You Can Do Anything, But Not Everything

I’ve always been really close with my Nanna. I’ve turned to her a lot over the years as I’ve juggled kids, work, study, friends, relationships and everything in between. For years she’s been saying the same thing to me, and for years I’ve been rejecting it.

“You can’t do everything.”


This is one of the most frustrating truisms I’ve heard in my life. I can hardly write it without bristling. My instinct is to rebel: I can do it all! Just watch me!

But Nan’s pretty bang on. The truth is, you can do everything… sort of, but you don’t do it very well. When you try to do everything at once, the most important things don’t get enough attention, so your potential for impact is diluted.

“You can do anything, but not everything” – David Allen

The same logic applies at work. We all have a finite amount of time, energy and resources available. Equally dividing our attention among every competing urgent matter on our desk does no justice to the relative importance of each task or request.

That’s not to say setting focused priorities is easy or straightforward. We’re not choosing between right and wrong here – it’s ALL the right stuff. When we’re overwhelmed and figuring out how to catch up, it seems too late to make priority decisions. It all needs doing! Fast!

This isn’t true though, is it. When everything truly hits the fan - sick kids, natural disasters, bereavements - we know exactly what to do. Total clarity about what really matters enables us to quickly make important calls about the most important stuff and put that first.

We need to get better at making judgement calls in non-SNAFU circumstances. Because the reality is, when we're drowning in stuff - we can't do everything. If we don’t set our own priorities, we are kidding ourselves about the results.

Intention matters.

Without intention, we’ve done the ostrich thing and buried our heads in the sand. What gets done might matter, it might not - we've avoided making the tough decision. Worse, we push the priority decisions down the line to our teams, who are forced to make tough calls at the front line.

The good news is, just like when the SNAFUs hit, clarity of purpose and big picture perspective can help us to make tough calls.

How to focus on what matters most:

  1. Pull your head out of the sand - ostriches make terrible leaders. Get your facts straight about what’s going on.

  2. Decide what matters the most - based on what the consequences of inaction will be, and where you can make the most difference. Problems are not created equally.

  3. Understand your why – when you are clear about your purpose, you can decide relative importance far more easily.