Renaissance (Wo)Man Or Expert? Time Management For The New Millennium

Should You Be A Jack-Of All-Trades Or

This past year I had the honor and privilege of leading a Lean-In Circle. The participants were an amazing group of women and leaders and I was honored to spend the year with them.

While we didn’t entirely follow along the Lean In curriculum as specified by Sheryl Sandberg and co, we did take advantage of some of their best videos and teachings. For a unit on goal-setting, I ended up contrasting a Multipliers video that’s part of the Lean-In Circles website with another video I found on Essentialism.

What I loved about these two videos was that they didn’t follow the usual time-management formula and talk about ways to “manage time” and be more efficient. Instead, they focused our group on what goals we really cared about.

Essentialism, as described by author Greg McKeown, is the disciplined pursuit of doing less, but better, so you can make the highest possible contribution. When applying essentialism to your work and life, you need to consistently ask yourself the question, “what ONE thing, if I could do it (or do it better) would make the biggest possible differennce to my work/life?” It’s about looking for the important levers so that when you push on them, you can have a much bigger impact than working on multiple fronts at the same time.

We contrasted this laser-like focus with the Multipliers philosophy of Jennifer Aaker of Stanford Business School. What Aaker argues is that when we have multiple goals, we can be most effective with our time when we combine and overlap those goals. For instance, if your goals are to spend time with friends and work out more – how about going for a run with a friend or organizing doubles tennis with a group of friends? If you want to read more business books and network more at work – perhaps start a business book club at work.

Multipliers is in sharp contrast to McKeown’s disciplined pursuit of less; it is instead about focusing on and combining goals for the results you want with less time spent. The theory of Multipliers argues for less compartmentalization in our lives and instead looking at the big picture and finding win-win-win solutions.

As a Lean In group we passionately discussed which philosophy seemed “better” or at least to fit each of us better. And when should we apply which one?

What I love about this debate is that for many people it boils down into a central question; do I want to be a jack of all trades, a renaissance man/woman, or do I want to stand-out in one particular way, and potentially downplay (or downsize) other options?

You get bombarded by so many messages in the workplace: how to have a powerful presence, why you need to delegate more, how to hone your presentation/sales skills, when to coach your employees to maximize employee engagement. It’s hard to know where you should you start. . .

It’s no wonder that by the time people decide to enlist my help as a coach, they have a laundry list of things they believe they need to improve on to be more influential and impactful at work – and very little time to work on any of it.

The problem, as you might instinctively know, is that if you have too many areas to improve on, you’re not going to get real traction on any of them. I think most of us know this intellectually but fail to accept it realistically when setting our own goals.

And it’s a tough call: it’s hard to know in the long run whether it’s more important to your life to regularly assert yourself during staff meetings, engage in professional development to build up a new skill, be more consistent with your workout routine, or spend more quality time with your spouse and kids who are begging for your attention. So it’s easier at the outset to decide you need to work on all of them at the same time.

But it doesn’t work. We’ve always known our time is limited and now research is pointing to the fact that our focus and attention is limited too.

Which is why – whether you’re focusing on that one essential or combining goals, I believe that either method can work for you – as long as you’re clear what your biggest priorities actually are.

Personally, I try to focus on one big work goal and one big personal goal only. (Yes I veer off my own recommendation occasionally but I try to keep myself coming back to it).

If you’re trying to narrow down your work goals, one of my favorite tips came from Brian Tracy in his best-selling (and very compact) time-management book “Eat That Frog.”

Tracy recommends making a list of all the things you do at work every day. Then go back and circle the 3-5 tasks, that if you did just those really well, would get you rewarded and promoted more. His point is similar to Greg McKeown’s, figure out what really gets noticed at work and do just that instead of the busy work which just keeps you overwhelmed and stuck in fire drill mode.

So tell me, post below what are your 1-2 biggest priorities currently at work and in your personal life?

Jo Ilfeld, PhD

An executive leadership coach, Jo helps C-suite leaders, executives, and high-potential managers develop the flexibility, skill, and frame of mind to meet the challenges of the next five, ten, twenty years…. and beyond. She works with individuals, teams and organizations on four core areas of leadership development. Check out Jo's bio page for more information.

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