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5 Tips for Knowing When to Stop

February 4, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

LeadershipKnowing when to stop is the hallmark of a great artist. Whether you’re painting a picture, seasoning a dish, or writing a story, knowing when to stop can mean the difference between a masterpiece and a mess.

The same is true of exceptional leaders. They always seem to know when to stop talking, when to stop checking in, when to stop working on a particular project. It’s easy to recognize when someone makes the mistake of carrying on when they should have just stopped. But when they stop right on time—not too soon and not too late—we hardly notice. They make it look effortless.

Here are 5 tips to keep you from jumping the shark as a leader:

1. Understand the law of diminishing returns. In most endeavors there comes a point when the more effort and input you add produces less and less benefit. You enhance a dish with a dash of salt; then you add more and ruin it. You make a bold statement that grabs everyone’s attention; then you restate it multiple ways and dilute its power.

2. Get feedback from others. Many times you’re too close to yourself to know if you’ve gone too far. Afraid you’re over-managing your team? Ask them. Give them multiple ways to let you know how you’re doing—town hall meetings, one-on-one sessions, anonymous surveys, etc.

3. Take a break. Step away from whatever you’re doing for a while. Take a walk. Work on something unrelated. Go for a run. Sleep on it. Then come back to the project and look at it with fresh eyes. Ask questions. How close is it to solving the problem or serving the purpose? What needs to happen to finish it and get it out the door?

4. Experiment with stopping. Don’t be afraid of failing—it’s part of the process. If your tendency is to go too far or stuff too much in or talk too long, experiment with stopping before you’re comfortable. Make a conscious effort to produce something simple and excellent—no more and no less.

5. Trust yourself and others. Stopping takes trust. Trust your talent and stop tinkering with that project—ship it already. Trust your staff and stop riding them about every little detail. Finally, trust that you’re enough and stop trying to be someone or something you’re not.

What helps you know when to stop?

  1. February 4, 2011 at 7:22 am

    I honestly never thought before that there can be something like “knowing when to stop”. But your first paragraph made me think that it’s true. Whether it’s time I’m studying, writing articles, stories or whatever, I must know when to stop. However, I think when writing, only #3 comes into effect. What do you think?

    (I expect your comments on my blog sometimes. Please. 🙂 )

    • February 4, 2011 at 7:31 am

      I agree, Sajib. The cool thing about writing as an art form is that you can—and should—always go back and edit the fluff out. Of course, the art of stopping fully applies to editing, doesn’t it!

  2. Lee
    February 4, 2011 at 8:20 am

    I work as a trader and its a job imperative to know when to stop. When to stop being greedy, or a workaholic, or to stop trying to find significance in your life from your performance. Or even more deep down, when to stop seeking approval from a father figure…
    If I don’t stop in trading, i can get myself into a slump like a baseball player. I like to joke that its one of the only jobs where you are “rewarded” for taking a break, because you may stop yourself from losing money. However as this post makes clear, you can stop yourself from harming your team, performance and goals in stopping at any job!

    • February 4, 2011 at 8:33 am

      Great points, Lee; thanks for stopping by. I think mastering the art of stopping is definitely a mark of maturity and wisdom. You’ve got to quell the “what ifs” and “if onlys” that clamor for your attention.

  3. February 4, 2011 at 10:16 am


    Wonderful post. One of the great challenges of moving into the future is letting go of the past, past successes and failures.



    • February 4, 2011 at 11:05 am

      So right, Dan. Not only does stopping add value to what we’re working on, it allows us to move on to something else.

      Thanks for taking this in yet another direction!

  4. Doug Crandall
    February 4, 2011 at 8:24 pm

    Good stuff!

    • February 4, 2011 at 10:25 pm

      Hey Doug – Thanks for stopping by!

  5. ~r
    February 5, 2011 at 7:38 am

    Thanks G. I looked at this from the employee perspective and it seems to ring true as well.

    Keep up the good tweeting.

    Strength & Honor,


    • February 7, 2011 at 12:17 am

      Right on, Raul; this is definitely an all-around skill. Thanks for jumping in!

  6. Joel
    March 2, 2011 at 2:13 pm

    I am a first time manager of one excellent entree-level intern in a 10-month position. She is eager, quick to learn, is pleasent, and picks up new tasks well. I have been coaching her a lot because she still is inexperienced and has a lot of room to learn and grow, and I see her actual potential so much higher than where she is now.

    She is normally very openly appreciative of my guidance, but lately has been markedly more defensive and less receptive when I offer her guidance. It has been very frustrating for me as a manager, but thanks to some recent introspection, and some less subtle feedback from co-workers on a parallel level as myself, I am trying to back off, but I must admit it is very difficult for me. I have had some success so far, but it is honestly one of the biggest challenges I have undertaken in the last year or so. I just want this individual to be the best she can be, but I realized, with thanks to help from this wonderfully-written article, that the best thing I can do for her development is backing off her for now. It’s even harder because we share a cubicle, but I’m gonna get there!

    • March 2, 2011 at 2:30 pm

      Thanks for sharing, Joel; sounds like you’re in the trenches! Keep up the hard work of stopping! Let me know how this all turns out. Thanks.

  7. Ezinwa
    June 9, 2011 at 1:38 pm

    I am fulfilled with reading this piece. I am grateful.

    • September 8, 2011 at 12:32 pm

      Wow. Thanks. Glad you enjoyed it.

  8. September 8, 2011 at 8:32 am

    Most great dishes get ruined by over cooking. Every Great pop song has an end. Most within a 3-4 minutes. Knowing where to stop is almost as important as knowing to start.

    The good thing is if you leave people wanting more, then they want more. We all love a bit of mystery. As a matter of….”We will be right back after this short message from our sponsor”

    • September 8, 2011 at 12:40 pm

      “If you leave people wanting more, then they want more.” I like that, Carl—as long as you’re prepared to give them more!

  9. September 8, 2011 at 11:16 am

    Great post Geoffrey. As a professional songwriter I resonate with your statement that artists know when to stop, and this ability and skill is easily translatable to leaders. I used to have a publisher who would sometimes argue that my song wasn’t finished because it wasn’t yet ‘perfect’. She had a static view of perfection and quite often wouldn’t enable projects and tasks to be completed because of that.

    • September 8, 2011 at 12:44 pm

      Agreed, Billy. Quality is important, but when perfection becomes more important than delivering, you have a problem!

  1. October 3, 2011 at 12:51 am
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