Keep the Ball Moving: Using Your Planner to Maintain Momentum

David Solot is a vice president and organizational development consultant working out of Princeton, NJ. He specializes in helping companies hire and develop top performers, using a combination of psychological assessments, individual coaching, and strategic planning tools. David holds a Masters Degree in clinical psychology from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and is an active member of both SHRM and the APA.

“The ball's in your court.” Regardless of our interest in sports, we've all heard and used that metaphor. Even in your day-to-day working environment. The meaning is pretty simple – it's your turn to act. You might be working on a project with peers and need to provide the next piece of data. You could be negotiating a deal over the phone and need to make the next call. You could be doing market research for a new product and need to pass along what you've learned. Whatever the topic may be, when the ball's in your court, it means you need to act.

The ability to handle the ball when it's in your court is critical to how your peers, your managers, and your clients perceive you. One of the worst mistakes you can make in business is to “drop the ball.” Like the original expression, you don't need to be an athlete to understand what this one means. When the ball's in your court and you drop it, you failed to act. Or failed to act appropriately. You may have gotten distracted and failed to make a critical phone call at the right time. You might have failed to give information to the key stakeholders by a required due date. You might have failed to sign the new contract sitting on your desk instead of getting it into the hands of your client. All these actions say one thing: You dropped the ball.

In this economy, our actions or inactions takes on a monumental level of importance. When times are good and sales are plentiful, dropping the ball can be a minor annoyance. When times are hard, however, each opportunity for your business or career becomes critical. Dropping the ball results in lost revenue, a lost job offer, or even the insidious downwards creep of your performance evaluation.

So you have the ball. It's in your court ... how do you handle it? With my clients and my employees, I teach two simple concepts for maintaining momentum.

Keep the ball moving. First, the ball never stops in our court. Picture yourself on one side of a volleyball net. A friend appears on the other side. You're tossing a ball back and forth. You have one guideline you must follow: you need to keep the ball moving. Always throw the ball back to your friend, to keep the game going. If you catch it cleanly, fine, throw it back. If you drop it, no problem, pick it up and throw it back. If you trip, fall face down, and the ball goes rolling away, guess what you need to do? Exactly. Stand up, dust yourself off, go get the ball, and throw it back. You play until the game is over.

In other words, we never allow an opportunity to die because we failed to respond. If it is our turn to call, we call. If we need to supply data, we supply it. We pursue every opportunity, every request, every project until it reaches its conclusion. We never allow an opportunity to die due to inaction our part.

Keep the ball in your court. This second concept is a little less intuitive but just as important: don't let the ball stop in their court. This one gets overlooked all the time. Let's use the volleyball analogy again. You throw the ball over, and your friend just stands there. The ball hits the ground and rolls a few feet. What would you do? Do you shrug and assume he doesn't want to play anymore? Probably not. You'd probably say something like “Hey! Are you going to throw that back?”, and attempt to keep the game going. Of course, the same rule apply to business. When you throw the ball into someone else's court and they don't throw it back, you need to find out what happened, and keep the ball moving.

When I explain this to executives, inevitably I get people staring oddly at me. They say, "No it isn't. It's their job to keep the ball moving.” Really? Let me put it to you this way. If a $200,000 business deal fails, is it any less dead because your client didn't respond than if you didn't respond? Does the money magically appear in your coffers because the gods of self-discipline said “they're the disorganized ones, not you folks”? Of course not. To survive in this economy, we need to make sure the ball keeps moving, no matter who made it stop. If that means we have to stare across the net at our clients until they pick it back up, then so be it. The stakes are too high to do otherwise.


When training groups on keeping the ball moving, there are many techniques I suggest for maintaining focus and momentum. The most important one involves the use of a daily planner. Like everyone else on this site, I am thoroughly addicted to paper and pens, but the following technique works just as well with Outlook or your iPhone.

  • Every time the ball enters your court, put a note in your planner on the date and time of when you need to return it.
  • Every time the ball enters someone else's court, put a note in your planner on the date and time when you will check up on the status.

The action is simple, but the execution is critical. You must make sure that you do this every single time the ball changes hands. The more balls in the air at once, the more vital it is to get this right. Don't believe me? Think you can remember it all and not drop the ball without writing things down? Well, then it's time to fess up. How many times have you tried to get coffee and get something off the printer during the same trip down the hall, only to return to your desk with only coffee? Ever been on the way to talk to a coworker and stopped at the bathroom – and then found yourself back at your desk without having had the conversation? If you can forget to do something during a 30 second walk, think how much you can forget when you are managing five projects running concurrently with different deadlines and clients. Like we said before, in this economy, one dropped ball can have serious consequences.

So, you just hung up the phone with a client and you need to assemble an annual report for them? Go right to your calendar and pick the date and time when you will send them the report. Just submitted the results of your analysis to your department head and are waiting to hear if she concurs with your finding? Open your calendar, pick a moment, and write “Check in with Bob, regarding my findings.”

Every time the ball changes hands, you make another entry to make sure it changes hands again. And, if something comes up and you can't make your deadline, don't ignore it or erase it. Just set a new deadline for yourself and keep moving forward. Remember, the ball doesn't stop until the game is over.

When you choose a specific moment in time to return the ball or check on it's status, you guarantee that work is going to get done. You don't have to juggle multiple tasks in your consciousness – you've taken a few of them out, and put them down on paper, where they can stay until their moment arrives. It reduces your stress level and improves your responsiveness. When followed as a part of your daily routine, you'll be amazed at your higher level of productivity, and the greater number of successes you can achieve.

So go get that “to-do” list of phone calls, and start setting times to get those balls out of your court! And that project where you're waiting for data – go set a time to get a status update and prompt the team for action. I bet you'll discover a ball that got dropped while you were off juggling these others. Get that one moving too! Remember, the ball doesn't get put down until the game is over -- because the only way to win is to play each game all the way through.

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When the balls on the other side of the court

there is a fine line between following through to the next step and treating the person on the other side of the court as if they are incapable of following through without micromanaging and making insulting frequent requests for updates. Guess which side I'm on right now? Yes, I will toss the ball back, I have no history of dropping the ball, so please do not treat me as if I am an imbecile and incapable of the smallest task without constant checking. Keep your obsessive control-freak problems to yourself and out of the workplace.

I'm sure you don't make that mistake but there are those bad managers who do. The same way that there are plenty of ball-droppers.

There's a big difference

There's a big difference between "constant checking" and a friendly call a couple of days before the deadline to see how things are going.

If you know when you will make that call, you are less likely to be constantly worrying. And micromanaging.

As well as making an entry

As well as making an entry in your planner you should also set an expectation with the other party that you will call or visit on that day for whatever purpose. This then gives them the opportunity to accept or negotiate the follow up and with that, their commitment. You must however keep your commitment and call on that specific day.

Calm down

Do not take your repressed anger out on a man who is able to direct his words. Obviously he knows what he is talking about since it lit a fire under your ass. I think you should not blog with much anger. As the days are becoming numbered with other vehicles of media, your words are everything. I would not buy/sell/trade or anything with your immature behavior and the example you have set for yourself. Also I will blast your screen name out, to make sure my colleagues see the same as me. Thank you for your anger.


What is this tirade about? You seem to be accusing someone of the very behavior you are partaking in!

Actually, this post looks suspiciously like spam baiting material. It's an odd post, with no real context in a quite old thread, just ripe for creating a base for a new spam attack? I don't know, but personally, I would rest much easier if the admins could delete this post (and mine here), just in case. :-)


Useful analogy - thanks

While I no longer work in the kind of job where I need to worry about many balls, this still makes a lot of sense to me. It's not unlike GTD's "waiting for" category, which was like a lightbulb going on for me when I adopted it. (These days, I don't do all the GTD thing, but still keep a "waiting for" list.) Before that, I hadn't worked out how to keep track of projects for which I was ultimately responsible without feeling like I was hassling people, and that made it easier to leave it to them to bring the ball back to me.

But if you take control with your diary or a list, you don't need to micromanage anything; you can forget all about it until the time comes when you expect the ball back (and of course you have to have agreed that date with them beforehand anyway). Then, if it doesn't come back, you actually remember you're meant to have it and can follow up. Obviously, the way in which you handle the follow up with people is crucial, but if you're not following up at all then you're not managing projects or people as effectively as you could do.

Not sure if this makes sense, but I just wanted to explain how useful I found this way of thinking when I was working with lots of different projects and people.