Several clients have recently used the phrase “behind the eight ball” when describing their current professional situation. It is a curious phrase, so I decided to look it up and this is what I found:

  • a difficult position from which it is unlikely one can escape;
  • in trouble, in a weak or losing position;
  • broke.

What my clients are, no doubt, trying to convey is their feeling of being constantly behind, with so much to do, so much expected of them, and simply not enough time or resources in which to do it all. Naturally, they are finding it difficult—if not impossible—to keep up. And this is to say nothing of all that is required of them in their personal lives. The pendulum has often swung so far that merely trying to “keep their head above water” at work (incidentally, another interesting phrase) is often all we have time to discuss in our one-hour meeting.

I have a great deal of compassion for my clients, as I recognize the demands of organizational life and executive schedules. In one word, they are relentless. I also have a great deal of admiration as I watch these talented men and women strive to do exceptional work day in and day out. However, at some point, I often begin to see signs that even the best among them are beginning to unravel. What I share with them then is what I will now share with you.

1. Change your focus. There will always be a million and one things you can, should and need to be doing. And, this list will never end. It will remain until you retire and then unless you magically change how you focus your attention (which is very unlikely), it will simply follow you into your golden years (“I have to plant those flowers, clean out the basement, write that book I’ve always wanted to …”). Left unchanged, you could live with the feeling of being “behind” until you die. To illustrate, think of all the critical information and mental to do’s the professionals who worked in the World Trade Center towers held in their minds the morning of 9/11. It was no doubt all so urgent, critical and important. That is, until the first plane hit. Then, none of it seemed to matter much at all. Yet somehow life went on (although never the same for so many). My message is simply this: Yes, your to-do list matters but not as much as you think it does. Hold it a little looser. Fixating on all you need to do is a terrible way to focus your attention and spend your life. I recommend you cultivate a very different mindset, one that can serve you well today and into any type of retirement you might elect. This mindset would sound something like this, “I only need to get a couple of key things right.

2. Identify your key things. What are the top two or three things for you? Not merely for you in your role as a leader but as a human being on this planet. You are only one person and that person is the only tool you have as a leader. What invigorates you personally will fuel your leadership and vice versus. What are your top priorities? You might express them something like this: (1) to do what I believe is in the best interest of the businesses I lead and the people I serve; (2) to enjoy my spouse and our kids; and (3) to exercise for health and personal time.

3. Select a calendar system to manage your life. If you are old-school like I am, have one agenda book where you can write everything down, and then don’t lose that book! Otherwise, use an online calendar system and back it up. In your calendar, make note of everything that you currently carry mentally. Have this be a mind dump for everything you know you need to be thinking about, preparing for and doing, both personally as well as professionally (again, you are one person, not two). For example, if you must give a presentation several months from now and it doesn’t make sense to begin preparing for it immediately, write down the date of the presentation and then several weeks earlier also write, “Begin to prepare for presentation.” Now you can take it off your mental radar.

Do this with personal items as well. For example, if your friend, Sara, has a birthday at the end of the June, you might write in your agenda for June 15th: “Buy birthday gift for Sara.” This will enable you to focus only on today, knowing that when the day arrives for you to begin preparing for something down the road, you will be appropriately prompted. The key is to take all that you are now carrying mentally—but cannot yet act on—off your mental radar.

4. Debrief each day. At the end of every workday, take 15 minutes to review. What needed to get done? What actually got done? What non-negotiable tasks are on the calendar for tomorrow? Given your answers to these questions, create a schedule for yourself for the following day.

It might look something like this, “In order to get to everything I need to tomorrow, I will get up at 5 am. I will get my workout in first thing, otherwise it will never occur. Then I will shower and ensure I have time to have breakfast with the kids. Leave for work at 7:30 am, arrive 8 am. First, call Bob to discuss schedule changes. Return emails if time. 9 am Meet with team to review progress. Leave window of time for action items coming out of the meeting. 12 pm lunch, get birthday present for Sara. 12:45 pm prep for afternoon all hands. 1pm – 2pm all hands. Take short break following the meeting to grab a coffee, reflect, and think about how I am/we are best to proceed. Back in the office, 15 minutes to return email. Then close door for head-down work time. 5 pm spend 15 minutes to return emails. 5:15 pm close out day and prepare agenda for tomorrow. 5:30 pm commute home, listen to audio book. Pick up almond milk and salad. Home by 6:30 pm. Help with dinner/dinner at 6:45 pm. Spend time with spouse and kids. 8:30 pm take 15 minutes to return emails. 8:45 pm watch movie with spouse.”

I strongly recommend that you do this planning at the end of every workday, as doing so accomplishes several important things: (1) it requires you to reflect on the day so you know where you spent your time; (2) it allows you to leave work at work, so that during your commute you do not need to be thinking about the day unnecessarily, but rather, you can enjoy that time in other ways. Similarly, when you get home, you can actually be at home and pay attention to your loved ones (a novel idea, I know); (3) it encompasses all aspects of your life so you can feel good knowing you are staying on top of personal necessities (i.e., exercise, getting milk) as well as incorporating some of the fun stuff that makes life worth living (i.e., a movie with your spouse); and (4) it allows you to plan exactly what time you need to get up in order to fit everything in and exactly what you need to be doing first thing in the morning (far too many people react rather than plan, and then tell you they don’t have time for things like exercise).

It is imperative that you get very good at estimating what can actually be accomplished in a day and that the most important things get done.  More often than not, you should complete everything on your agenda. If you find you rarely accomplish what you set out to do, you are being unrealistic and you need to get better at designing an agenda that is possible given the reality of your work and life.

The feeling of being behind or ahead is really just a choice.

I recommend you begin by underestimating what can be done and then, off to the side, simply add a “wish list.” When you tick off everything on your main list, enjoy that sense of accomplishment. If you happen to have additional time that day, tackle one of the items on your wish list and then (drum roll, please!) experience the wonderful feeling of being “ahead.”

5. Know yourself. All leadership is self-development. It is critical you know yourself exceptionally well:

  • What is necessary for you to be at your best?
  • What are the small but important things you know you need to do each day in order to be at the top of your game mentally and physically?
  • What daily routines must you honor?
  • What are your best hours?
  • How many breaks do you need and when do you need them?
  • What makes life most fun?
  • How can you use exciting work or enjoyable personal tasks as a reward for completing less thrilling but nonetheless necessary work?

Remember, right now you are living only one chapter of your life.Balance in this particular chapter will be very different than balance in other chapters. You can have it all, you just can’t have it all right now. Be grateful for all that exists during this unique time period: are you young and healthy? Is your whole life and career still ahead? Have you just welcomed a new baby? Are your children still young? Are your parents still alive? Are your children off to college so there is again more time for you and your spouse? Have you arrived at what only a decade ago was a dream? Are you now sought-after for your opinion? Have you earned the right to do more of the work you love? Can you finally work if and when you want to?  Every chapter has great things to offer.  Enjoy each of them, because this too shall pass.

As I frequently ask my clients, “In 50 years, you and I will both be dead. So…what was it all for?”

“May you live all the days of your life.” – Jonathan Swift