We are conditioned over the course of our lifetimes to believe that in order to overachieve, we must always “go the extra mile.” Doing exactly what is required of us – and nothing more – feels lazy. It feels unambitious. We fear falling behind.
The problem is, when we are constantly pushing ourselves to go the extra mile (then one more mile, and one more mile…), we never actually reach the finish line.
At a key moment in my career, a client at a high-profile technology company asked me to give three presentations on leadership. They told me that if all went well they were prepared to hire me for the next year or more. It was exactly the career break I needed. I understood their needs well. I had ready-made content they had already approved.
The afternoon before the first presentation, I decided to add some finishing touches. It already looked good. But I worried it didn’t look good enough. I decided to scrap it all and start over.
I got consumed with a new idea that I was convinced would wow them. I ended up staying up all night rewriting my whole presentation: new slides, new handouts, all of which were, of course, untested.
As I drove to the company’s offices the next morning I was exhausted. My mind was foggy. When I arrived, I was running on the fumes of my nervous energy.
As the presentation began, my stomach sank. My opening story was unpolished. The slides were unfamiliar; I kept having to turn around to see what was on the screen. One of the first slides failed to convey the point I was trying to make.
In short, I bombed. As I left, I was hyperventilating. I had been given this incredible opportunity, and I had blown it.
The client canceled the other two presentations. They did not hire me for the extended engagement. It was my most humiliating professional failure—ever.
I was burned-out from the experience, and I didn’t even walk away with the results I wanted.
As I reflected on how this had all gone so wrong, the answer was obvious. Nailing this presentation was so important to me, I had overthought it. I’d overengineered it. I’d tried too hard. And as a result, I’d snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
When we want badly to succeed at something, it’s often hard to know when or how to quit. So we spin our wheels. We obsessively tinker. We work evenings and weekends. We completely lose sight of what “done” looks like.
So for the overachievers among us, the past year has presented a particularly insidious challenge, as we have discovered that “working from home” in effect means living at work. After all, when there is always more work we could be doing, and our office is located 10 feet from our bedroom (or in some cases, in our bedroom), is our workday really ever “done?
This a big problem. And not just because literally living at work is detrimental to our health, our sanity, and our relationships (though all those things are true), but also because there comes a point where the law of diminishing returns sets in— a point where more time and effort begins to yield worse results.
The good news is that even if we lack the physical boundaries between “home” and “work,” we can still establish clear conditions for what “done” looks like, get there, then stop.
The Heavy Cost of Light Tinkering
Sometimes important projects remain undone because we keep tinkering with them endlessly. For example, my editor once received a compelling book proposal from an agent. She read it. The next day she received a new version, with an email saying, “The authors made some changes.” She read the new version, which seemed more or less identical. Two days later she got another version, which was somehow less polished than the first. The author couldn’t stop tinkering.
We all have essential projects we want to complete. But often we find ourselves tinkering endlessly, spinning our wheels, unable to get our project over the line. Often, the solution is simply to decide what “getting it over the line” actually looks like.
I define “done” as the point just before the effort invested begins to be greater than the output achieved. to get an important project done it’s absolutely necessary to define what “done” looks like. This insight may sound obvious. But if you think of most of the essential projects you are working on, how clear is your idea of what completion looks like?
Getting clear on what “done” looks like doesn’t just help you finish; it also helps you get started. All too often, we procrastinate or struggle to take the first steps on a project because we don’t have a clear finish line in mind. As soon as you define what “done” looks like, you give your conscious and unconscious mind a clear instruction. Things click into gear and you can begin charting a course toward that end state. It’s surprising how much clarity on this you can achieve in a one- minute burst of concentration. For example, when you have an important project to deliver, take sixty seconds to close your eyes and actually visualize what it would look like to cross it off as done: “I’ve addressed each of the questions the client posed and proof-read it once.” It takes only one minute of concentration to clarify what “done” looks like. Getting the outcome clear focuses you like nothing else can. All of your resources shift into gear to bring that outcome to fruition.
Make a “Done for the Day” List
“Done” isn’t always going to apply to an individual task or project. We have all experienced the overwhelmed feeling that comes from staring down the barrel of a seemingly infinite “to do” list— one that has usually become longer by the end of the day than it was at the beginning. It creates an unwinnable war. So how do we know when the work of the day is “done”? I like to use a “Done for the Day” list. A Done for the Day list is not a list of everything I theoretically could do today, or a list of everything I would love to get done. These things will inevitably extend far beyond the limited time available. Instead, this is a list of what will constitute meaningful and essential progress.
As you write the list, one test is to imagine how you will feel once this work is completed. Ask yourself, “If I complete everything on this list, will it leave me feeling satisfied by the end of the day? Is there some other important task that will haunt me all night if I don’t get to it?” If your answer to the second question is yes, that is a task that should go on the Done for the Day list.
And each day, once those truly essential tasks are complete , it’s time to close out your email, power down your laptop, and get as far away from your “office” – even if it’s just a few feet – as possible.