What is a free, easy to create, wildly simple, often under-utilized and under-appreciated tool that can significantly improve your leadership effectiveness on many levels? A practice I have long relied on to keep focused on the tasks at hand, but have only recently come to appreciate as a powerful tool in leadership communication and team development. Lists. Glorious lists!
The virtues of list-making are being seen in a whole new light as successful leaders in many industries share how they have succeeded in their ambitious goals. It turns out that when looking at the tactics involved in getting from here to there, whether it is putting someone on the moon or reducing hospital death-rates, list-making is vital.
My use of list-making has grown into an important tool in my coaching tool box. Not only do lists help individuals focus productively on tasks in service of goals, but they reduce stress and anxiety during difficult times. Just creating the list can make a daunting project achievable. Lists also serve as an excellent tool for helping leaders share the process by which they arrive at insights and important decisions. Let’s take a deeper dive into these three areas.
List-Making in Service of Task Completion
Our brains are more stretched these days than perhaps any other time in our lifetimes. The world is inherently complex, but add virtual meetings, hybrid work models, and existential threats to our health, and it’s not hard to understand why people are reporting high rates of forgetfulness, lack of focus, fatigue and apathy. We attempt to multi-task (something science has already told us is neurologically impossible) on a regular basis, shifting from professional demands to domestic and personal needs. And within any of those silos, we are probably carrying on multiple conversations on multiple devices, not to mention in our heads. There do not seem to be enough hours in the day to get everything done.
Enter the value of list-making! By making a list of each discreet task, accompanied by a sub-list of the details involved in each separate task, we have relieved our brain of having to remember, and relieved ourselves of the frustration and confusion which often accompanies clear task identification.
We can clearly see the scope of actions required to complete any of the tasks before us. This alone helps us allot time more effectively. And the act of crossing something off a list provides the brain with an important dose of reward, which in turn gives us energy and motivation to keep going.
List creation is not complicated, but requires discipline. At the beginning of the week, take a moment to sit down with your calendar and write down all the tasks you wish to accomplish in the week. Begin to sort the tasks into a timeline for the week. Then create a sub-list under each major task, setting forth those tactics you want to use to achieve that task. As you go on completing those tasks throughout the week, cross them off your checklist. Revisit your checklist at the beginning or end of everyday so that you can update or make any appropriate adjustments. Simply having your tasks organized will give you extra mental space, which in turn will reduce stress. This leads to the second benefit of list-making.
List-Making Reduces Stress and Anxiety
Never in my career have I had clients complain more about insomnia. When it comes time to sleep, our brains seem to wake up and decide to examine every dilemma in our life. We replay conversations and plan interactions, have creative insights that eluded us during the day, fret over things we have no control over, and think of things we must do that we had forgotten or overlooked.
Much of this is indicative of a brain that is being hyper-stimulated during the day, but not adequately allowed to meander freely — which is when our best thinking occurs. So, what I find is that out of exhaustion and a desire to sleep, we become anxious at not being able to fall asleep, cursing our brain for keeping us awake, but at the same time, not wanting to lose some of the thoughts and insights that rumination can produce. What to do? List-making to the rescue!
Keep a large notebook and pen by your bedside. As you think of the right words for tomorrow’s meeting, or you have a bright connection between thoughts that result in a good strategy, or you just need to get a comment out of your system, without turning on the light (light disturbs our circadian rhythms) write down your thoughts. The reason for having a larger notebook is so you can write freely without having to worry about penmanship and legibility. The important thing is to get your thoughts and your lists down on paper in as few a words possible, but that capture enough of your intention to trigger your memory the next morning.
This system supports mental creativity while also allowing the brain to relax. Even instances of negative rumination benefit from jotting the concern or worry down. The brain seems to just want some help getting things out of its thick skull and out into the open where, in the light of day, you can examine it with fresh eyes.
List-Making in Service of Leadership, Communication, and Team Development
Many of the leaders I work with are brilliant thinkers who struggle with letting go of “doing.” Often the development feedback they receive has to do with bringing others along in their decision-making process and taking more time to develop others learning, versus just doing for them. I find that often it isn’t so much that the leader doesn’t want to share their thinking, but it happens so quickly, is second nature to them, that they really don’t know how to slow the process down and bring people along.
All leaders hoping to develop high performance teams should make a practice of observing their own processes related to their role. How do they approach important client meetings? How do they discern the best course of action when there are budget constraints? What are their criteria for balancing talent on team. Virtually everything one does can be broken down into steps. Observe your processes, record the steps, use this as an opportunity to refine your thinking, and finally, share it with your team members. This goes a very long way in creating alignment and deep understanding in a team that is trying to follow and learn from its leader.
These are complex times. Anything we can do to make life more simple, more effective and less stressful, while also improving leadership impact — let’s make a list of all the ways that is a good thing!
To learn more about leading others, developing your team, and tactics and techniques to accomplish your goals, contact Nora, for a consultation.