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Brooks: Finish 2020 by tying up loose ends, reducing ‘task debt’

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Ben Brookshttps://pilot.coach/
Ben Brooks is the founder and CEO of the career development platform PILOT. Share your reactions to this column on LinkedIn or @benbrooksny. He writes the monthly Coach's Corner column for HRE.

I think 2020 might have just felt like the longest year of our lives–at least for those of us in the workforce. During a recent call with HR leaders, we reflected on what our expectations and plans had been, back when we originally started our work together in December 2019. We’d thought we could forecast the future, and that it would look very much like the year before, only just that little bit better. However, as it turned out, the year 2020 would truly test us through unexpected twists and turns, roadblocks, setbacks, some triumphs and a whole lot of expectations left unfulfilled.

So today, I can absolutely see why anyone would want to yell, “Alexa, advance to next year!” and simply get 2020 over with already. But, while calendars can give us a good sense of separation or contrast, in reality, life doesn’t just “turn a page” once the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve. It is merely a continuation of what has happened the day, week, month, quarter, and yes, the year, prior. Life is continuous, much as our brains would have us think that life is going to magically be different, once we find ourselves still mistakenly writing the number “2020” when dating a document or notes in January, only to then go back and cross out that “0” and replace it with a “1.” We must confront the reality that not much is going to automatically change with the advent of the new year. That is, unless we take it upon ourselves to create the space for change.

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Related: Read more from Ben Brooks here.

As you wind down the year (or begin the new year, depending on when you read this), you have the unique opportunity to give yourself a gift: the gift of completion. And while the idea of taking on new projects, setting new goals or developing new habits is alluring–exhilarating, even–if we do it on a poor foundation, then it can be a bit like trying to cook your favorite meal in a filthy kitchen.

Work and life are full of loose ends–decisions we’ve punted on, compliance items awaiting our attention, tasks we never seem to be able to mark off the list, people we never got back to, follow-ups that got buried or even making unsaid thoughts or feelings clear (in particular, acknowledging others for what they mean to us). All of these elements can add up and keep the proverbial kitchen we cook in “filthy” if we don’t ever circle back to tie them up properly. There is a term in engineering called “tech debt,” and much like with physical infrastructure, the longer you wait to address it, the more costly and laborious it is to fix past incompletions. In work as HR professionals, we all have a version of this, known as “task debt.”

Task debt is the cumulative effect of all our loose ends, and it can weigh on us, causing us to feel like we’re never caught up or satisfied with what we’ve gotten done in a given day or week. It can scratch latent Imposter Syndrome, distract our focus or generally have us lower our aspirations and appetite to take on anything new or drive change, knowing just how much task debt we’re schlepping around.

Over the past few years, my team and I have decided to declare a bit of a war on task debt each December. Our goal isn’t to eradicate every single unfinished task or loose end, but rather to push ourselves to finish the year with as few unresolved items as we possibly can before we go on to create the year ahead. In fact, sometimes when we revisit items that have been festering in the backs of our minds, email boxes or to-do lists, we realize just how much the circumstances have changed, and we can oftentimes then tie up the loose end just by acknowledging that it no longer needs to be completed. In the military, they call this “OBE” or “Overcome By Events.” And in a year marked by ever-present uncertainty, quickly changing context and change, I assert that many of your loose ends are indeed OBE. Those are the easy ones: Just let them go.

Related: Read our series helping HR leaders prepare for the year ahead.

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And for those that aren’t … get them done! At PILOT, we’ve created a #loose-ends Slack channel, where we all celebrate each time we tie up even the smallest of incomplete tasks and solicit the help of colleagues to get various “stuck” items across the finish line. It truly is a team effort, and we all come together to inspire each other to wring a great deal of accomplishment out of the month of December, instead of petering out and starting the new year back in our familiar, oppressive, dirty kitchen. Importantly, we generally also set a moratorium on starting anything new so that we can free up our capacity to focus on finalizing what’s already in flight.

So give yourself a gift in 2021 and land those planes! Limit the amount of creep you give to loose ends, incompletions and the many balls that all of us have dropped on our journey through such a difficult year. And while you’re at it, be sure to also give yourself grace and compassion–because most of us are far harder on ourselves than we need to be and tend to make our loose ends into a much bigger deal than any of our colleagues do.

Here’s to starting out 2021 with less–and the space to create anew. Happy Holidays!