The A2 factor: Finding your magical intersection of ambitious and achievable
Time is undoubtedly our most valuable and perishable resource. It’s the primary gift that life gives us, yet most of us take our time for granted. We fail to fully realize its value and neglect to make the best decisions that deploy it in ways that maximize our success and happiness.
This challenge is particularly overwhelming at work where we’re bombarded by all sorts of demands—things to do, people to see, places to go. How do you decide the best way to invest your time? How do you determine what’s worth doing and will ultimately achieve your goals—both in the here-and-now and over the longer haul? Even more importantly, how do you determine what’s not worth doing? How do you manage through saying no and avoiding those people and things that are taking more from you than they give? All of those demands seem critical, valuable, important, or even dire.
In the era of “busy,” deciding what to do vs. forego has become increasingly challenging. The reality is that you can’t do it all—none of us can. There are tradeoffs of every shape and size every minute of every day. The key to success (and happiness) is figuring out what to do or not to do, where to invest yourself and your time, and when to walk away, avoid, forget, say no, ignore.
Looking back on my career, as weird and random as it’s been, I’ve realized how seminal this whole issue has been to my journey. In my 20s, I started a women’s athletic apparel manufacturing business after graduate school. The volume and complexity of the decisions that faced me were completely daunting. There were hundreds of them—big and small. And every last one of them cost me something…personally. I was building massive debt to make this whole pipe dream a reality. Meanwhile, in the early days when I was facing those expensive decisions, it was just me, myself, and I. There was no partner or boss or team. I remember being so stressed out about every decision because there was not only an explicit cost of pursuing something, but an even more important opportunity cost of not doing something else. Was I picking the right logo and pricing and color and fabric and design and…and…and…? Everything happened so quickly and everything had complex interdependencies.
As I dug in, I realized quickly that being in business meant making choices and getting sh!t done, over and over and over again. I realized this is what would make or break me, not only in my crappy little start-up but in life more broadly. My “baby,” the business I created from scratch and worked my arse off to make into a thing, failed after three years, but the endeavor turned out to be one of the most important losses and gains for me personally. The whole experience was like another graduate degree on its own, possibly even more valuable than my MBA.
This whole entrepreneurial experiment fundamentally changed me forever. I believe it made me a better employee, a stronger thinker, and business person. I unconsciously draw on the experience over and over again in every job I’ve ever had, even though I’ve ended up in a career that’s so different from that one.
As I’ve gotten older (and hopefully wiser!) and ended up managing larger organizations, I’m continually faced with people asking me to help them prioritize the things on their plate. They’re looking for others to tell them what to do and what to let go. Meanwhile, I see many people paralyzed by the sheer process of making a decision and sticking to it. Should I eat this or that? I can’t decide whether to have fish or meat—can you come back in 5 minutes? Oh no, I should have ordered what you got instead! Can you send this back and make it different?
The ability to be decisive and make sound decisions is quite possibly the most important prerequisite to achieving success at work (and life). There are always explicit costs and opportunity costs at stake. If you want to be a leader, you absolutely must figure out how to do this well…on your own, independently. You can’t go to your boss over and over again and ask him or her to prioritize the things on your plate. They don’t have time for that and asking will compromise your credibility with them and the broader organization.
Consider the successful people you know, your most admired bosses and mentors. My experience has shown that the most effective ones are great decision makers. They have a keen ability to quickly gather information, see connections others don’t, anticipate how things are going to play out based on empirical experience and intuition, make a decision, be clear and directive about next steps, and drive change from there.
There’s no doubt that mastering this whole decision-making challenge in the midst of overwhelming demands and data and sheer chaos is just plain daunting. That said, this puzzle can also be invigorating and even fun. In your journey to becoming a successful Woman@Work, it’s absolutely worthy of your time and focus. Dedicate yourself to figuring it out and cultivating it in yourself because it will be key to your productivity, your gravitas, and your credibility.
So how do you become a more efficient and effective decision maker? How can you be judicious and wise and independent in figuring this out? What should you focus on and what should you let go? After giving all of this some thought, I fell prey to the cliché 2x2 to sort out what’s important and what can be ignored.
On one hand, there are things you might pursue that are ambitious—they push you beyond the everyday, establish some amazing goal, set you up for an unprecedented accomplishment. On the other, there are things you might pursue that are achievable—things you know you can do, are within your grasp, clearly defined, even “easy.” And then there are things that are at the intersection of both—now that’s where the magic happens. What are the actions, initiatives, and projects that push boundaries and realize something new and impactful while also having ingredients you can control, avoiding factors that will inevitably doom a given endeavor, regardless of how diligently you pursue it?
Here are a few examples from my own life that will hopefully make the framework practical and demonstrate how it might apply to yours. On the ambitious front, I’d love to set a goal of running the Boston Marathon, but also know that my two reconstructive knee surgeries make this a bad idea for me. I’d also love to live in Singapore for a year, but know that doesn’t make sense for my family at this point in their lives. On the achievable front, I need to be more present with my kids when I’m with them, making all of us put down our phones and actually talk to each other about our lives. We all need to read more and watch less TV. These are things that I should absolutely pursue and will do my best to achieve.
Beyond the ambitious and achievable things that exist in each of these buckets, there’s a category of concrete initiatives that lives at the intersection. They’re things you’re not already doing or should be doing. They’re not everyday things, but new endeavors you can pursue. They’re things like running a particular race or achieving a target heart rate or number of daily steps. They’re things like proactively creating something at work that no one is doing and will help the organization. They’re taking an amazing trip with your family to somewhere great, creating an unprecedented experience for all of you. They’re going back to school to get a master’s degree or pursuing skills training in an area that will make you better.
So what do you do once you’ve figured out which projects and endeavors land in the magical intersection of ambitious and achievable? Develop a detailed ten-step plan for each:
In the end, the points to remember are:
Your time is valuable.
How you spend it matters—it makes or breaks your career, your success, your happiness.
Being a good judge of how you spend your time is a critical skill set to develop and cultivate.
Figuring out how to do this independently is key, although consulting trusted colleagues is good to do periodically.
The best use of your time are things that will produce tangible outcomes that can be seen, measured, named, and understood by others in your organization.
Another key factor in deciding whether something is worth pursuing is whether you can control/influence all the success factors (i.e., there’s nothing fatal that you just can’t control). Avoid “black hole” or “beat-your-head-against-the-wall” initiatives (and people!). Be entrepreneurial, but be honest about obstacles.
Aim to have a tangible, unexpected deliverable or success at a regular cadence—ideally monthly or quarterly at least—that will remind people of what you’re doing for the organization, how you’re spending your time, how you’re capitalizing on resources.
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Christina Van Houten is the founder of Women at Work. Based in Boston with her husband and two teenage sons, she has spent the last 20 years of her career as a senior executive in the enterprise technology sector. Prior to evolving into tech, Christina founded a women's athletic apparel brand and served in several public interest roles focused on community and economic development. She started working at age thirteen and hasn't stopped since. She’s eager to help women find their way to the best possible life they can achieve.