyone in the company that you fully trust?
Next, for each person on your list. I want you write why you trust this person. “Bruce. I trust Bruce to consider a problem from every angle. Hannah. I trust Hannah to always provide realistic dates. Marty. I trust Marty to always put his team before himself.”
How to Sleep Well
This second list is the reason you’re reading this piece. Earlier this year, I woke up at 4am for some ceiling time. The impossible was swirling and as I settled into my fretting, I realized I was deeply tired of the unstructured worry, so I rolled out of bed and I wrote the second list. 22 people that I completely trusted in one way or another. I was struck both by some of the names on the list and how I trusted them. If you’ve blown through both exercises and are just reading this piece, you can still have a rewarding moment of understanding that you are surrounded by a diverse set of trustworthy people.
I stared at the list for a few moments and realized I had a stunning amount of unrealized capacity around me. It was this moment which was behind the quote I recently gave to TechCrunch:
“My job is to my get myself out of a job. I’m aggressively pushing things I think I could be really good at and should actually maybe own to someone else who’s gonna get a B at it, but they’re gonna get the opportunity to go do that … [I’m always asking] does this legit need to be on my list. Should I be doing this, or is this something I can give to someone else and they should be actually going and doing it? That’s one of my principles, to get myself out-of-the-way. Ideally there’s some morning where I get up and have my coffee and there’s absolutely nothing to do, everything else has been delegated.”
This is your task. Take your first list and see who on the second list can help out. There’s a reason you signed up for all these impossible tasks and big rocks. You were coming from an enthusiastic and optimistic place, but if you’re a leader of humans, the right answer might be to ask for help. The right answer might be to give the task to someone else who might not do as good a job, but who will learn more than you.
You might think that this is a long way to say “Delegation Matters!”, but there are other lessons. Your brain protects you in strange ways. Enthusiasm might not be strategic. You’re underestimating the people you trust.
I didn’t write or match to my first list until the next day. All I did at 4am was consider the list of the people I trusted and what I trusted them to do. After a few minutes, I went back to bed and slept all night.