Toss The To Do Lists – Set Your Intention And Lead

I no longer believe in ToDo lists. I sometimes use them to help clear my mind of stuff that’s in the way of important thoughts, BUT, I have found that in being productive, in running effective meetings and even in moving projects along a diffuse and choppy timeline, lists of 5, 7 or 10 things are not nearly as effective as





How Do You Set A Leadership Intention?

For this quick-read I’ve listed the 5 step process I use in setting useful intentions at the end of this post.

Weed Whackers Can’t Lead

Why Intentions? At several points in my career, I’ve been a project manager – an in-the-weeds type sweating over the impossible-to-keep-current-MS-Project-sheet. Project management is a great way of thinking because it forces you to look into the future and identify dependencies and critical path that will tank your effort unless you clear the way for them. But it also teaches you to create more lists, more often, in more minute detail than are really necessary unless you’re building a rocketship or complex software.

What I’ve learned building complex software (no space adventures for me, sadly) is that creating lists will quickly lead you into the weeds and if the leader is in the weeds, who’s looking for signs of a forest fire or how to handle success?

After all those MSProject-building years, here’s how I now manage projects – with this simple intention:

The project succeeds and everything that needs to get out of the way for that to happen – does.

As a leader (no longer a project manager) I set this as MY goal. Other people can keep the detail lists if they need to; my job is to make sure we get across the goal line.

We run our meetings according to this intention. Many go something like this:

“First item, what’s mostly likely to interrupt our dog’s inevitable success this week at catching the bus?”

“George forgot to open the gate.”

“Ah, George. Someone go wake him up. What else is in the way?”

And so on until all the things threatening our success simply work themselves loose and we can focus on where to get driving lessons for the poor dog who’s about to face a major challenge.

Letting Go Of the Details

I know a lot of folks are uncomfortable releasing the details – as am I when the details seem overwhelming. I still jot lists, but my goal is to toss that piece of paper out as quickly as I can after accomplishing it. I don’t use them to lead. Here’s two reasons I let them go:

  • People don’t want leaders who are too good at the weeds. I could go on forever on this subject, but since Google did exhaustive research on the subject as they data mined “How To Build A Better Manager”, you can read all about it in the NY TImes.
  • If you set your intention well, the important details will find you. One beautiful thing about being human is that – despite the frequent occurrence of forgetting where you left your keys– the brain forgets nothing that the heart wants to accomplish. And it really wants to accomplish intentions; so amazing things get remembered when you’re focused on an intention.

The 5 Ways to Set A Leadership Intention That Will Stick

You can write lists to help your brain remember later when it’s important, but don’t get caught up in the lists. Trust your brain to accomplish what your heart intends and the vast majority of the time, it will.

Ok. So I promised you a list of things that will let you get rid of lists and focus on single, powerful intentions.

  1. Empty your mind. Write the stupid list so your brain stops shoving unimportant crap at you. You can probably throw it away once you’ve written it. If your brain is clear it’s done it’s job.
  2. Take a moment to imagine what success feels like when your project, company, meeting, __________ is crazy successful. What’s your emotional state? How do you celebrate? What is no longer keeping you up at night and which project gremlins are finally at peace? (Hint: take a moment ahead of time to feel the peace, it will help you through the dark times.) What new problems do you face? What new opportunities? Now describe it as though it exists today – this is your intention (write it down).
  3. See the path between where you are now and where success lies, clear, uncluttered and open. Know that things will try to encroach on the path and try to mess it up, but know that you will see them coming and fix whatever conditions are necessary to ensure they don’t interrupt success. Know you’ll accept any adjustments they will help you make and simply keep going. If you see any already crowding too close, jot them down and deal with them immediately (throw the jotted list away asap once it’s dealt with).
  4. Commit to yourself to achieve your intention. Feel free to declare this to others as well. In allowing others to bear witness to your commitment, you give it power.
  5. Remember your intention. You wrote it down, right? Remind yourself of it often – at the beginning of every day, meeting, project review, whatever frequency makes sense. You’ll be surprised what details just come to you at the exact time you can deal with them most effectively. Don’t question it, just be glad your intention is working and get down to doing the work.

This basic intention-setting process works on anything, not just business and leadership challenges, but weekend errands lists and vacation scheduling as well.

Try it and report back. And if you do this already, share! How does intention-setting simplify your business? Allow you to lead from a less frazzled, more centered place? Has it ever worked more or less miraculously than you expected? Hoped? Planned? What’s the biggest project you ever succeeded with by setting intention?

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  1. says

    Great clarity. Thank you very much. It reminded me of Jim Fannin’s thought that we are trained incorrectly to go from A to B. Rather, visualize B really, really well and allow it to illuminate a pathway back to A. So I suppose we could say that sometimes the leader’s highest best use is to focus on the “what” and allow others to focus on the “how.” Then try to use nothing but questions to help the group to stay focused on the “what.” The leader stays committed to, and routinely reminds all of, the “why.”

    I might suggest using one list, thought it is best if it is NOT the leader’s list and seems to be in line with your methodology. I like to start a meeting identifying the conditions that must be satisfied in order to achieve a successful result. It’s a simple but profound exercise. It gives the group a checklist to proof all potential solutions against in that initial burst of clarity and helps to avoid getting off track & can save a great deal of time and frustration.

    I am looking forward to my next opportunity to apply your wise counsel!

    • says

      Hi Tom. Actually I think the list of “what success looks like” is basically an intention, fleshed out so people can see/feel/touch it. I actually have a whole intention-setting methodology I use and teach, and such lists are valuable additions! I also like the idea of limiting a leader to questions. It could probably be overdone, but to help an overly directive leader learn the power of questions and eliciting the brilliance from the team, it’s a great methodology! And I LOVE the image of the illuminated path back to A. I think this is exactly the power of intention. When you start at your concept of success, the path there becomes so obvious you wonder why it seemed so hard before! Thanks for your comment!

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