Heading into every summer, I often hear colleges reference long summer project lists.
Everything that was squeezed to the side during the fall and spring gets a spot on the summer to-do. I myself participate in this annual ritual.
Despite high hopes, the list typically continues to collect dust. Our eyes are much bigger than our stomachs.
Thinking about long to-do lists reminded me of a quote I came across in a podcast: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”
The quote is intentionally simple, so I don’t think we need to unpack it like it’s Faulkner, but it maybe deserves a few paragraphs.
Of all the aphorisms I’ve come across this year, keeping the main thing the main thing has helped me the most. I hope you might find value in it as well.
First, a key assumption in this advice is that we know what the “main thing” actually is. This is no easy task.
Go pull up a sampling of strategic plans from college websites. You might find 5 pillars, each supported by 5 objectives that are further detailed into various sub-objectives.
I don’t doubt all 5 pillars are important and I’m definitely no strategic planning guru. But the downside to these comprehensive plans is that when everything is important, nothing is.
Identifying THE main thing requires a deep understanding of the key value drivers in your organizations and a willingness to make the right sacrifices. It’s not a simple exercise.
Second, once the main thing is identified, it’s easy to drift away from it.
Several years ago, each member of the partnerships team at Rize began writing down his or her top priority each week.
About a month into the exercise, everyone’s top priority, including mine, had ballooned into a laundry list of “top” priorities. Let’s be honest - we like letting other people know we are busy! A long to-do list subversively connotes importance within many organizations.
This scope creep is harmful for two reasons. Most obviously, you end up spending time on things that aren’t your highest and best use. Second, long-lists prevent accountability. When you have ONE thing you need to accomplish written down, it stinks to tell your team next week you didn’t achieve it. When you have ten things listed, who could blame you if you don’t get to all ten? And who knows if you actually chose the main thing?
Let’s use a quick example to emphasize why this is really hard work. Let’s say you decide your main thing is growing enrollment to a specific target. At a senior staff meeting, there is a proposal to invest in a new AI tool for advising students on career opportunities. Keeping the main thing the main thing and saying no might seem callous.
Wait a second - do you not care about our mission to promote student success and career outcomes? In reality, that couldn’t be further from the truth - you’ve decided the best way to promote student success long term is to generate the enrollment revenue needed to re-invest back into your mission. But that short-term decision to say no is emotionally painful!
So how might you take practical strides to keep the main thing the main thing on your campus or in your team?
Start with yourself. Can you clearly articulate your main thing? Can you track and measure it? Now take a look at your calendar. Does your main thing line up with where you are spending your time? If not, you might need to make some changes!
I just finished this exercise myself and realized my calendar did not reflect my priorities.
At a team level, try to reach alignment on the main thing and make sure it is being visibly tracked and measured to promote accountability. Ensure everyone knows how they play a role in achieving the main thing.
Look, long to-do lists are inevitable and universal. I stared at one before I sat down to write this. It’s waiting for me when I finish. I don’t exemplify the advice I offer above with full fidelity.
For this very reason, following this simple principle can be a massive differentiator in your organization.
If you’d like to discuss this in more detail, chat about podcasts or recount summer vacations one more time, please reach out.