Doing less is an under-rated leadership quality. Many leaders are conditioned to trying to do more.
More priorities, more work, more meetings.
The obvious problem with doing more is that we only have a finite amount of time. Everyone has 24 hours in a day.
The natural tendency is to try to cram as much as we can into this time. The result of this is often burnout, when we do it for long periods.
We all know that we shouldn’t work ourselves to the point of burnout. Many leaders do it anyway.
Doing less is a good strategy to try. The obvious benefit of doing less is that it supports our mental health and wellbeing (and that of our people), because we have downtime, space and time to think.
But in this article, I want to pose some more benefits of doing less that may be a little less obvious.
Learn More: Why Good Mental Health is a Leader’s Best Friend.
Good Reasons for Doing Less In Your Leadership
Doing less is often considered to be lazy or unproductive. It doesn’t need to be that way.
Here are some good reasons why you might want to do less and actually be a better leader.
1. Doing Less Allows You to Focus
When you make a commitment to doing less, you have the opportunity to really decide what is important. These become your top priorities to focus on.
When you have a few top priorities (as opposed to believing that everything is important), you can galvanise your team around those priorities. A way to do this is to create a clear vision for your team, which is a picture (or description) of a future state that you aim to reach.
Constantly switching between priorities and having no clear direction is a recipe for poor team performance. Imagine going for a run and changing your finishing point several times during the process. It’s unlikely that you’d reach the finish line in an efficient and effective manner!
Doing less allows you to:
- Choose a limited number of aspects that are important for you and your team
- Build a vision, strategy or direction (whatever you want to call it) around a limited set of priorities
- Focus people’s attention on fewer priorities – enabling them to spend more effort on doing better work; and
- More easily communicate what is important with your stakeholders.
2. Doing Less Builds Momentum and Self-Efficacy
Let’s say you have a list of 10 items you must complete today. You finish three of them.
Do you feel like a success, or a failure? Most likely, you’re going to feel less than thrilled about the outcome of your day.
Instead, what if you had three items on your list. You complete all three.
You have finished exactly the same amount of work, but you’ve achieved the target. As a result, you’re much more likely to feel as if your day was a success.
This feeling of success translates to increased motivation, and a feeling of self-efficacy. That is when you try to accomplish something, you believe you can achieve it.
I’ve worked in many environments where the organisation, executive or other leaders chose to focus on 10 items, instead of three. This often led to team members feeling cynical about the workload, knowing that there was little chance it would all be completed.
Sometimes, I’d hear comments like:
“Don’t worry, they’ll cancel a bunch of things eventually anyway”.
This sort of attitude doesn’t lend itself to high performance!
The actual numbers you choose (3, 5 or 10) are not really important. It will depend on the capacity and performance of your team.
Focus your attention to a reasonable number and you’re more likely to achieve the target. If you want to stretch your team a little, you might also try making that number slightly bigger (but not too big).
Learn More: How Setting Deadlines Will Improve Your Team.
3. You Have More Capacity to Respond to Unexpected Events
Doing less has the added benefit that you’ll likely have more capacity. Good leaders often spend this by planning, improving their team and spending valuable time with their people.
Undoubtedly, unexpected events will occur in your workplace and in your team. When they do happen, having less on your plate will mean you can spend more time responding effectively.
Instead of shelving your top priorities to respond to an emergency, you may instead be able to redirect some of your less time-critical effort to the task.
Instead of “drop everything”, it might be “postpone something that isn’t needed right now”.
Or if you’ve got a boss that needs you to do “just one more thing”, there’s a chance you may be able to squeeze it in without taking all the attention away from other important priorities.
4. You Can Plan For Problems
You may have heard of “Disaster recovery” and “Business continuity” planning.
These are important for organisations to recover from (or continuing running despite) major interruptions, whether they be caused by natural disasters, pandemics or technology failures.
Often this type of planning is performed on an organisational scale, but there is no reason why you couldn’t create simple recovery steps for your team.
If you’ve had problems in the past that have caused you and your people significant disruption, why not create a plan that you can execute if something similar happens again? This will stop you from being reactive and having your key priorities derailed.
Instead, you can respond effectively because you’ll already have a good idea of what to do.
5. You’ll Role Model Better Behaviours
Leaders who constantly try to do more and more have nowhere to go. That is, they are working at the ceiling of their capacity limits, all the time.
This makes them more prone to stress, overwhelm and all of the potential bad behaviours that might come with them.
On the other hand, leaders who can build some capacity into their day by doing less are at an advantage.
They have the luxury of being able to respond calmly to challenges and don’t need to worry so much about whether they are going to tip over the edge into the burnout zone.
After all, it’s OK to do more sometimes. It’s when you’re doing more all the time that we start seeing problems.
If you want your people to follow your lead, then make your lead worth following!
Wait – If I’m Doing Less, What Am I Doing With My Extra Time?
There is no perfect workload. It’s rare to have a precise amount of work that will exactly take up your entire work day.
I think about workload as shown in the simple diagram below.
Your top priorities fill out the bulk of the workload. However, it’s best to keep them to a manageable level. Filling your entire capacity will result in no time to do anything else, including supporting your team.
I refer to flexible work as work that is important, but doesn’t need to be done right now. It could be scheduled for the future and is more of a “nice to have” task or project.
This flexible work may include projects to improve your team, or provide development opportunities to your people. Or, you may spend this effort to do additional planning (that doesn’t relate to your top priorities) or developing recovery strategies for things that might go wrong.
The business as usual leadership category is where I put activities like team or one to one meetings, mentoring or coaching, including time spent with your own boss.
As you can see, the more your list of top priorities grows, the less time there is to do everything else. This is where you are at most risk of taking away work that provides valuable development opportunities or supporting your team.
You might think that you can just spend more hours so you can fit everything in. But what usually happens is that the flexible work and leadership activities are the categories that suffer. Instead of fitting those in, we leave them aside.
Flexibility Is Important
The important takeaway here is that ideally, you have capacity to be flexible when you need to. If something unexpected happens, you can reduce time spent on your improvement projects for a short while.
The rough percentages outline above won’t always be correct. You may want to run with a different allocation for you and your team.
You want to give yourself “room to move”, so that you can both get your important work done and focus your team, but also respond to issues or new opportunities that may arise.
This will be a constant balancing act, and it’s not easy. Over time, you’ll become better at it, and you’ll also develop a greater understanding of what your team can handle, and whether you need to adjust your resourcing.
Start Doing Less For Yourself and Your Team
Doing less will help you to safeguard the wellbeing and mental health of your team. At the same time, it will help you focus and get your important work done.
There is still a perception that “hard workers” are the best. That working long hours makes you a better leader or employee.
But in my experience, leaders who take on everything are those that are least effective.
Why not start doing less today?