Too Many Irons in the Fire? It May be Time to Readjust Your Thinking

Successful business professionals who strive to lead with intention and integrity must always take to heart and embody the phrase “actions speak louder than words.” The principle has roots dating as far back as the thirteenth century. In 1206, St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” Translating this quote into modern day English leads us to the lesson embedded in this idiom: Our words ring hollow unless we lead by example. Our actions should reflect our words and prove that what we say is what we do.

There is nothing more damaging to the credibility of a leader than acquiring a reputation for being all talk with nothing to show for it. If something needs to be done, instead of complaining about it, do something. Delegate the task, or roll up your sleeves and get to it. Words are often wasted when the clearest path to success is to simply start executing. Instead of describing ways to improve, why not be a role model and lead by example? Great leaders, many of whom are great orators, must demonstrate a legacy of meaningful actions in order to win our respect. That being said, it is equally important to be mindful of our actions and exactly what – and how much – we commit to.

Just the other day, my mother inspired me to share some thoughts on my podcast #WhatWeLearnAsKids, when she remarked that I had “too many irons in the fire,” which is something she used to say to me as a child. As a youth, that phrase sounded mysterious and exciting. History buffs will recall that for centuries, blacksmiths worked with iron rods over a coal-fueled fire to craft everything from swords to horseshoes. They would put cold metal rods into the forge fire and wait for them to heat up to a pliable temperature, then strike while the iron was hot. If they put too many iron rods into the fire, they would be incapable of getting hot enough to mold, making it difficult to craft the metal into something more useful. On the other hand, if the blacksmith didn’t put enough rods in the fire to begin with, they would get too hot and begin to melt before it could be crafted.

A once-literal phrase with a simple lesson can have so many layers. The bottom line: having too many irons in the fire means that we are not balanced. We are trying to do too many things, and we’re not doing any one of them particularly well. Of course, our personal and professional lives rarely allow us to slow down to only do one thing at a time but be mindful about multi-tasking. Our culture frequently glorifies being “busy,” as if sacrificing mind, body and spirit is something to be proud of. But take a step back and evaluate your quality of life. Are you financially secure but sacrificing time spent with loved ones? Are you “too busy” to attend religious services or enjoy your favorite hobbies anymore? Do you delight in loudly complaining about your calendar to anyone who will listen?

It is certainly important to set goals and as many readers already know, it’s important to stay involved with a variety of personal interests and projects. But we are overloading our schedules with way too many tasks and responsibilities, relying on multi-tasking to get through the day. Research has shown that it is not possible to do multiple things simultaneously well. Multi-tasking simply means we’re doing a number of things relatively poorly.

When we choose to work on one iron, we can craft a masterpiece. We can channel our focus, dedication and passion on to one task or one project and walk away knowing that we gave it our all. When there are too many irons in the fire, the material isn’t ready when we want it to be. We must, however, always keep an eye on the flames lest we become idle and lose focus altogether. You don’t have to do it all by yourself. Surround yourself with other strong, responsible team members. Be clear with them about your commitments to yourself and others. Force them to keep you accountable, and offer to return the favor.

Life challenges us in ways that force us to make frequent adjustments. Great leaders and successful business professionals must be vigilant about staying balanced. Some days, we are on a rocket ship – we are focused on taking meaningful actions and getting things done. Other days, we have to throttle back and delegate. The goals we choose and the habits we form are the way to accomplish what you set out to do and move toward success.


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