Dominoes and boulders

Ever feel buried under a pile of seemingly unending tasks and a to-do list that goes on for centuries?

Me, too.

I was once chatting with someone who said,

“Most days, I just open up my giant to-do list, get started with whatever jumps out at me, do as many items on my list as I can until my brain shuts down, and then pass out.”

I’m exhausted even writing that sentence. I bet you are exhausted reading it.

Each of us has a long to-do list filled with executional tasks, strategic projects, and everything in between. It can be tempting to try to just “do it all,” which more often than not leads to burnout or failure to complete any task well.

How many times have you found yourself asking these questions:

  • All of the tasks on my to-do list are critical — how can I possibly prioritize any over others?

  • My company’s goals are MASSIVE. How can my smaller tasks even make a dent?

  • How do I balance delivering short-term results with delivering longer-term results? I find it impossible.

  • There are many team goals for the year. Which are most important? Do I focus on all of them, or just one? If just one, WHICH ONE?!

  • If some tasks are low on my priority list, they might not get done at all this year, which may hurt the business. So shouldn’t I just suck it up and do them anyway? (hint: NO!)

This blog post seeks to answer these questions with a simple analogy. Read on for more.

Infinite Domino Spiral

Imagine you have a set of Dominoes that are set up in an infinite spiral. They’re standing tall and are in close proximity — once one Domino falls, the rest of the spiral begins to fall. Because the spiral is infinite, this process never ends.

This spiral of infinite Dominoes represents a business that is incredibly efficient — it needs a very small push to have a massive, infinite impact.

In an ideal world, this is the type of team you join — one whose “infinite spiral” is already going. Your job in that scenario would be to keep the momentum going by doubling down on what’s working, removing what’s not working, and finding new ideas to make the spiral go faster and faster and faster. Your job is simply to do anything you can to not let the momentum stop.

On many teams, though, the spiral of

infinite Dominoes has fits and starts (and stops). Figuratively, we might represent that with a Domino spiral that is spread so wide apart that every effort you make only knocks one of these Dominoes over. It’s progress, but not enough to get the whole spiral going.

Sticking with our analogy, one way to get a spaced-apart Domino spiral going is to lug something over that is so big, like a boulder, that will literally mash it into motion. It may take a long time to find the right boulder, to get the help you need to pick it up and move it, and then to position it perfectly, but you know the boulder will do the trick. Another way to get the spiral going is by placing a series of incremental Dominoes in between the existing spaced-apart Dominoes. Each incremental Domino might push only one more Domino over, but combined together, they fill in the spaces and get that spiral really going.

Now let’s bring the analogy back to real life. A boulder is analogous to a big, strategic project that helps drive toward your goals over a longer time frame. These are long-term visions that, when put all together, will be a brute hurricane force that will get the Domino spiral going. These are important to build, but take a long time, many resources, and lots of planning ahead. Examples might be creating a company-wide promotions strategy, revamping an operational strategy, etc.

Incremental Dominoes are shorter-term tasks that you can start AND FINISH this week that will have an immediate impact on your team goals next week. These include, for example, putting one item in your store on sale… you can start and complete that task this week, and you’ll probably see the demand lift in that item next week. That demand lift directly impacts your annual goals.

Your business needs to have both – incremental Dominoes and boulders.

Labeling our Lists

So now we know the terms “incremental Domino” and “boulder.” You might be wondering how this all relates to your to do list… well take a look at that list.

Which items on your list would you label a Domino or a boulder? What else is on there that’s neither a Domino NOR a boulder?

Here are the four buckets most of us typically have on our to do lists:

  • Incremental Dominoes – items that help achieve your goals, are short term, can be started and completed quickly, and deliver immediate results

  • Boulders – things that help achieve your goals, but are larger and deliver results over a much longer time frame

  • Development – trainings, mentorship, classes, etc.

  • Maintenance – things that only indirectly impact goals (e.g. weekly update meetings, email check-ins, etc.)

Go through your to do list and color-code each of your items as a Domino, Boulder, Development, or Maintenance.

Next, across from each item you labeled as a Domino or Boulder, write down the goal each one is helping achieve. If you can’t think of the goal it’s helping achieve, it may not actually be a Domino or a Boulder — go back to the definitions above.

Now — what things do you notice? Do you have lots of maintenance on your list? Do you have fewer boulders than you expected? No Dominoes?

Next, consider the ideal percentage of time you’d like to be spending on each of these buckets. Each person’s ideal may differ, but here is mine:

Finally, calculate how your actual to-do list compares to your ideal percentages. Where are you way off? What needs the most adjustment?

Next Steps

I’ve done this exercise with hundreds of employees over the years, and each time, I’m met with shock — more often than not, we’re spending the majority of our time on maintenance tasks, which don’t even directly impact our goals (and probably aren’t super fulfilling).

You can take this exercise a step further by monitoring your actual weekly tasks retroactively (i.e. how you actually spent your working hours) and labeling the time spent on various activities in this same way. Often, our time spent on activities differs somewhat from what’s on our to do list (and is even more skewed toward maintenance, unfortunately).

While we may never get to our “ideal pie,” the important message here is that we should always be mindful of it and pushing ourselves toward it. We should be proactively deciding what we want to spend our time on, not reactive victims of our to do list that, inevitably, gets packed with maintenance items.

If you’ve done this exercise, tell me — what did you notice? What percent of your pie is represented by maintenance? Were you surprised?

P.S. if you find yourself needing more guidance with this exercise or with prioritization in general, Haven Coaching can help! Set up a free consultation today.

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