Leaders often bite off more than they can chew, impeding their effectiveness. Envision an entertainer on an American variety show in the 1950s or ’60s stepping onto the stage with long, thin poles. She’d start spinning one dinner plate on top of one of the poles, then add a second plate to another pole, and so on until there were 20 or more plates spinning. Some were spinning fast, others slowly, and some were wobbling, ready to fall off. The more plates the performer added, the more she rushed about trying to keep everything in motion and the less attention she could give to any individual plate—and the more likely some of the plates would come crashing down.

Is this happening to you? Think about all of your commitments and responsibilities. Are you spinning too many plates? I fall into this vicious cycle also. I convince myself that I’m busy because I’m working on a lot of things. But I’m not always moving forward; sometimes I’m just spinning.

When a colleague or friend asks, “How’s it going?” I often respond, “Okay, just busy.” Sound familiar? Being busy has turned into an addiction for many of us, but it doesn’t make us more productive or happier. It typically means that we’re misusing some of our time. We’re often tired of trying to keep all of our plates spinning at once—it can eventually lead to ex­haustion or even burnout. Here are four steps to help leaders become reformed plate spinners and break the cycle that impedes effective leadership.


When is the last time you spent most of your day needlessly fighting fires due to “urgent” but often unimportant issues to which a colleague expects an immediate answer? We often get a rush from crossing these seemingly time-sensitive items off our list. Or we get caught up knocking out what we perceive to be quick-hit items, such as clearing out our in-boxes, because it gives us a false sense of accomplishment when we can mark off more items on our long to-do lists.

The problem is that these usually aren’t the one or two most important things that we need to accomplish that day to help us move the needle toward completing our long-term goals. And inevitably, more important items become truly urgent because we ignored them for too long.

Consider using President Eisenhower’s Urgent/Important Principle from Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (find the app at eisenhower.me). Prioritize and organize your to-do list into the following buckets and order:

  1. Urgent and Important: Manage these pressing problems and delegate whenever possible to get the tasks done right. They’re critical for your career or life in some way and need to be done as soon as possible. Tip: Think about how you could plan ahead better next time and avoid procrastination.

  1. Important and Not Urgent: Devote at least one hour of your day to focus on these tasks, seeing them as opportunities to help achieve your personal and professional goals. These “seeds” may not “flower” for several weeks or months, but they will matter in the long run. Tip: Take 20 minutes and listen to podcasts, such as IMA’s Count Me In series (bit.ly/2Erh2F5), that inform your professional development or engage your interest.

  1. Urgent and Not ­Important: Limit the interruptions that these tasks cause by either delegating or rescheduling them. The biggest reason why we don’t achieve our long-term goals is because we’re constantly drinking from the fire hose, not prioritizing tasks by relative importance. Tip: Schedule regular short meetings with chronic interrupters so you can address all of their issues at once.

  1. Not Urgent and Not Important: Avoid these distractions by canceling or ignoring them. Recognize that we often prioritize these tasks in the moment because we’re tired and need a break. Tip: Reserve short windows of time to check your messages rather than checking your phone every time it buzzes.


It seems like a standard desired employee trait is the “ability to multitask.” But in human context, multitasking is the practice of doing multiple things simultaneously, such as responding to text messages and emails, and constantly checking your calendar while attending a meeting or seminar. The problem is that you lose a significant amount of time switching back and forth between tasks and impair your ability to focus. How many times have you walked out of a meeting or seminar without remembering 80% of what was discussed because you weren’t really present mentally? Organize your time into chunks based on your highest-priority goals and focus on the task you need to get done first. Only multitask if the other, less important task can be accomplished quickly with minimal distraction.


It’s counterproductive to always leave your office door open. If your calendar looks like Lego blocks stacked against each other, then you’ll constantly be rushing, stressed, and running out of time. Jeff Weiner, executive chairman of LinkedIn, blocks out between 1.5 and two hours of “buffer” times (in 30- to 90-minute chunks) every day to simply think, freeing up time to get perspective and see the bigger picture more easily. Take an hourly five-minute break to help regain your energy and focus; take a short walk, grab a snack, stretch, or listen to your favorite song.


Don’t expect this to be easy. I continue to find myself spinning too many plates from time to time. The important thing for leaders is to be persistent about recognizing overscheduling, slow down to weigh your priorities, stop multitasking, and then move forward with focused action.

The first step is prioritizing your tasks using President Eisenhower’s Urgent/Important Principle to help you avoid distractions. Becoming more mindful of avoiding busywork and interruptions will help you to focus on what you want to achieve in the long term and become more accountable for how you spend your time. With continued practice, it’ll be­come a habit, and you’ll also become a reformed plate spinner—and a more effective leader.


The IMA® Leadership Academy provides leadership opportunities for all members. From leadership assessment to leadership courses offered in person as well as through Webex to participation opportunities in mentoring, be it reverse or traditional, the IMA Leadership Academy can help you meet your leadership goals and improve your leadership skills. For more information, please visit the Leadership Academy website at www.imanet.org/career-resources/leadership-academy.

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