The 5 Causes of Failed Tasks

Feb 13, 2020

An entire industry has emerged to track and assist our progress in doing tasks. Fifteen years ago it was Franklin-Covey and Day Timer planners. Today there are apps like Omnifocus, Wunderlist,, and more—all seeking to save us, minute by minute and day by day, from task failure. Plus, there are books like David Allen’s Getting Things Done.

But let’s assume you’ve figured out a mechanism for your to-do list. You’ve merged it with your calendar and your assistant and you’ve divided it by day, week, month, and year. You’ve split tasks into a “must do, can do, might do” system (as well as the ever-popular “don’t want to do” column).

What if you’ve done all that, and the tasks still don’t get done? What then?

I’ve seen five causes of task failure. And keep in mind that when I say, “task,” I include all categories of consequence that belong on your list. That includes personal and work, company and community, local and global.

Read these causes of failure and tag anything you need to work on in 2017.

  1. We are overloaded in capacity. Some of us simply have trouble saying no. We take on every assignment and project that comes along, and at the end of the day we run out of time, energy, or brain power. Warren Buffett said, “The difference between successful people and really successful people is the really successful people say no to almost everything.” I tend to agree. Steve Jobs had this to say:

Solution: I call it “the fine art of swapping” and I’ve described it here. Short version? Take things out to get things in.

  1. We procrastinate and have a lazy bone. This, at its root, is a character flaw. (Picture the 12 year old mowing the yard in the dark because he waited and waited to start the task.) The Washington Post did a great article last year on the causes of procrastination (a lack of prioritization ability and lack of connection with our future selves) and includes such nuggets as Mark Twain’s quote, “If your job is to eat a frog, eat it first thing in the morning, and if your job is to eat two frogs, eat the big one first.”

Solution: Get great at prioritizing using the Eisenhower Matrix. And get great at disciplining yourself to let your feelings follow your actions, not the other way around.

  1. We lack certain skills. We have time and want to but we lack competence and know how. We don’t know enough about computers to update the company web page, for example, but we try to do it anyway. What are the things in your job description that you simply don’t know how to do?

Solution: Delegate the tasks you can and grow the skills you must. We can improve some of our skills to be more competent, but clearly some people are more organized or have a more natural feel for time management. That holds true in every area. Be willing to ask for help and to grow in areas where you need to.

  1. We are out-worked or out-played by competition. There are score ties in hockey and soccer and sometimes in football, but for the most part there is a winner and loser in every competition, whether it’s between Duke and North Carolina, Wal-Mart and Target and Amazon, or you and Brad, the other sales rep. To quote the old Navy football coach, “A tie is like kissing your sister,” or to quote Ricky Bobby, “If you’re not first, you’re last.” Sometimes the other man, woman, team, or company just beats us—plain and simple.

Solution: There are two options here: (1). Sometimes you need to work harder and smarter. If you got outworked and outplayed, go back to the drawing board and learn things. Evaluate well and put your knowledge into practice. (2). But sometimes you simply need to accept that there are more important things than winning at all costs, particularly if you’re defining winning as having the most money, stores, growth, etc. In particular, you need to embrace an abundance mindset, which I wrote about here.

  1. We practice poor planning. This is what Jesus meant when He talked about the cost of being a disciple: “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish’” (Luke 14:28-30).

It’s where we get the phrase “count the cost,” and although Jesus meant it to illustrate a spiritual reality, it was common sense then and now in financial and business planning. We all know business decisions that flopped and left people open to ridicule. This also plays in small decisions, like this mom who planned a task for 2:00 AM after a business trip.

Solution: You’ll never be able to plan perfectly, but to quote another writer in the Bible, “In the abundance of counselors, there is victory.” Don’t believe your own ideas. Involve others in your major decisions and in outlining the steps.


Did you identify which one is the greatest cause of your task failure? If not, go back over them and make the call. Here’s the list again:

  • Lack of capacity
  • Procrastination
  • Incompetence
  • Beaten by competition
  • Poor planning

If you can’t tell which is your most common cause of failure, ask your spouse or closest friends. They may be able to help. Once you have a winner (or a loser, depending on how you define it), work on improving in that area this year. Make 2017 a year with less task failure.

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