08/13/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Mar 19, 2015

How Little Things Make A Big Difference

In recent weeks, we talked about why to do lists don't work, and then showed the opposite view by offering some ideas about how to use a to do list effectively. Last week, we addressed the source of burnout and promised to address satisfaction and accomplishment this week. Here goes one take on the subject - not the only take, nor an exhaustive one, just another view, one that may be useful.

Little Things Can Have Big Impact: Getting the Right Thing Done Right

Here's a personal example of what happens if you don't know the value of what you are doing or why it matters. When I was growing up, my father owned a little two man machine shop. He was a tool and die maker and by all accounts did great work.

He went bankrupt a couple of times, not because of lack of skill, but because of lack of business sense. That's where I enter in.

Dad used to have me come to the shop on weekends to help get things done. Sometimes it was pretty simple work, like cleaning up scrap filings and other messes built up during the week. Sometimes he had me make simple parts for him

On this one Saturday, he sat me down in front of a drill press and put a box of 5,000 plastic tubes in front of me. Each little tube was about three inches long, and each one needed a hole drilled in the middle, equidistant between the two ends.

With not much more instruction than what I just gave you here, he told me to get going and that we could go home when I was done. At 15, I didn't need much motivation to move quickly and get out of there.

So, I powered my way through those little plastic tubes. Drill. Drill. Drill. And then the drill bit broke, so I had to go tell him and he set up another one in the press. Drill. Drill. Drill. And another one broke. I was about 1,500 pieces through when the second one broke.

Now he was mad. So he sat me down with a third new bit in place and told me to show him what I was doing. So I powered the bit through the top of the tube. From the way he freaked out, you would have thought I had just killed his favorite kitten or something.

That's when he provided the missing bit of information. I wasn't supposed to be "drilling" holes in these tubes. I was supposed to be "tapping" them. Tapping means that the bit was not a drill after all, but something that looks like a drill bit but actually puts a thread inside the hole that it makes.


As I powered through the first 1,500 of these little tubes, I was pulling so hard on the handle that the tap functioned just like a drill instead. It put a nice clean hole in each piece, but no thread. On top of that, powering through each one meant that when the tap bit broke through the top of the tube, it slammed into the inner side of the tube and put a nice little hole in it as well.

So now I had ruined 1,500 pieces in two ways - smooth holes instead of threaded opening, and a damaged inner surface which would disrupt the flow of whatever it was that was supposed to be going through the tube.


Of course, you can see that it would have been a clever thing for my Dad to explain what I was working on, what my part of the job entailed, and why it was important. That wouldn't have made me any the more happy to be spending my Saturday at the shop again, but at least I would have understood what I was doing and why. And he would have gotten what he wanted from my work.


So back to your world. It could be that you are working on drilling holes in things that really should be tapped instead, and no one told you. It could be that the little tiny, insignificant tasks that you perform are the difference between something working, and something failing, between real success and also-ran OK.

If you are an executive or manager, flip this around: perhaps you have assigned something meaningful, something critical to your staff, but all you did was assign the task absent of sufficient context and meaning.

Kind of like that little weld on the space shuttle that blew up. After all, it was just a little weld. How could that matter?

In addition to the difference between what you are focused on (the Symbols of life) vs. why you want them (the Experience of life), there's another tiny thing that seems to matter. Meaning.

Most of us could use a greater experience of meaning in our lives, of being meaningful, of having what we do matter. Sometimes, Meaning comes with a capital M - say ending world hunger - and sometimes it is just a little "m," say helping a neighbor through a tough time.

And sometimes meaning comes just in knowing why tapping a hole matters and drilling one screws things up.

Next week, we will deepen this discussion considerably, turning from to do lists and getting things done, to life aspirations and the experience of meaning. In the meantime, ask yourself if you are drilling or tapping your way through life.

Please leave a comment or drop me an email if you have questions, observations or lessons of your own to share.

I'd love to hear from you. Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell (at)


If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life and to your job, about a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, please download a free chapter from my book, Workarounds That Work. You'll be glad you did.

You can buy Workarounds That Work here.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about my work by visiting my website at You can contact me by e-mail at Russell (at)

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