If I had to point to one thing that’s changed over the course of my career, it’s the degree of busy-ness that is encountered on a daily basis. People are late to meetings because they are just getting out of the previous meeting, and they will be late to the next meeting because it will start at the minute the meeting they are in ends. I am told regularly by managers and leaders that in addition to the time spent in the office, another two to three hours is required after work just to catch up on email. Unfortunately, too many people wear the amount of work they carry around like it’s a badge of honor. Guess what? It’s not a badge of honor. In fact, there’s no honor in it at all. What it is, in fact, is a symptom of a much larger leadership issue. I say this because I know leaders who haven’t succumbed and fallen into the trap. I count myself as one. And that, I wear as a badge of honor.
Twenty-five years or so ago, when I was an internal consultant for a large industrial supply company, I had some basic responsibilities. Teach classes, meet with internal customers to assess their needs, prepare for training, and follow-up post training to make sure the work met the needs of the customer. I would often times leave the office to visit a location and in my possession would be a 3-ring binder with the overhead slides I needed for whichever class I was teaching. There were no laptop computers or smart phones, so you didn’t even see an email you received until you were back in the office and logged back in to your computer. I was able to do the job, satisfy customer needs, mentor other trainers as an informal leader, and still have time to do research about subject matter and best practices regarding my profession. Now, before you accuse me of being a few minutes removed from yelling at kids to stay off my lawn, let me say that the basic requirements of someone doing that same job today have not changed. What has changed is how we choose to prioritize and attempt to react to all the outside distractions that bombard us on a regular basis.
So as a leader, how do you fix this dilemma before you drive yourself crazy? Here a few suggestions:
I recently finished Gary Keller’s book, The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results . Keller spends the entire book helping the reader understand that there is no such thing as multi-tasking, and that by trying to pretend that you can do it, you are causing yourself more harm than good. One of the great takeaways from the book is identifying what your ONE thing is each and every day. That one thing is the task or project that will help you the most with achieving a desired goal. Once you identify your one thing, you don’t do anything else until you have accomplished what you set for yourself. He even suggested posting reminders in your cube or office that say, “My one thing today is ____ and until it’s done, everything else is a distraction and unnecessary.”
This one applies to things like text messages, emails, etc. If you are the type of leader who is likely to fall into the trap of reacting to every email and text message that comes in, as it comes in, you have to take action to limit those distractions. Some are easy. Turn off any notification sounds on your computer or phone. This helps you avoid looking up and trying to read everything as it comes in. If that doesn’t work for you, set some harder boundaries for yourself. I know of several effective leaders who only open their email program 3 times per day. 8am, noon, and 4pm. Those are the only times they look at or respond to email, as those times are the times that give you the best results of your replies being seen.
Say no more often
I’d like to meet the software engineer who designed the feature in Outlook that allows people to arbitrarily place meetings on your calendar. I’d have a few things to chat about with that person. Unfortunately, many leaders believe that if something ends up on their calendar, they are obliged to go. Whether they need to be there or not. This leads to calendars being booked with back to back meetings from morning to night without a minute to grab a sandwich. You have to be assertive and take control of your calendar. Create blocks for everything that is important to you before others get a chance to fill your time. I block time for lunch, meeting with employees, research, planning, and whatever ends up being my one thing for the day. It works.
I think that if you can take control of any of these three things, you’ll be well on your way to a more satisfying leadership experience. After all, as a leader, people are counting on you to think big and solve big problems. Those things can’t happen if you are busy all the time.
P.S. – Writing this post was my ONE thing today.