Let Things Slough Off (Day 4 of 30 Days of Getting Results)


Day 4 - Let Things Slough Off

“Sometimes you have to let go to see if there was anything worth holding on to.” – Anonymous

Your Outcome: Learn how to let things go with skill.  By letting things “slough off”, you improve your ability to focus on what counts and you make room for YOUR best results.

Welcome to day 4 of 30 Days of Getting Results.  In day 3, we looked at using three stories to drive your day.  Today we look at letting things slough off.  Letting things slough off simply means either letting things go from your plate either by design or as a natural process of focusing on higher priorities.  This is the key to starting each day with a fresh start.

If you don’t let things slough off, the problem is you weight yourself down.  This is the problem of big “To Do” lists, which either turn into lists of things that never get done, or you spend all your time managing your list of things to do, but never getting anything done.  If you’re a slave to your “To Do” list, or if you fear the sheer magnitude of its size, it’s not working for you!

Even if you could do it all, you can’t do it all at once.  You only have so much time and energy in the day.   If there’s one take away from all this remember that it’s the achievements under your belt AND the journey that you look back on.

3 Keys to Letting Things Slough Off
There are three keys to letting things slough off with skill:

  1. Each day, create a new “To Do” list.   Start with a fresh “To Do” list each day.  These are your Daily Outcomes.  A simple way to do this is use a new piece of paper and write your three outcomes at the top.  If you’re using an electronic system, then simply create a new file and name it with today’s date.  For example,  for Wednesday, August 4th, 2010, I would simply name it: 2010-08-04.  I use this approach so that I can sort it easily and flip back through my previous days whenever I want.  Rather than automatically add everything from the day before, only carry over what you think is an absolute priority for today – and let the rest go.  The key here is to focus on what’s valuable now from today’s vantage point, checking against what you want to accomplish for the overall week.
  2. Each week, create a new “To Do” list.  Start with a fresh “To Do” list each week.  These are your weekly outcomes.  Identify the three results that you really want for your week and write those down.   Simply grab a new piece of paper each week and write down your three main outcomes.  If you’re doing it electronically, then each Monday, create a new file and name it the current date.  For example, Monday, August 9th, 2010 would be: 2010-08-09.  This let’s you scroll back through your weekly lists of outcomes.  This is how you implement the Monday Vision practice from Getting Results the Agile Way.
  3. Focus on flowing value.  The real key to letting things slough off is focusing on flowing value.  Instead of focusing on your list of things to do or just getting things done, focus on flowing value.  Focus on your most extreme value and let the rest go.  Value is in the eye of the beholder.  It could be value to you, or to your family, or to your team, or to your company.  Simply by thinking in terms of your “wins” each day, each week, etc. you shine the light on your most important victories.  One way to always get back on track is to ask, “What your next best thing to do?”  Another question to ask is, “What do you want to accomplish?”

The pattern here is to shift your focus to what’s important now based on what you want to accomplish.   The other thing to remember is that if you let something go, and it truly is vital, it will continue to resurface.  You can then deal with it when it makes the most sense.

Set Up Boundaries in Time and Quantity
Setting up boundaries is another key to letting things slough off with skill:

  1. Set a limit in terms of quantity.  For example, can you prioritize your top three things? … your top 5?, etc.  Instead of making a laundry list, can you make your ‘short list.”  The Rule of 3 is your friend for setting limits whenever you are overwhelmed by quantity and you have to let things go.  If you’re a blogger, you might decide that your post will be no longer than two paragraphs or a list of 10 items.
  2. Set a limit in terms of time.  You can set limits in terms of time.  For example, you can decide up front that you’ll spend no more than 20 minutes on that.  Or you might decide that after a week, it’s just diminishing returns.  You might give yourself a maximum of spending 30 minutes a day doing email.  In XP development, there is a practice of a “40 Hour Work Week.”   if you’re a blogger, you might decide that you’ll spend no longer than 20 minutes writing your best material and sharing your best insights … anything after that sloughs off!

This means brutally focusing on spending more time on what you value, and letting the rest go.  You might thing of it as either “fierce focus” or “driving with clarity.”  Remember that you “get what you focus on” so spend more time on what you want, not what you don’t 🙂

Examples of Boundaries in Time and Quantity
Boundaries in terms of time and quantity will help keep your sanity and help you surf your way through producing great results.  When I first joined Microsoft, one of my colleagues said that their boundary is “dinner on the table at 5:30” and that’s how they achieved work-life balance.  When I later joined another group in Microsoft, a colleague told me that their boundary is they “take weekends off.”  They’ll work their fingers to the bone all week, but when the weekend comes it’s their time to recharge.  When I worked at Tiffany & Company, one of our director’s had an interesting boundary – Tuesday nights is date night with his wife.  Another one of the manager’s at Tiffany & Company had an interesting buffer he used – “Don’t spend $20 on a $5 problem.”  In other words, if the problem is only worth 10 minutes of your time, don’t spend more than that.  For me, using The Rule of 3 to take away three actionable insights from all the books I go through has both save me a lot of time, and generated a lot of value.

Additional Considerations for Letting Go with Skill
Here are some additional points to ponder that will help you let things go with skill:

  • Time Changes What’s Important.  “To Do” lists get stale.  Backlogs get stale.  Laundry lists get stale.  Everything gets stale.  You can spend all your time re-arranging stale things, or you can spend just enough time bubbling up what’s important and taking action on it.
  • Fresh Starts.  By creating new “To Do” lists each day and each week instead of one massive one, you give yourself a fresh start.  You carry the most important things forward.
  • Travel light. Don’t be a beast of burden.  If you bite off what you can chew, you can actually get it done.  This helps you travel light each day and each week.  Rather than start off with an over-loaded pack of things you may never need, you start off with a simple vision and stories of your most important results.
  • Spend more time doing over “paper shuffling” One of the worst things you can do is continuously reshuffle the things you have to do instead of just do them.   For all the things that you keep reshuffling but not actually doing, admit it.  Put them into a “parking lot” or “shelve” them for a later point when you will actually work on them.  Don’t keep them in your face, and don’t let them get in the way of your results.  Most of all, don’t die the “death of a thousand paper cuts.”  (If you’ve never heard this term before, paper shuffling is one way to die the death of a thousand paper cuts.”)
  • Value Delivered Over Backlog Burndown.  Rather than simply burn through your laundry lists of tasks, do the quick reality check and ask whether the task is still important.  More importantly, step back and ask the simple question, if you completed it, “Does it matter?”   Does it connect back to the outcomes that you care about now or in the future, or was it simply a good idea that’s now past it’s prime or past it’s time?  In other words, don’t look at your big task lists or backlogs as what drives you.  They are simply input.  Draw from them, but focus on delivering value, not simply blind execution of things that were important at some point, but now are no longer, “your next best thing to do.”
  • It’s a mindset thing. A large part of letting things go with skill is about shifting your mindset.  It’s about thinking in terms of value delivered over backlog burndown.  it’s about asking questions like, “What’s the next best thing for me to do?” or “What do I want to accomplish>?”  It’s about focusing on value and your wins and what you got done, over focusing on what you didn’t get done.

Today’s Assignment

  1. Write down three outcomes for today.  This is re-enforcing our daily outcomes AND practicing letting things slough off with skill.
  2. Write down your three outcomes for the week.  Consider the remaining time and energy you have for the rest of the week, where can you get the most bang for the buck?   What would three wins for the week look like?
  3. Set one simple limit on something that’s been wearing you down.  Set either a time limit or a quantity limit.

My Related Posts

Photo by djprbyl.


  1. thanks jd… i understand that the 3 daily outcomes revolve on the weekly outcomes one sets out at the start…it is possible that the initial 3 outcomes you had is also not appropriate anymore as the days progress?

    I’m using a regular notebook/planner. would it make sense to re-state my weekly outcomes on top of the daily outcomes i write for the day? i have a tendency to desire finishing so many things/activities in a given day and at times i end up feeling burned out bec. i guess i’ve lost focus despite all i have accomplished.

    just feel good that… i seem to have a semblance of focus on things now than the endless list of to-do chores i had in the past. this is a mind-set shift indeed. it does take some time right?…:)

  2. The Value delivered concept has been pretty helpful to me as it’s easy for me to make long lists and then I wondering why am I doing ?. Like moving the lawn right now when there are major personal issues going on in my life.

  3. J. D. What’s really helped me from previous days is accepting that I can make an outcome very simple. Like today, just getting to Hilo and back successfully is a great outcome for me. I don’t need to pile on more.

    The sloughing off examples are very, very helpful. I have trouble with this one. Can you really write a good blog post in 20 minutes? Lots of people say that but is it really realistic?

    I will really think about setting that one simple limit!


  4. @ Patricia — The beauty is you can instantly map your day or week and instantly choose most effective investments.

    @ Riza — Absolutely. In fact, that’s why the system is called Agile Results — because “agile” is the ability to respond to change. It’s very likely that new things will pop up, and you want to be able to deal with them. However, instead of react, you get to make a mindful choice and respond. What helps you respond more effectively is having a short list of priority stories — and now you can trade-up or at least know your trade-offs. This helps balance the long-term view with the immediate priorities against what you want to accomplish in the big picture.

    I would test it and see how it works. I list my outcomes for the week, and I periodically check against them. For example, Wednesday is a great checkpoint. On Friday, I reflect against my progress to see whether I’m trading effectively, getting randomized, or making bad predictions about what’s most valuable. It’s a weekly learning loop.

    You bet it does. It took me a while to make the shift. I still quiz myself and catch myself off guard. A great check in the hall is how quickly you can rattle off your top three outcomes for the day without looking them up. What’s helped me really bake this in is that I’ve had to stay on top of results across a lot of team members over many projects … this really put me to the test … and put the system to the test.

    @ Rob — You found it. That’s the ultimate answer. The irony is that the ultimate answer is actually the ultimate question — “why.” When you know why you are doing something, it’s your motivation and it’s your north star. When you start with “why”, your lreading yourself from the inside out.

    @ Sandra — You can write a great blog post in 20 minutes. The key is getting clarity on one specific problem you want to solve, then writing with might. Here is a concrete example — I wanted to quickly share lessons learned for new hires at Microsoft so I wrote this post, giving myself 20 minutes — and it’s been one of my top ranking posts for a long time:

    Patterns and Practices for New Hires – http://blogs.msdn.com/b/jmeier/archive/2007/10/08/patterns-and-practices-for-new-hires.aspx

    Here’s the trick to it — write your post in notepad and don’t edit yourself, just write with might. When you are done in notepad, paste it into your favorite editor (I use LiveWriter) and then make a quick pass to “sweep” your writing, add links, tune things.

    I’ve had to teach people on my team to write very quickly and not let tools or inner-critics to get in the way. They are always surprised how much faster they are when they write in notepad or any plain text editor. It’s night and day.

    Keep in mind you can also get to 20 minutes progressively. For example, if your average post takes an hour, then see if you can shave off 10 minutes, then another 10, etc. You get to practice with each post. Here’s the other surprise, the faster you go, the more you’ll flow and you’ll literally unleash yourself … and surprise yourself.

    One more secret on writing fast posts — I don’t always publish my posts. I dump into notepad my main ideas, and then let them purcolate. Then, when I’m in the zone, I might flesh one of them out. I actually have more than 500 posts perculating in the background … and I never feel pressured to publish them, but they are there for when I’m reading to write with might.

  5. JD –

    Extremely wise words here – I keep weekly to-do lists and have daily ones that I start fresh each morning. It really works. Frankly some things just never get done and slough off after a while. That is all about not spending 1 cent on a 0 cent problem! I also think that the 7 Habits advice about going for a segment 2 task as your daily goal makes a lot of sense (that means high importance, low urgency – the things that can create long term value). Love your series and am now subscribing.


  6. @ Phil — It sounds like you have a very healthy practice for getting results. Beautiful point on investing in long term value!

  7. JD, I like the idea of setting boundaries and time investment.
    this part resonated most also: Focus on flowing value.
    I bumped into something I had saved I think it was from problogger or another wise blogger about having an editorial calendar. I cleaned up my blog sidebar again and eliminating what I could, and really tried to make a clear, more precise schedule to “flow value.” So, looks like I’m onto this today ;)..
    I am also learning to step back and stimulate less, so that the ideas come a bit less but more clearly, I think this shows self-respect and my own value. Working on this.. every day that is my challenge: Keep it simply, and Trust myself and the inner process.
    Have a great week!

  8. Hi JD .. having just done what I’ve been through I had no choice but to do what I could each day & as you say focus on the thing that was important to achieve .. end result move out of the house .. dealing with a lot of crud (if you call it that .. rubbishy things that had to be attended to but actually wasted time – but couldn’t be put off! (crud is easier!), and visit my mother .. this time in hospital twice.

    So your reminding me about focus .. and take three things forward – I think I was doing it & seem to be continuing now .. the rest will follow if necessary, and if at all ..

    I love the boundaries set by your colleagues/bosses .. a good lesson learnt by you too … and your three things from a book means we don’t have to get a university degree with the book! As with all things in life – if we can get one positive, or three in this case, then we’ve learnt so much.

    Great post .. and I love the word slough .. but hate the town Slough!! Enjoy the weekend .. Hilary

  9. J. D. Thanks for all these excellent tips on writing more quickly. I wish I could even write one in an hour!!!! I’m going to take this on board and try to gradually shave off some time. You are write – when I’m in the zone – writing flows more quickly. The best times are when it flows I just scribble it quickly on water piece of paper is nearby. Thanks, you are awesome. And I think your tips would make a good blog post!

  10. @ Jenn — An editorial calendar is a great move. In fact, here’s a quick trick of how I use Agile Results + an editorial calendar in a simple way. On Mondays, I create a simple list of my three stories for the week. Below that, I add the short-list of titles for some posts I’d like to ship. I have a work blog and Sources of Insight, so I list titles under each. This gives me a mini-plan, while staying flexible and at the end of the week I can see if I’m biting off more than I can chew.

    What I don’t do is a bunch of upfront planning because time changes what’s important. But at the same time, I don’t want to wing it or fly by the seat of my pants, so it’s “just enough planning.”

    @ Hilary — Life really knows how to throw some curve-balls. Sometimes the best we can do is just make it through the day, and, our stories help with that, along with letting things slough off.

    I’ve never been to Slough, but I guess I can slough it from my places to visit 🙂

    @ Sandra — I’m happy to help. It took me a while to realize that it’s not how long I spend or the effort I put in, it’s the value of the result. Once I realized that, I started trimming anything that was overhead and not core to helping me flow value. I balance that with enjoying the process, and making it a game. What really helps me focus in thinking in terms of sharing one useful nugget at a time that solves a problem, answers a question, or makes you feel, or just laugh.

    I’ll be sharing some more tips throught the 30 days that will really help with blogging. The key thing to remember is that not all hours of the day are created equal.

  11. I sometimes feel that I’m letting things slough off that maybe do need to be done. But since I never questioned the value, I don’t really know do I? And now that I’m focusing on the rule of three each day and week I think I’ll have a better idea of what to let go of.

    BTW please come out with a print versionf of “Getting Results.” I’ll even help you self-publish if need be. I think your ideas are going to help change lives.

  12. @ Rodney — You have found the secret of letting go. It’s about making the trade-off explicit. Not letting something go, always has a cost and it gets in the way of something potentially more valuable for you.

    This little pattern can help at the individual level, and even at the business level. It helps to ruthlessly prioritize.

    Thank you for your kind offer. I’m actually expecting to get the print version this week, and if there are no issues, the print version should be for sale the following week.

  13. […] 8. Let Things Slought Off – J.D. Meier at Sources of Insight “Boundaries in terms of time and quantity will help keep your sanity and help you surf your way through producing great results.” […]

  14. […] Day 4 – Let Things Slough Off – Sources of Insight. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. […]

  15. Thank you for the feedback for my Round 2 of Day 3. I really admire how you make time give timely and helpful reply comments. Awesome discipline! Two weeks ago, I got started with T25. I’m enjoying it so far. 8 weeks to go!

    Thirty Days ago…, I started writing everything I did for a week and checked how much time I was spending for each thing (tedious!) to see where I can set time limit, slough off, or getting values toward my goals.

    Result? I stopped doing 6 things (not naming what those were…, it’d be a long story) and started doing 4 things more. “SLOUGHING OFF” made a huge difference not only to improve my focus but also to save energy for things with higher priority.

    By the way, I didn’t know what “slough off” meant because it was literally not in my dictionary (English is my second language). I used to feel bad when I don’t get things done before. Now I can slough off things gracefully (if not without-too-much-guilt) as a “mindful choice” and “trade-up or at least know what to trade-off.” WIN.

    • Letting things go can be tough.

      Especially if you have a lot of ambition, like to stay on top of things, and have a lot on your plate.

      The good news it that it’s a skill and we get better. The whole point of building this skill is to get rid of the buzz in your brain, and the distractions that wear you down.

      The only way I learned to finally let go, was to figure out what to hold on to. I had to learn to squeeze things out, rather than focus on letting things go. Now, I squeeze things out of my life, by making things that matter larger than life.

      So then the unessential or the unimportant things simply fall away.

      I like “slough” because it’s like when a snake sheds its dead skin. People shed their dead skin, too. It “sloughs” off, just not all at once.

      I think that’s the other metaphor that’s helpful — the idea that we breathe new life into the things that matter, when we let the things that don’t slough off. It’s like trimming a plant of dead leaves so the other remaining leaves can thrive.

      It’s really easy to hold on to a bunch of ideas, actions, and tasks past their prime to where they are stale.

      Focus is truly your friend here.

      I didn’t use my puppy example here, but it’s funny how when you get a new puppy how everything else “sloughs” off, while your new puppy gets all the attention.

      After all, as Charles Schulz put it:
      “Happiness is a warm puppy.”

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