As a business consultant and coach, some of the most powerful and transformational moments I’ve experienced have been the simple act of telling a business leader or executive team something that they already know. 

Reflecting on this made me ask why we so often know the right thing, but fail to do it.

Why do we hire people when we know they’re not a fit?

Why do we keep people in positions where they don’t excel?

Why do we hold onto tasks when we know we could delegate them to someone who could do it better than we could?

Why do we get lost in complex strategies when the obvious truth has been sitting there all along?

Why do we say yes to sales we shouldn’t have pursued?

Why don’t we have the tough conversations the first time?

While there are many reasons we do this, I think there are three principal reasons that we, as leaders, know but don’t do. We overcommit our schedules, overvalue complexity, and underestimate fear.

We overcommit our schedules

Many leaders are type-a, driven, get-it-done people. They see an opportunity, and they seize it. It works well for so long that we rarely stop to reflect on the impact of this approach. 

With every new commitment, we take some portion of our time, energy, and creativity away from our existing responsibility. 

Dr. Prem Jagyasi once said, “Time management is all about distinguishing between what is important for you and what simply lures you into useless activities.” 

We end up with 50 plates spinning in the air and find ourselves with no capacity to keep them all spinning. Unfortunately, we often lose sight of the most important things in our relentless firefighting and problem-solving. 

When we are maxed out, our creativity suffers, our clarity suffers, our competence suffers, our relationships suffer, and our leadership suffers. Our health suffers too.

Why do we overcommit?

I have found that an overcommitted schedule is often a symptom of a lack of clarity on your why. If you are not centered in your purpose and values, if you are unclear on what they are, you will almost invariably get caught with a full calendar and an unfulfilling life. We’ll talk about how to overcome overcommitment at the end of this article.

We overvalue complexity

Intelligence is glorified, especially here in Western culture. Our schools, our businesses, and our media all feed into the narrative that we will succeed if we are smart enough.

In school, the smart kids get As. Those As get them into the smart colleges. Those colleges get them into smart jobs. And those smart jobs mean they are successful, right?

When we put intelligence onto a pedestal, it makes it incredibly difficult to value simplicity. To value simplicity would be to admit that intelligence isn’t all it takes to win. 

Yet, those who win in virtually every sphere are rarely the smartest in the room. The roots of their success are seldom tied to the complexity of their strategy. Real success is far more likely to follow simplicity than complexity. And I’m not the only one with this thought.

“Complexity is your enemy. Any fool can make something complicated. It is hard to keep things simple.”

— Richard Branson

“Simple can be harder than complex: you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

— Steve Jobs

“Genius is making complex ideas simple, not making simple ideas complex.”

— Albert Einstein

But why do we overvalue complexity? It’s a defense mechanism. When something is simple to understand, and we don’t do it, what does that say about us? It leaves us feeling like a failure and often a public one at that.

But if we can make it complicated, we can trick ourselves and everyone else into thinking that we are smart (read valuable) whether the strategy works or not. It’s a facade we use to feel safe.

The problem is, it’s ruining our decision-making. In addition to making it easier not to take action (analysis paralysis), Malcolm Gladwell makes the point in his new book, Blink, that too much information, too much complexity can actually lessen the quality of our decisions.

Like Branson, Jobs, and Einstein, we need to embrace simplicity as more valuable than complexity. Only then can we see clearly, learn quickly, and act decisively.

We underestimate fear

We don’t like to talk about emotions in the business world, and, as leaders, we don’t like to admit we are scared. It can even be hard to recognize that we are scared in the first place.

But if you look back at the previous two points, who was actually running the whole show? Our fear. 

Our fear of missing out, disappointing someone, being left behind, or losing causes us to pack way more into our schedule than we should ever have.

Our fear of looking stupid, being inadequate, losing face, or not being in control causes us to overvalue complexity so we can look smart and insulate ourselves from the risks.

We don’t have tough conversations because we are afraid of the relational discomfort or afraid of what would happen if they left.

We say yes when we shouldn’t because we aren’t confident that the future will hold the resources we need if we don’t.

At the end of the day, we don’t do what we know to do because we are afraid. And if we won’t admit it, we can’t fix it. And if we can’t fix it, we are going to continue to overwork and underperform.

A path forward

How then do we move forward? Here’s a simple exercise you can use to reconnect with or find your purpose, overcome all three root causes, and step into a new level of clarity, composure, and confidence.

At the end of the day, we don’t do what we know to do because we are afraid. And if we won’t admit it, we can’t fix it. And if we can’t fix it, we are going to continue to overwork and underperform.

At the end of the day, we don't do what we know to do because we are afraid. And if we won't admit it, we can't fix it. And if we can't fix it, we are going to continue to overwork and underperform. Click To Tweet

Step 1

First, you need to push pause and give yourself some time to get out of the weeds and away from the daily grind and firefighting. Even just taking a half-day out of the office can do wonders to allow you to get clear on who you are, what you stand for, and where you want to go (this applies to individuals and organizations equally).

Step 2

Then, we need to look at where we are out of alignment with our purpose and values. What is taking too much time and energy? What are you giving to little time and energy? Where are you filling your tank up? Where are your actions or decisions incongruent with who you are and what you believe.

Step 3

The third step is to face our fears. The best way I’ve found to start is by simply writing them down. What are you worried about right now? Take a look at each of these areas and ask what fears are driving your actions and misalignment in each:

  • Your team
  • Your calendar
  • Your commitments
  • Your decisions

Step 4

Next, set one goal for each of these areas. How are you going to lead your team better and hold them accountable? What constraints are you going to put on your calendar, and who will take off of it? What can you say no to, stop doing, or simplify to gain back some freedom in your life? Remember: automate, eliminate, or delegate. What are you going to change about your decision making? What decisions must you make? How can you help your team make better decisions and share the load with you? Write out your goals and print a copy to keep on your desk. And read them every morning as you start your day.

Step 5

Next, armed with clarity and direction, you need to create space. Craig D. Lounsbrough said, “If there’s one thing that I’ve repeatedly and rather foolishly forgotten to schedule into my life, it is to create times where it’s not scheduled.” 

In my writing, I often mention the Stop Doing List, and it is for this very reason. If your schedule is maxed, growth by addition is no longer an option. Armed with clarity of purpose, you can take the next step in overcoming an overbooked calendar: stop doing something. You need to eliminate, automate, or delegate.

You will also need to stop doing some things before you even start them. If you don’t change your “yes” habits, you will find yourself in little time buried under the weight of an impossibly full schedule.

Bonus points

Finally, use this as an opportunity to start a conversation. Maybe it’s with your team, or your spouse, a friend, or even a professional. I have found that our fears shrink when we shine a light on them. There is something extraordinary that can happen in those moments of vulnerability. Everyone comes out of them better than they were before.

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