Managing priorities

The 5 Ds

Posted on March 19, 2009. Filed under: Managing priorities, Uncategorized |

Early in my coaching career, Thomas Leonard, the widely recognized father of the coaching profession, taught us The 4 Ds.  It has been such a practical tool for my clients who are struggling with “too many things to do!”  This is a mantra I have heard a lot when I my clients and I begin working together. 

Not only do we set ourselves up for failure over and over again by continuing to take on more than we can really do, we drop out people who are important in our lives as well as ourselves.  How often do you take on a project or favor and then put that ahead of dinner with your family, an evening out with your friends, going to the gym, or other things that you say rate high on your priority list?  To some extent, we all do – now and then.  When we get caught up in doing this, then it’s a problem.

One of my teachers, Dr. Roy Whitten, once said to me when I was up to my ears in things to do and couldn’t see my way out, “You can do any of it; you just can’t do all of it.”

That was one of the most helpful one-liners I’ve heard. When I’m in the midst of it, I look around and other people seem to be handling their lives better than I am. What’s wrong with me? When I’m overwhelmed and simply can’t do it all, it’s easy for me to think ‘I’m incapable.’ And believing that certainly doesn’t help me handle things better! So when Roy gave me that bit of wisdom, I got it. I am capable. I overcommitted. I simply have too much to do. With those beliefs in place, I can begin to work my way out.

In my webinar presentation for Advisor Products on March 6th, I shared The 5 Ds as a simple, yet elegant, process for making realistic commitments.  I’ve taken Thomas Leonard’s model and expanded it by 1. 

One way to begin using this model and to see the benefits immediately is to begin with your ‘to do’ list.  I hope this model is useful for you. 


Many opportunities come your way each day.  This is the decision point.  Before committing ask yourself: “Does this really need to be done?”

Since many of us who are successful have an exaggerated belief in how much we can really take on and do it all well, we can easily say ‘yes.’  After all, in that moment it feels good to say ‘yes.’  Being asked confirms that we have value and are seen as contributors.  And, if we don’t agree, perhaps we’ll be left out in some way. 

This first step requires that you are clear about what is driving you to say ‘yes’ when you want to say ‘no.’  You also need to be sure about your values and priorities.  When we say we value time with our families and our friends, and yet we so over-commit to projects and committees that these people are left waiting in the wings, we have exposed a need. 

Needs trump wants every time.  Maybe I ‘need’ the attention and confirmation that would come with taking on that task.  Maybe I ‘need’ to prove that I’m capable, or strong, or talented, or useful or any of those other things we need as human beings.  Maybe I ‘need’ to keep running so fast because I’m afraid of what would happen if I stopped.

Assuming you began this exercise with a ‘to do’ list in hand, go through the entire list and ask yourself the question for each item:  “Does this really need to be done?”  Cross of every item that doesn’t pass the test of being in alignment with what you most value and your capacity.


If the answer to the first question is ‘yes’ for an item, then ask yourself “Is it only mine to do?” It may be that the whole task can be passed on to someone else (staff, family, outsourced) or perhaps there are some pieces that someone else could do. 

Somehow, this step is really difficult for many small business owners.  They have often begun as technicians (“The E-Myth” by Michael Gerber).  They knew how to write a financial plan, create marketing copy, build a house, fix teeth and they did these things well.  As these technicians begin their businesses, they are still in the ‘doer’ role because it’s a very small business.  Then the business grows and they have staff – and they continue to hold onto doing many of the things they’ve always done.  

This is one of the most significant shifts in the growth of a small business.  The owner steps into the roles of manager and leader – strategic planning, new business development, community presence – and others take on more of the ‘doer’ role.  Can you trust an employee to do it well enough?  Are you willing to give up some direct control to create far more success in your business?  Before you delegate, be honest with yourself about your answers to these questions or you will sabotage your efforts to delegate.  Either you won’t do it at all or you will find yourself micro-managing and disempowering your employee.

This step takes keen evaluation of the benefits to the business of your delegating certain tasks, accurate assessment of your employee’s ability and willingness, willilngness to take a risk and trust in yourself and your people.

DO IT: If the answer to the second question is ‘yes,’ meaning it’s something that needs to be done and it is only yours to do, then ask yourself “Can I do it right now?”  You may be able to just get it done. Sign that check. Answer that email. And get on with it. 

 [Notice that I really didn’t have any more to say about that one.  It’s simple.  It’s quick.  Do it.]

DATE IT: If the answer to the third question is ‘no,’ that means it’s time to open your schedule and carve out the time to complete it.  Ask yourself,  1.“How much time will it take?  When will I do it?”

So many of us do this thing of keeping a ‘to do’ list outside, separate from our calendars.  We fill up our calendars with appointments and meetings and all our other daily tasks and then are surprised that we are hard pressed to complete those important though not yet urgent tasks – annual strategic plan, performance appraisal system, research into new products or services.   There are also important and urgent tasks that fall to the 4th D – completing your business tax return, meeting with a new client. 

At this point, those are the only items remaining on your ‘to do’ list.  Now it’s time to:  (1) prioritize them; (2) determine when each is due and how long each will take (multiply your estimate by at least a factor of 2); and (3) open your calendar and schedule in each project.  You might find that breaking down a bigger project into phases or steps will work best for you.  That makes many tasks far more manageable.

What? Not enough time open in your schedule? Hmmm.  This can be very exposing of just how over-committed you really are.   The message is simple:  “You have committed to more than you can really do.”  “If you continue, you may miss deadlines, produce less-than-quality results, lose sleep, increase your stress, lose out on time with family and friends and any other unintended consequence of taking on more than you can really do.

If this is the case for you, do not go to the 5th D.  Start this process again with this remaining list. 

DISCIPLINE: Now comes the most difficult question: “Will I give my word and keep it?” Without this piece in place, you will continue to find yourself over-committed and overwhelmed.  Here’s where your integrity is put to the test.  It’s so easy for us to slip and slide, especially when the commitment was only to myself.  We can become really skilled at weaseling, apologizing, justifying and rationalizing – and others have this tendency to let us off the hook! 

Now we come face-to-face with ourselves and others and put ourselves on the line.  Not willing to do that?  Then look again at your response to the 1st D.

As you can see, shis process works well for addressing and eliminating your ‘to do’ list. When I presented it to the Knoxville Financial Planning Association a few years back, one of the advisors there said, “This would be a great process for cleaning off my desk!”  From then on, I have encouraged people to apply it on the front end whenever an opportunity comes your way.  The 5 Ds can become a model to follow in your decision-making process.

You will find that over time, these tasks and projects never finds their way to your list. You have deleted, delegated, done or dated it! Pretty slick, wouldn’t you say?

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