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.
In his popular and impactful TEDx talk “Leading with Lollipops”, Drew Dudley proposes that people have made the concept of Leadership about something “beyond us” and that to be comfortable with the title almost implies arrogance.
The continued showcasing of one-in-a-million leadership examples only fuels this situation, ensuring that the mystery of “leadership” lures theorists to try to explain one-off situations that seemed to demonstrate great leadership - in many cases, relying on a scant understanding of the true context.
Another unfortunate result is the tendency for people to believe that leadership is associated with seniority. We have lost sight of the fact that ANYONE can have leadership impact. Whether it is by demonstrating a great work ethic, their morals, supporting those around them, striving for continuous improvement, or countless other ways, individuals can positively influence others around them toward a better outcome … and isn’t that leadership?
All that changes with seniority is the EXPECTATION that you will ‘lead’ … not the exclusive right to.
In all of this, ‘managing’ seems to be far easier to define, less mysterious and therefore less attractive. This is a great loss, in my opinion.
Around 25 years ago Peter Farey, then working on management improvement at British Airways, proposed an interesting model. His research included reviewing the classic leadership texts of the previous five decades and resulted in “Mapping the Leader/Manager”, which was published in 1993. It presents a 20 ‘cluster’ model arranged around two axes (Manager/Leader vs. Task/People).
There are several aspects of his model that stand out to me: Firstly, it acknowledges a very key point – that there are situations were transaction may the priority – just deliver the plan; stabilize and execute; and conversely, situations requiring transformation – change.
The driver of the need for transformation or transaction is context.
Secondly, he proposes that the clusters are additive, not mutually exclusive. You need your people to be able to recognise and respond to the current circumstances, effectively.
Finally, he describes the overall impact represented by each quadrant when that behaviour is effective, underdone and overdone. This aspect alone adds much to its clarity.
If you read the 20 clusters you find that they ‘fit’ the proposed structure but also, that they are all valuable behaviours. They all support organisation effectiveness.
I think his model is a far healthier approach than the ‘Holy Grail’ status that "leadership" has attained. In my eyes, perspective and behavioural flexibility should be the focus.
The topic of strengths, whilst becoming more prevalent is, at the same time, becoming increasingly muddy. Much of this confusion is caused by the use of that same word ‘strengths’ when describing character, talent, competency or even behaviour – quite different concepts. It doesn’t help when data from one field is used as ‘evidence’ in another.
This lack of clarity opens the door to some common themes of debate; ‘Overuse’, for example. Mostly, I see overuse applying to competency or behaviour but there are circumstances where it can apply to character too.
You may become predictable - so others include or exclude you on that basis; consciously, or not.
The faster you can respond to a given challenge, the more likely it is that you used ‘reflexive’ resources – habitual behaviour. As long as the environment doesn’t change too much, this is fine. But who of us has that luxury? Fast thinking as Daniel Kahneman calls it, is addictive. You somehow (quickly) make sense of scant evidence, almost instinctively. You recognise the patterns and based on your previous successful response (for which your brain received a healthy dose of dopamine) the solution this time seems obvious – to you.
So, what’s wrong with this scenario?
Reduced vigilance: Psychology Professors Christopher Chabris & Daniel Simons present some startling examples of how intuition can be remarkably deceiving in their book “The Invisible Gorilla”. Yes, they created THAT video.
The more you think you know about the situation, the more you assume, the less you will actually notice
Is it even a good solution? Assuming you have correctly identified the ‘same problem’, you may have lost an opportunity for ‘reflective’ thinking which may have uncovered better solutions and broadened your perspective. Perspective is a critical leadership skill.
In the 1950’s Benjamin Bloom created the ‘Taxonomy of Thinking’ which identified 6 levels of thinking ranked in order of increasing difficulty. The higher levels take practice.
Your brain is wired to conserve energy and find the simplest solution. Only you can choose to make it work harder.
And there is the risk of a nastier trap. If you only do the things that you think you are good at you run a risk of falling victim to what Carol Dweck calls a ‘fixed mindset’. This condition will actually see you subconsciously avoiding opportunities where you may have been challenged and grown, out of fear of looking less competent in the moment. Her work has shown some concerning consequences of fixed mindset compared to the alternative, growth mindset.
“You need different strengths to succeed in different circumstances” (increasingly senior roles, for example). This is generally far truer of competencies than of character, although Authentic leadership certainly brings character to the fore. There is also an argument that talents are innate and that self-awareness and/or changing circumstances will provide opportunities to leverage them.
My real message here is to be clear about how you think about strengths. Are you really talking about character, talent, competency or behaviour? There are great resources out there on any of these. Unfortunately, very few combine them and that is the great loss here. The real value lies at the intersection of them all. Imagine situations where you are able to apply your strongest talents in ways that resonate with who you are, as a person and fit the circumstances - this is where you will have experienced the state of ‘flow’, or optimal experience.
One final comment:
If you ever need to assess whether you are overusing any strength – talent or character - ask yourself this question:
When I use this strength, is it for the greater good … or primarily for me?
Your people need their people.
We are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of social connection in relation to our wellbeing. Connected, the 2009 book by Nicholas Christakis (Harvard) and James Fowler (UCSD) presents startling findings of wide-ranging health impacts, extending to three degrees of separation. Conversely, John Cacioppo (2009) has shown that loneliness has long term negative health impacts which are as significant as obesity, smoking or hypertension.
We are social animals.
It is easy for businesses to assume that an employee’s needs will be addressed by their manager, team, HR, perhaps even ‘buddy’ or mentor programs. The ‘organisation’ will take care of them.
Extensive research by Monica Higgins and Kathy Kram over many years has shown that is not enough; even more so, as people become increasingly mobile in their careers.
I believe businesses have a real and substantial opportunity to consider how they can actively encourage and support staff to assemble carefully considered “Developmental Networks” (Higgins & Kram). These networks consider primarily domains that will support an individual in the context of work-life: Leaders, Mentors, Peers, Direct Reports, Professional Associates and Personal Support System. The potential value of each of these domains is different – as are the likely members - and therefore a considered and informed approach to building and utilising this network delivers great benefits.
How many people do you know who consciously seek to construct such a robust and defined support network?
But I think it goes way further than this … because an informed and proactive person could do this, regardless of the employer.
Now, think about those (same) people in your business who always volunteer to run the work social club or arrange the year-end celebrations. Think about the discretionary effort and pride exhibited by these people – they are intrinsically motivated. To them, the task has meaning. They are drawn to it. It aligns to their personal values and their talents. They generally self-organize and exceed expectations.
It is hard work … but they love it.
How many ways does your business actively and consciously create opportunities for your staff to work with others, fueled by intrinsic motivation?
This approach should not be limited to those ‘nice to do’ or ‘feel good’ activities: it should occur within their roles and in support of organisation wide initiatives.
It should not be left to chance - it is a strategic imperative.
Supporting a culture which fuels the formation of complex and diverse employee networks pays dividends in terms of retention, engagement and performance.
It strengthens the DNA of your business.