Always ask the busiest person to get it done

A semi-short meditation on what it’s like to be “that person”

“That’s too much!”

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been told that I do too much. I still remember the first time this came up, back in middle school, when most kids had to pick between either band class OR chorus class. I rebelled against the tyranny of narrowing my possibilities and managed a 50/50 schedule to do both (much to the chagrin of my parents).

This simple, single split became even more complex in high school: Band AND chorus AND French club AND AP classes AND TV studio AND Flute choir AND a retail job AND AND AND. The list went on. (And by the way, no matter how many things I did back in high schooler, high schoolers I meet today do even more. I’m astounded to see the number of college-ready freshmen who’ve already traveled the world, founded non-profits, participated in lab studies, and written screenplays by the time they are 18 years old. But I digress.) In college, there was only more. In life post-college, I’ve continued along this merry path of balancing as many things as possible on my platter at once and crossing my fingers that nothing falls off.

Needless to say, that single decision (“Band or chorus?” “NO! Both!”) as a 12-year-old started a cataclysmic avalanche of doubling up and tripling up and multi-tasking that has now come to define how I approach my life as an adult.

There are times when this works. And there are times when it doesn’t. But these past couple of weeks (for me) have been pretty close to full onset manic mode.

Yes, there’s the end-of-the-year crunch, but it seems to be that every single project I’m working on right now is culminating in some “big finish” at the end of the year. On top of this, I’ve been spending a lot of time in the hiring and interviewing mode — and while this is so important, it’s also an easy way to add 5–8 hours of meetings to your schedule each week. Also, given that my role faces so many people across our entire portfolio, I’ve noticed that I’ve become somewhat of an endpoint “capstone project” person for many other people as well, who are reaching out to me with their questions or new projects before they go away for the holidays. And to top it off, I’ve been playing double-duty on some of our normal programming in an attempt to cover some ground of a colleague who recently left on maternity leave.

But I’m not writing about this to complain about it. Because the fact is, while I’m certainly stressed out, I’m not feeling burnt out. And there’s a pretty big difference. Burnout is when you are so overwhelmed that you dread the idea of getting up to start a new day. Where I’m at doesn’t feel at all like that. I have no resentment, no deep-seated anger, and no pent-up aggression every time I get another email. Instead where I’m at feels like the feeling you might have if that center pole in your closet suddenly broke and all of your clothes came tumbling out into the bedroom and living room, just seconds before your parents arrive at your place. All you can really do is look at it — at all the missing parts, at the giant tangled mess — and shrug your shoulders. I guess that’s what it’ll look like when they walk in the door.

So the feeling I’m in right now is a much healthier one than a feeling of burnout or cruel self-pressure. It’s quite the opposite: A kind of static, cool, calm of tossing up my shoulders and acknowledging this fateful truth: Ah well. It won’t be done.

When people have asked me, “How are you?” during meetings this week, my response has been: “If I’m able to remember this meeting by the time my next one starts, I’m doing a good job.” They laugh. “Me too,” they say. “It’s that time of the year.” I’ve had to push multiple people off in meetings for 3–4 weeks or more. I’ve had to send a lot of apology emails about not getting to this-and-this or that-and-that in a more timely matter. I went through an entire day not being able to find my wallet and an entire two days without being able to find my keys to the apartment.

This of course makes me sad. I really, really like finishing things I start. And I don’t like feeling frantic or forgetful. But frankly it’s also a little cathartic for me to experience myself in this state. And I know it’s not forever. This is a temporary state of working in the hot zone that will get so much better in the New Year once we have a couple of new folks around to pitch in. Until then, we’ll see what I can squeeze out of each day.

Asking the busiest person in the room

But I want to come back to this original idea about busy people getting shit done. I’ve known about this adage for years — that if you need to get something done, you should ask the busiest person in the room.

However I’ve always bristled a little when hearing this. As a perpetually busy person, was I basically just asking people to put even more on my plate?

Lately however, I’ve noticed an interesting paradigm shift. Because while I’ve always been that busy person, I’m rarely in the state I’m in now, which is busy without a hope in hell of getting it done.

It’s been interesting for me to observe myself in this state. And I’ve noticed (luckily) that at least for me, being in this state hasn’t set me down a path of complacency or giving up. On the other hand, it has started to unlock a secret sauce weapon that’s potentially even more powerful: Asking for help.

I’m notoriously terrible at this. Truly. I like getting things done and I like getting them done a certain way. So more times than not, I’ll say something like, “Hey, no worries. Let me take a first pass at it.” But this is a very bad habit that only compounds over time and eventually winds up with five-hour blocks of time every Sunday afternoon with you playing “catch up.”

But seeing the futility of likely not finishing something anyway has made me care so much less about any of this. I’m in a mode where I know I can’t do it, so I won’t do it, and in fact, the only possible way there’s a shot is to toss it onto the next person. In the past week, I’ve probably asked for more help around me that I have in the entire year leading up to this week. So, that’s a new thing.

I delayed an annual year-end project until January. (The world will not end.) I made an eleventh-hour call to a company to ask them to step in on a herculean effort to host 100+ students with less than 48 hours notice. (They said yes.) I told our entire team that the only way we’d be able to take on a new event idea for 2019 would be if 2–3 other folks pitched in. (And two people did agree to step up.) I ended a collaborative meeting yesterday with problems for the group, rather than to-do’s for myself. (And guess what? Two or three other people have more follow-ups than I do.)

All along the way, I’m noticing something even more intriguing. Which is…this week has been so insane that I thought we would never get it all done. But guess what? In the end, I basically almost did…via everyone else.

So I guess what I’m saying is…well played, old adage. You were right once again. After all, just because you’re asking the busiest person in the room to do something doesn’t mean they have to be the ones to do it.

Written by

GM @USV, alum of @StackOverflow and @NorthwesternU, board member at @CompSci_High and @NUalumni, co-founder of #BeyondCodingNYC

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