The Art Of Leaving Items “Undone”

In beginning a career—whether it is straight out of trade school, college, or high school—you are told that the way to make an impression and “move up” is to get things done. If people can put their faith in you, that will take you a long way.

There is a good chance that a promotion may then ensue. The apprentice becomes the partner, the ally. Now you need to show you can REALLY get things done and not just be a support for a mentor or supervisor. This could mean completing a long-overdue project for the department, writing a paper, or developing a method that resolves a long-standing problem or issue. People notice and say, “Man, that person really knows how to get things done.”

As I age, though, I have learned there is a different category of people

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / brentmelissa

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / brentmelissa

who accomplish things in a more-stealthy manner. They do not fly to the problem, swooping in to clean it up. Rather, they stand back, letting things “bake out,” and then come in to reassess. With various attempts at a solution, the experienced manager has the tools to stand on the foundation of what failed and what almost succeeded.

Smooth Out The Sand

Many articles ago, I described the contractor I once worked for who was asked to replace the cement walkways leading to an elementary school. After the former walkways were removed, he had the other employees and me rake out a smooth coat of sand in front of the doors, so when the kids showed up for school the next day, their footprints would indicate clearly the correct directional path to take in approaching the building every day. He based his pathway layout on that pattern, and to this day the grass grows tightly against that sidewalk without a corner being cut or a shortcut being worn into the grass.

For a successful evaluation and solution of a problem, the following steps should be taken:

  • Define the problem.
  • Establish a test or measure.
  • Perform the test for a duration long enough to make the results definitive.
  • Evaluate the results.
  • Propose an informed solution.

Now, even though this is not the quick solution in which the “can-do/go-getter” person engages, the result is of a more lasting and permanent measure. What does this tell you? Well, first, experience counts, and second, the potential hazard of jumping in blindly without a sense of direction is exposed. While the masses may applaud the more flashy approach, slow-and-steady is the more effective one.

Here are some things I deliberately leave “undone” for a while, thinking they benefit from not being resolved too quickly:

  •  When I write an essay, I put the final draft in a desk drawer over the weekend and return on Monday to read it. It is amazing what this “off” period accomplishes. Grammatical errors and failed assumptions stand out as if they are typed in red ink. Had I sent the essay off on the same day, those errors would have stayed in print for the life of the piece. I solved a potential embarrassment by being my own second set of eyes.


  • In negotiations, when I find that neither party is making a strong argument, I conclude by drawing up three or four assessments, and I walk away from the debate. The two sides then review those assessments over the next few days, and inevitably their positions change. The sides return to the table committed to what they will and will not do. Leaving the solution undecided drives their “Round 2” interests, and compromise usually results.


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