The Execution Gap (and a Few Tips to Bridge It)

The concept of an execution gap is one that has undoubtedly been discussed by managers and executives for decades, whether referred to by the same name or not. I was first introduced to the term in an excellent book called Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan. The concept is as simple as it sounds: things that are often planned don’t get done. What the hell happens between planning and execution? Most plans are crafted by intelligent people and forecasted in a reasonable manner, but still, much is left undone. WHY? The execution gap!

Being a great speaker, recruiter, motivator, or innovator does not necessarily equate to being a great executor—like it or not. While some infinitesimal percentage of leaders possess all of those traits, you (most likely) do not. Execution, the ability to get things done, is what separates successful individuals, teams, and businesses from the herd.

If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.

The brightest leaders and “idea-people” surround themselves with do-ers or the people who get shit done. Why? Because then they can focus on their ideas, relationships, strategy, and vision for the organization. Folks that have been around the block once or twice tend to recognize pretty quickly whether an individual or business is all talk or can actually deliver—and word travels fast. Whether you are an intern or seasoned executive, developing and refining your ability to get things done will cement your financial security and career options. If you find yourself cringing a bit while looking at a to-do list that never gets shorter, a ridiculous number of unread e-mails, or a flat earnings chart—fear not. You can do this.

Do the hard stuff first

It’s never fun, but when you knock out the toughest to-do’s first, the day gets easier, and your confidence swells in the process. It’s never as hard as you think and the gap between an easy task and a difficult one is likely smaller in reality than it is in your mind. As a kid, my mom told me to eat the veggies first as fast as I could so I could get on with enjoying my dinner. Brilliant. I had to do it either way (she was tough), so I got in the habit of crushing whatever nasty, healthy food she gave me so I could get to the tasty bits. I still tend to save the best bite for last.

Inbox zero

I showed two separate people in our office the Gmail setting that allows you to view your unread emails above anything else (see “inbox styles”). I use the Mac Mail client myself, but these dudes were psyched, and I really think it helped them. You should do one of three things with every email you get.

  1. Respond to it
  2. Trash it/Ignore it
  3. Schedule when you’ll deal with it

Most of the messages you get are probably in the first category, simple communications that are easy to answer quickly. Don’t gloss over them if they require more thought or are urgent. If they need more thought or a bit of research, flag the message and schedule when you’re going to deal with it. I’ve got a few half-hour blocks in my schedule every day to deal with flagged messages. If they are urgent, but you find yourself in the middle of other equally critical activities, see below…

Covey Quadrants

I’ve written about this before, but it’s a concept worth reiterating. Many people spend way too much time doing things that aren’t important but feel urgent. Stop doing that.

Just start

The most challenging part of nearly every task is getting it started. Most of the time the road is neither as long or difficult as we imagine. I find most people complain about what they have to do more than what they are doing. The thought of most tasks is more agonizing than the process of executing them.

Use headphones

Metaphorical or actual. Shut out the rest of the world for a bit. Office culture can be amazing, and the synergies that happen in a room full of fired up people are very real. However, that same office can be ultra distracting when you’ve got a deadline looming. Headphones (loud enough so others can hear) are a pretty universal “F-off” sign. Shut a door, grab a coffee with your laptop – eject. In some way shape or form, get the distractions out of your way so you can lock-in.


The two largest impediments to accomplishment are the avoidance reaction and our ridiculous shared belief that we are all phenomenal multi-taskers. Biology and neurology disagree. We aren’t wired to do fifty things at once. Of course, we can all juggle various tasks at a superficial level, but solving real problems and getting difficult tasks done requires our full attention. The only self-described ADD people that I know who are good at getting things done are those that have unwavering discipline and a calendar (usually managed by someone else).

The avoidance reaction (not answering the phone, ignoring an e-mail, skipping the meetup where you’ll run into the client, etc.) is the absolute worst. Again, our fight or flight instincts can be a nuisance here. If you messed up—own it. Most people will respect you for it. Ask the next person you see what the No. 1 characteristic they are looking for in a best friend, significant other, or business partner is. Honesty. Don’t be a bullshitter, be impeccable with your word, but if you made a mistake, face the music and move on so you can continue to get things done.

Remember, all of this is voluntary. YOU made the plan. YOU applied for the job. YOU started the company. Do YOU want the credit? Learn to get things done, hire other people that also know how, forget the hype, put your big kid pants on, and change the world.

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