Trapped (Why some tasks get stuck in the ‘to do’ list and how to set them free)

If you have the opportunity to lead people then you can relate to the frustration that arises from assigning a task only to have that task sit trapped in a team members ‘to do list’ and never make progress.

You can relate to the standing agenda item following up the progress of the task that is always met with the same response, unfinished, seemingly sitting frozen in time.

Working in my own practice means that I rarely need to have those conversations with other people. That being said, this week I realised I needed to have that difficult conversation with myself.

There have been a number of tasks sitting on my own to do list that I know need to happen but haven’t seemed to be making progress. I started to reflect on why some tasks get trapped, frozen in time and what questions we can ask as leaders when the task is assigned to set them free and prevent them falling into the dreaded ‘to do’ list black hole.

Here are just three reasons why I have found tasks get trapped and three questions leaders can ask to set them free. 

1.) UNSURE WHERE TO START

Have you ever taken a step back and looked at a job you have to do and thought to yourself, I don’t even know where to start. The volume of a job can sometimes become so overwhelming in itself that when compounded on additional work that needs to be done, creates a temporary paralysis. We don’t know where to start, so ultimately we don’t.

This is an issue of volume. If we perceive the volume of work to be done is larger than our current capacity, it slides it’s way down our list while we take on easier, more manageable and achievable tasks.

There’s a popular analogy that asks the question ‘how do you eat an elephant’ in which the response is ‘one bite at a time’. Yes the analogy is cliché but an applicable reminder for task assignment. How can we break the seemingly insurmountable task down into smaller bite sized pieces so a person can get started?

In helping people make progress I’ve found that the sometimes the simplest question is:

“What is your Next Step from here?”

2.) UNSURE HOW TO START

Have you ever had a job to finish around the house that you didn’t have the tools or resources to accomplish? There have been times when furniture sits flat packed in a box for weeks because I didn’t have the tools or experience that I needed to build it. That job slides down the to do list.

This is an issue of resource. If we lack the personal or corporate resources we need to perform a task then it’s more likely we won’t start at all. It’s not that we don’t want to, it’s that we don’t know how to.

As a leader we can prevent this issue by simply asking the question

“What else do you need to help you achieve this?”

3.) UNSURE WHY TO START

Have you ever found yourself wondering why something is on your ‘to do’ list anyway. It’s impossible to escape from only doing the things we love doing, every role has responsibilities where we need to roll up our sleeves, get our hands dirty and get the job done. But even though we don’t enjoy some tasks, that doesn’t mean those tasks can’t be meaningful.

This is an issue of connection. If we can’t see how this small piece fits into the bigger picture of the puzzle, we place limited value on the piece we have and it’s more likely to slide down the list and be neglected.

As a leader I have to take responsibility for ensuring that I keep communicating the big picture to people. People are happy to do the ‘What’ when they understand the ‘why’. So when assigning a task simply ask the question:

“How do you see the way this task fits into the big picture?”

If their response is not in alignment with how you see it, then it’s time to communicate again.

IN SHORT

If we want to break out a task from the ‘to do’ list into the ‘done’ list, we need to ensure our people have:

A Place to Start – “What is your Next Step from here?”

Resources to Support – “What else do you need to help you achieve this?”

Vision to Sustain – “How do you see the way this task fits into the big picture?”