Slash and Burn

As summer takes its final bow, the weather has grown more tolerable for those of us who aren’t huge fans of body-melting heat. While mild temperatures signal the arrival of tailgate season, bonfires, and so many other joyful activities, they also inevitably bring one of my least favorite tasks: Yard cleanup.

Since moving into our house two months ago my partner and I have known that yard rehab would be a time-consuming, tedious, and unavoidable undertaking. The previous owners, while lovely people, weren’t really the landscaping type, so our property had been largely left to grow unchecked. It needed work…a lot of work. Since many of our friends and family members would be seeing our home for the first time, we decided to tackle the most visible part of the landscaping first—the driveway.

The driveway was one of the features that immediately endeared us to the house. It wound gracefully past the front façade and was full of beautiful trees and foliage. At least that was my thought as we drove its length the first time. Post homeownership, the glitter began to fade as we noted that all of the aforementioned foliage was overgrown and out of control. Much of the ground cover consisted of fallen leaves, branches, and spindly seedlings. Various vines and weeds were strangling the mature trees, many of whose limbs hadn’t been pruned in years. Those that had not died completely were fighting for light and resources in the crowded landscape.

Saws and clippers in hand, we attacked. Hours later, sweaty, covered in sap, dirt, and bugs, we stood back and admired our work. We were tired, but the sense of accomplishment was exhilarating.

This time of year is ideal for doing some professional pruning as well. The hustle and bustle of summer is winding down and winter projects haven’t yet taken center stage. In fact, tending to your professional landscape is a lot like taming my overgrow yard.

Try this: Go through the last few months of your calendar. Make a list of all ongoing commitments…projects, meetings, administrative tasks, etc. Take stock of the ways you spend your time.

Once you have the list, rank all of the items in order of impact and value, starting with those items that greatly impact you and your organization and ending with those that have little value or purpose.

Slash and Burn.

In my yard, there was a huge amount of dead wood and weed growth. It was adding no value to the landscape. In some cases, precarious limbs were creating hazards, and much of ground cover was choking the remaining plant life by stealing valuable nutrients and sunlight. It served no purpose and had to go.

In your professional life, the deadwood and weeds represent the bottom third of your list. These items are, at best, choking your more important commitments for resources and robbing them of your time and attention. At worst, they are hazards that may be negatively impacting the quality of your work. They should go.

“Wait…” you might say. “…all of them? Just like that??”

Yes—Just like that. If you are truly committed to doing so, you can make these time and productivity suckers go away. Some things like administrative tasks can (and should) be reassigned. Other items like pointless meetings or outdated reporting should be eliminated altogether. True story: I was once responsible for submitting a detailed monthly report to another individual—a process that had been in place since before I stepped into my role. Each month, the report took multiple people several hours to compose; yet none of the contributors utilized the data they were submitting. Eager to streamline the process, I called the recipient of the report to ask some questions. It turned out that she had just been filing these monthly submissions away—while the info within was interesting to her, it wasn’t being used in any way. What a waste of time and resources!

Get rid of these items—burn ‘em! Just as one can’t re-attach a cut limb to a tree, these items should not be allowed to appear on your calendar again.

Let it grow…for now.

There were lots of easy decisions in the yard. Completely dead trees and limbs needed to be cleared. On the other hand, some plants and bushes were obvious keepers. There were, however, some questionable items: A few small saplings that may look acceptable after a bit more growth, a tree or two that could be salvageable with the right amount of pruning. These we left for the time being with a commitment to revisiting them later.

Treat the middle 30% of your list the same way. Re-visit these items frequently and decide whether they are important enough to stay. If they are, elevate them and give them their due attention and time. If they aren’t, move them down and out.

Fertilize and nurture.

Finally, address the top 30% of your list. In my yard, these were the trees and plants we were out to save. With the deadwood and weeds out of the way, I can focus more time on helping the remaining plants to thrive and grow healthy. In addition, I now have space for some new plants that will further enhance my yard.

The top 30% of your list should represent the most important and value added ways you use your time and energy. Allocate some of the time you gained by eliminating low-value tasks to your most important items—but not all of it. Reserve some of the gained-time for new tasks—a passion project you’ve been meaning to start, mentoring a more junior colleague, or your own professional development. Be sure that this time is used wisely, or just like stubborn weeds those time suckers you eliminated will creep back in.

Tend and monitor.

Any good gardener will tell you that the fruits of their labor were not the result of one day of work. The key is ongoing maintenance—pull a few weeds every day, prune a branch or two before they get out of hand, add some fertilizer here and there, and maintain.

Repeat the activity above a few times each year. The first round will likely be the toughest (depending on how overgrown your calendar has become). You’ll need to spend more time cutting and eliminating things. As time moves on you’ll find yourself moving items out and reassigning them not because they have no value, but because you’ve identified items more worthy of your attention. This much healthier cycle will keep you growing, learning, and allocating your time in an intelligent and intentional way.

Treat your career and professional development like a show stopping landscape, and tend to in the same way. Don’t let huge swaths of time float by without frequently stopping to cut away distractions and rededicating yourself to the things that are really important. Before you know it, your career will be in full bloom, no slashing and burning required.