John and Brad had similar challenges. They were both buried in work, doing email late into the night, trying to catch up. They had been doing this for months—probably years—but they never got ahead.
They were seeking that fleeting feeling of being in control of their work. You know the feeling. Like the time another client Paul described how great it felt to clear his inbox down to zero on a Friday afternoon… only to wake up Saturday morning to dozens of new emails.
That was the battle John and Brad were fighting. A losing one. Despite late nights, weekends, even vacations staying connected and responding, they weren’t gaining ground.
As a coach, I invest heavily in personal development so I can bring learnings back to my clients. In a leadership workshops I attended recently by John Boggs, he gave a framework for identifying the most important activities to prioritize in your day. One of his simple rules was: you don’t find them in your inbox.
Consider that for a moment. You won’t find the most important action items in your inbox.
If you had told me that 8 years ago, I would have asked you, “then where do you find them?”. At that point in my career I was more reactive than proactive. There was always more work coming in than I could get done, so my plate was always full, but I handled it well. I was able to respond to nearly every email, handle all of the issues, even drive progress on the projects we had agreed to execute. I saw myself as highly productive. I was getting a lot done.
John and Brad were in very similar positions. They were both getting a lot done. But the more work they did, the more came at them. Even if they could get their inbox to zero, it would be full the next day with a whole new set of issues and actions.
It’s easy to get stuck in this place, taking care of the work coming at you. When your head is down, focused on being productive, you don’t realize that you’re overlooking what really makes a difference. The kind of work that distinguishes you, the kind of decisions that make your life better.
Doing a lot, but doing the wrong things. I’ve been there, and that’s just where John and Brad were. But why?
Most A Players pride themselves on handling the work that is assigned to them, and handling it well. It comes from our training as A students—finishing assignments on time, going above and beyond, doing great work on whatever is given to you. That behavior is rewarded, and you become an A student.
The same approach works well early in your career. Executing well on the work assigned to you. Taking initiative. Turning in the best work you can. Soon you become labeled as an A Player.
The formula breaks down when you become a leader. Leaders have to let go of control, pull out of the daily routine, empower the people around them, and put their energy on actions that make a real difference. Strategic initiatives. Needle movers. The kind of work that sets you apart from others.
But that change, to step away from the details and change your focus, requires an entirely different playbook from what led to your success for the last few decades. And not everyone has the backbone required to make the change.
As for John and Brad, they both knew what needed to be done. They had to pull back from the endless flood of incoming work so they could regain control of their schedule and prioritize work that made a real impact. While John embraced this approach, Brad struggled. Every time he pulled away from the details, something new came in that urgently needed his attention. It was like he was being tested. Would he stick with his bold decision to step back from the details, or would he get pulled back in to solve the latest crisis?
It is those small pivotal moments that determine the trajectory of your life. Will you stick with the new direction, or go back to the old one? Brad made progress, but he didn’t escape the A Trap. He continued to fall back on his efficiency, drive, commitment, and ability to handle a high volume of work. And he got stuck there.
John, on the other hand, did escape the A Trap. He pulled back from the day-to-day work, empowered his team, and shifted his energy to building relationships and initiatives that drove real progress. After just a few months of this, he got the opportunity to lead a bigger and more globally diverse team.
It wasn’t just his work effectiveness that increased, though. John also enjoyed more family dinners and evenings together, started playing golf weekly, joined a tennis club, and founded a non-profit with his friends.
When you’re buried in email and work, taking time away to invest in yourself is a bold move. Yet in doing so, John found the path to get more done.
You’ll never get more done when you’re busy all the time. You will default back to your old habits, finding yourself highly efficient but not very effective. Responding to email late into the night, wondering why you keep finding yourself stuck there. You’ll be back in the A Trap, where your strengths are the very thing that trap you there.
It can be scary to break the cycle, but it’s the only way out. If you think you’ll be able to catch up one day, to get on top of the work, to be in control, you’re fooling yourself. You will never get ahead of the work. You have to make a different decision.
To make a different decision, you need a new roadmap: one that leads to empowering decisions, the kind that boost your effectiveness at work and your happiness in life. You also need the guts to do it. Knowing the way out doesn’t do anything unless you’re willing to walk through the door.
Once you do, you’ll never go back.