Why: A concept appearing in seminal works such as Viktor Frankl’s powerful, autobiographic book, Man’s Search for Meaning and the somewhat esoteric philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche.
In more recent times Simon Sinek returned this simple word to center stage with his book, Start with Why and his TED talks on leadership.
The power of ‘why’ in business is far from a new concept. ‘Ask why 5 times’ became a fashionable form of root cause analysis, emerging from the famously successful Toyota Production System and attributed to Sakichi Toyoda, the company's founder.
But, it’s not just useful in understanding how something failed … So many key aspects of behaviour depend upon this simple word – ‘Why’.
David Rock, in his book Quiet Leadership, describes the brain is a “connection machine”. It continually works to make sense of what we experience; relentlessly asking itself why, but far too often relying upon assumptions to complete the puzzle. Rumors are a great example of this.
Whilst I am a big fan of asking why, I am equally a fan of telling why.
People are often far more interested in why a decision was made, than the actual decision. Providing this information allows them to make value judgements which help them align with the leaders or the organisation, crucial for their support and engagement.
Authority is not a sustainable explanation for curious decisions
Then, there is what I call “assumed intent”. This often occurs when the evidence is scant but the impact seems significant. It is the tendency to try to explain observations by connecting them to some intellectual, moral or ethical judgement of the person(s) responsible. Unchecked, this can lead to a range of flawed thinking habits, such as confirmation bias – where information is subconsciously accepted or rejected on the basis of whether it fits current beliefs.
Finally, there are volumes of published research showing the increasingly clear links between meaning, motivation, performance and well-being. If you want to find out what your people are truly capable of, focus on creating intrinsic motivation by helping them find meaning in their work and life.
Help people ‘find their why’ … or at least, make sure they understand yours!
It is a win-win-win strategy.
In Part 1 I spoke about the various costs of being busy; but also faced the reality that there will be times when it is difficult to avoid.
Here are 5 tips and tactics that may help you in these times.
1. The Eisenhower matrix
A very simple tool used to divide tasks into 4 categories based upon the combinations of high or low Importance and Urgency. This tool has appeared countless times, including Steven Coveys best seller, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People under Habit 3; ‘Put first things first’. It sounds simple, and it often is, but if you are frenetically busy it is a discipline that can easily slip. There are various labels used for the 4 categories but I find Dr. John Demartini's version easy to remember: Do it, Delegate it, Diarise it or Ditch it. Search for it online and see if it helps.
2. Manage your willpower
Every decision you make requires willpower. Unfortunately, in the short term, willpower is a finite resource – hence the success of impulse sales items at supermarkets and coffee shops. They get you when your defenses are down. Knowing this allows you to arrange tasks such that you attack the harder ones early in the day, instead of being drawn into more tedious tasks. Revisit the ‘Do it’ list above – which one is the most ambiguous or complex? That's where you start. A suggestion here is to use the Eisenhower matrix at the end of each day to identify the first item for the next day … its one less decision you need to make before you start.
3. Focused attention
I mentioned in Part 1 some of the costs of trying to multi-task. Have you ever noticed the volume and quality of work you achieve when there are no distractions? When you are allowed to truly immerse yourself in one task. Cal Newport’s book Deep Work looks at a number of examples of how you can apply this, citing extreme examples such as an author who recognised that he worked best on planes. Pushed for a deadline he flew return to Tokyo and completed the book during the flights. When, where and how do you do your best deep thinking? Have you even thought about it before? How can you best take advantage of it?
4. Floss your brain
The same brain region you activate when you intentionally draw your focus to your senses is involved in a long list of very beneficial skills and attributes. They include: fear modulation, attuned communication, empathy, emotional regulation and morality. For a deeper dive into this take a look at Dr. Dan Siegel's book The Mindful Brain. Increasing evidence shows that this capacity of your brain can be enhanced through regular routines of intentionally bringing your attention to sensing the present moment. The great news is … it only takes seconds. You can pay attention to anything – it’s just about noticing, not judging. Isn’t it worth 'flossing' your brain? You brush your teeth ...
5. Capitalise on stress
Studies have shown that people who believe they perform better under stress are generally less physiologically impacted by it. It’s just one of the mindset tools you can use. Another is to use stressful situations to build your capacities, much like weight lifting. Gains require stress and recovery. Following stressful tasks you should create a practice of looking back to acknowledge the resources you drew upon and work out how to gain even more from these capacities in the future. Reviewing ways you succeeded builds self-efficacy (a major component of self-esteem) which is key to performance and resilience.
I really, seriously hope there was something of value in that for you!
Please feel free to add your tips in the comments below.
In Part 3 I will look at the more organisational and managerial aspects of ‘Taking Care of Busy-ness’ …
So many people I have spoken to recently tell me they are always ‘just so busy’. Yet, outwardly, many of their behaviours continue to contribute to the busy-ness. My concern is that busy has become the ‘cloak of credibility’, fuelling a dangerous mindset:
I hate working like this – but I have to … that’s how things are
The Yerkes-Dodson ‘inverted-U’ model was originally published over 100 years ago, proposing that optimal performance does require some level of arousal. Think about it for a moment; your best achievements have commonly occurred when you were under some degree of pressure. Later, research by Hebb added that the more complex the task, the easier it is for the output to suffer when there is too much arousal: an increasingly relevant point. Who do you know that has a job that is getting simpler???
The explanation lies in the difference between arousal and stress
While the level of arousal matches the desired level, you have 'eustress' – healthy and motivating, signified by feelings of optimism, control and competence. The peak experience of this is better known as FLOW, as presented in the book by the same name (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). Once the level of arousal exceeds the desired level though, you create distress. This is more typically associated with feelings of anxiousness, pessimism and lack of control; which have real implications for performance and well-being.
More bad news about busy:
It is an unfortunate reality that you just can’t multi-task – not on complex tasks, anyway. At best, you are good at attention switching but that has high costs. Every time you switch, your brain spends time and resources to ‘ramp up’ its attention on the new item. Some studies estimate that it takes over 15 seconds to fully return to your prior level of thinking following a distraction.
How many times do you switch attention? Do the math's …
The energy expended in ramping up is largely wasted effort, in output terms. The second cost results from the actual quality of thinking you are able to perform. If you believe that there are numerous, competing priorities or are expecting random distractions (like email, tweets or phone calls) you will be more likely to feel under pressure and default to reflex or habit for faster solutions. Check out Daniel Kahneman’s book: Thinking Fast and Slow, to better understand this.
In a previous article I discussed how these strengths are fine for simple or routine tasks but that they do not support the more valuable creative or innovative thinking often required. In fact, there are now studies emerging that show reliance upon your known strengths can drive you into what Stanford Professor Carol Dweck calls a 'fixed mindset'. Her 2006 book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success relies upon decades of research to demonstrate the stark differences between fixed and growth mindsets.
Of course, various circumstances will create situations where you will have to be busy. These occasions need to be recognised, managed, executed, celebrated and followed by appropriate recovery. In an ideal world, there would also be some review to understand how to avoid getting into the same position again. It can’t be ignored and it can’t become the norm. I will expand upon these in subsequent posts, as they are all important contributors to workplace culture, engagement and well-being.
I help businesses to see that ‘busy’ is not a ‘badge of honour’ … it is a ball and chain.
In Part 2, I will present the most useful tips I have seen to help busy people.