A Thousand Noes

Dave Kinnear 1-On Leadership, 4-ExtPost


I am finding it more challenging to stay focused these days. There are numerous interruptions from multiple devices—PC, Laptop, Phone, and text messages on several of those devices. In trying to stay focused on this blog post, for example, I am contending with text messages from my auto repair technician, my wife out shopping, and notices of arriving e-mails on my computer.

It isn’t very productive. I consider making my (self-imposed) deadline for publishing my blog posts as very important. When I am interrupted and have to gather my thoughts again, I lose at

least several minutes. Sometimes, I lose a whole idea that I wanted to integrate into the post. The only way I know to keep myself on task is to mute all my devices’ notifications.

In The Office

While at home, I can make the necessary adjustments to stay on task. No one is home to bother me; my wife knows to “stay away” when I am at my computer. So, it’s a matter of making sure that I shut down notifications from all the equipment. For those still in the office environment or rejoining after the pandemic, staying focused is a bit more challenging. Colleagues frequently poke their heads in the office or cubicle to say, “Hi.”

And, of course, there is the boss, project managers, and customers all demanding attention or wanting answers to questions. Meanwhile, that critical, high-priority project keeps getting delayed while you respond.

The Trivial Many

I usually have a long list of tasks to complete. They range from “when I get to it, if ever,” to “I have to have this done in the next hour.” The critical items are few in number. By far, the list comprises tasks that I consider to be “the trivial many.” That is to say, they aren’t essential, and I can let them go for a long time. Usually, though, they are interesting, and I am inclined to spend time on them. If I let those trivial tasks seduce me, the critical projects will fall behind.

The Significant Few

At the top of the pile of “to-dos” are the essential tasks that I must complete. They are few in number; however, they have outsized importance to the team’s success. Or, perhaps, my manager has given me a deadline to meet. In my case, I have likely set my own deadlines. These blog posts have an arbitrary deadline of being published every Wednesday by 9:30 am. I do my best to meet that deadline, but the truth is that it isn’t likely that anyone will hold me accountable for not making it. It’s a pride thing for me.

I have external deadlines to meet, as well. For example, getting my ballot completed on time means studying the many propositions and people running for office. Or perhaps I have a presentation that must be ready for a meeting (I have a weekly Powerpoint presentation that is different each week and has a hard deadline). Insurance paperwork must be done promptly. I am sure you have your own examples.

On Task

My mantra is, “Do not let the trivial many become the enemy of the significant few.” David Brooks, in his book The Second Mountain, suggests we have to give a thousand noes to protect a few significant yesses. I like that statement too.

The bottom line is that we have to be more vigilant than ever if we want to be effective and efficient in our work. As leaders, we must be careful not to delegate too many “high-priority” projects to our direct reports. We need to be clear on what our team must accomplish when—I can’t expect them to finish all tasks at once.

One of the more difficult areas for leadership development is how to delegate tasks to our team correctly. Of course, the delegated task must take the form of a SMART goal (Significant, Measureable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-constrained). How is your team doing? Do they have clear goals?