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What’s on Your Not-To-Do List?

Globally renowned expert on women’s leadership Jo Miller, reveals one of her secrets to successful leadership.

Leadership is not about doing more. It’s about switching from doing to leading. From this point forward, the tasks you let go of—both at work and at home—can define you even more as a leader than the tasks you hold on to.

“The most successful leaders don’t try to do it all,” says Alice Katwan. Today, Alice is senior vice president of North America sales at Salesforce but a decade ago, after she accepted her first big promotion into a director-level role, Alice’s life became a lot more complex and chaotic than it had been before. “I thought I could cook dinner every night, keep the house clean, get the laundry done, work full time in the high-stress world of high-tech sales, and do it all perfectly,” says Alice.

The breaking point came when her health took a nosedive. Says Alice, “I’ll never forget the day my doctor looked me square in the eyes and told me sternly, ‘You can’t keep going at that pace. You need to slow down. Otherwise, you won’t be here to enjoy the benefits of your hard work.’” Lying in a hospital bed with an IV line in her arm, Alice learned the medical consensus: trying to “do it all” as a new leader, road warrior, and working mom of three young sons had made her physically ill.

To get back on track, Alice accepted that it’s OK to enlist help, and redefined her concept of what it means to be a good leader and a good parent to her boys. She finally accepted that it’s OK to enlist help. And it was OK to be the one to bring the paper plates, not cupcakes, for the school party.

Stop ‘shoulding’ on yourself

“Shoulds” are the tasks or obligations we take on, accompanied by an inner monologue that goes, “I should be doing this.” But the thought of completing these tasks brings us no joy. So we do them resentfully or avoid them altogether. As the shoulds pile up, so does the burden of guilt. As a friend once told me, “It’s time to stop ‘shoulding’ all over yourself!”

You probably already had a to-do list longer than a CVS receipt before March 2020, when a global pandemic made life inordinately more stressful, unpredictable and anxiety-inducing. Now, you’re dealing with responsibilities, fears, and hardships that were scarcely imaginable in a pre-COVID-19 world. What work-life balance you may have had is shot to hell, and you’d give just about anything to have one completely normal, uneventful day. If there was ever a time to be more forgiving of yourself and let go of some shoulds this is it.

As you consider the shoulds in your life, don’t just write another to-do list. Unsubscribe from the idea that you should be doing more. Write a “not-to-do” list: an inventory of the shoulds you give yourself permission to skip, like shaving your legs, cutting back on sugar, turning on your webcam for every virtual meeting, or cleaning out the garage. One executive told me, “I will not run or jog unless being chased.” Yoga has been on my not-to-do list for 15 years and as long as I live, I intend to keep it there.

What’s on your not-to-do list?

Create a not-to-do list for your personal life and another one for your work life, listing any shoulds you’re giving yourself permission not to have to do, worry about, or feel guilty for dropping—for the week, for the duration of the pandemic, or possibly even forever.

Adapted from Woman of Influence: 9 Steps to Build Your Brand, Establish Your Legacy, and Thrive, By Jo Miller (McGraw-Hill.)

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What’s on Your Not-To-Do List?

Jo Miller is a globally renowned authority on women’s leadership. She’s dedicated two decades to helping women advance into positions of influence by leveraging their leadership strengths. Jo shares this pragmatic, powerful road-map in her book Woman of Influence: 9 Steps to Build Your Brand, Establish Your Legacy, and Thrive.