Take back control
Visualise if you would, a frog happily swimming around in a pan full of water. The pan happens to be on a stove which is gradually heating up the water that the frog is swimming in. The frog has been happily getting used to the slowly increasing temperature and so it doesn’t jump out. The water eventually starts to simmer and by that time it’s too hot for the frog, it’s too late and we have a cooked frog. Now imagine dropping the live frog into the already boiling water, if its lucky the frog will immediately jump out as it wasn’t acclimatised to the temperature of the water. The frog has the time to spot the warning sign that the environment is not conducive to a long and healthy existence.
Without self-awareness and discipline, the life of the modern busy professional can at times seem like that of the frog. The rising water temperature is the pressure that builds up around them in a demanding workplace, steadily increasing so they have acclimatised and “don’t jump out”. An expectation has built that the work schedules in elite professional service firms should display an endless procession of back to back meetings or double and even triple booked time slots throughout the day. In their wonderful book “Not Doing”, Dianna Renner and Steven D’Souza describe the many ways in which a dysfunctional relationship with work builds up. In fact, the introduction by Margaret Heffernan sums it up
“…a leader must be busy.”
Schedules that consistently show days filled with back to back meetings, working longer hours than ever before, rarely completing the task list from the start of the day and the steady erosion of our workplace satisfaction are symptoms of loss of control over one of the most important things that we have, which is our time and hence our attention. Professional and elite sports men and women control their important boundaries such as training schedules and what they let enter their bodies and yet the same discipline and control over the workplace schedules does not occur.
Once gone, you don’t get time back and cannot replace it.
No one intentionally allows a situation like this to arise, where each day they face one meeting after another and struggle to find time to think, reflect and plan. It is often the result of successfully navigating the many hurdles and steps in a fast track career. Highly successful professionals have to that point always been able differentiate and exceed expectations by taking on more and more responsibility but at the same time rarely giving anything up. Feedback will often highlight the ability to juggle multiple high priorities and consistently deliver to a high standard. The career success so far and the feedback received reinforces the need to always be “doing” and rarely, if ever “thinking”. It is a common problem that aspiring leaders and high potential talent face but with self-awareness and discipline it can be straight-forward to fix.
Audit your calendar – carry out an audit of your typical weekly schedule. Colour code each meeting into a RED/AMBER/GREEN classification and you will be able to quickly see whether the important and/or interesting work (GREEN) is the majority of your time or the low priority, distractions, administrative type work (RED) is taking up too much of your scarce week. For a typical week, I would recommend restricting the RED tasks to at most 20% e.g. 2 hours per day for a 10-hour day or 1 day of a full working week. You won’t get this right the first time but stick with it as with practice you will see the difference. I am not advocating that you don’t do the RED tasks but simply that you should limit the amount you do each week so that you can focus on the GREEN and to a lesser extent AMBER priority.
Effective delegation – the transition from doer/operator to manager/leader is critical and it is common for new supervisors to struggle to delegate effectively often because the job can be done faster and better if they do it or their team are already very busy, so they won’t ask them to take on more. Giving new tasks and stretch assignments to team members is how they learn and how they grow (think growth mindset!). Communicating in an open and honest way with your subordinates, empowering them, and thinking about potential not past performance are key.
Prioritise and allow yourself to “say no” – we are all taught to “lead with a yes” which is a successful approach early on in our careers but at some point, there are too many balls in the air to successfully juggle them all. Prioritise, focus on the important stuff and separate the wheat from the chaff.
Discipline – as a leader you are accountable and responsible for where you spend your time and attention, own it and be disciplined about what you and your team focus on. Highly successful professionals will always attract more high-profile and high priority assignments and so the need for a disciplined approach is essential.