Better Than Busy

A few weeks ago a colleague at work stopped me during my lunch break to thank me for the contributions I make to our workplace. It was a nice moment. It is always nice to receive simple, honest validation from someone who understands and appreciates what you do. Still, I am a little bit haunted by the way he phrased the compliment. “Man, you are the busiest guy I know. You are everywhere doing everything.” Those words, simple and specific, sat on top of my own observation that, more often than not, my own team had started to apologize before talking to me. I started hearing things like “I’m sorry to bother you” and “I know you probably don’t have time for this right now” and “Its important but it can wait if you need.” This is code for, you’ve got yourself buried behind a barricade of work. We know you’re in there and just want to acknowledge that we can still see you.”

I used to admire super-busy people as exemplars of drive, ambition and stamina. Now that I have become one of those people, I feel a bit sorry for us. I can’t help thinking that extreme busyness is a symptom of some larger disorder. That busy people aren’t necessarily more productive, and that many of us are just incapable of proper prioritization or effective delegation.

I like to be busy. I like to work hard. I like to push my limits and practice with stamina and determination. These are virtues. Still, I can’t help feeling as if I have fallen into the busyness trap, substituting energy and effort for clear, specific results. I am reading Jim Collin’s Good to Great and working again with the idea of a Stop Doing List, an exercise in clarity by cutting away at things that don’t really need or deserve my attention.

I am also working with the idea that 21st century leaders, above all else, will be rewarded for their ability to bring clarity of focus to the people on their team. Helping others find and sustain clarity of focus requires strong relationships. Clarity of focus gets developed and shaped over time. This kind of leadership only happens when the leader slows down, models relentless discipline of focus and helps the team connect to their own purpose, their own intention and their own drive. This is the kind of leader I aspire to become. I don’t want to keep being the guy who is everywhere doing everything. I want to be the guy who connects everyone to what needs doing. This kind of  leader is still a busy person, but the pace is controlled, the focus is clear and everyone travels together. That’s a better way to be.

Less time managing time = more time getting things done

I’m that guy who believes there is some secret trick or some special technology waiting just around the corner that will unleash my full ability to work smarter, faster and better. I follow blogs about productivity and tweet using the #productivity hashtag. That’s right. I’m that guy.

That’s why, from time to time, I require simple, straightforward reminders like this one from Anthony Iannarino at The Sales Blog. Managing time isn’t hard. We all manage our time. We manage our time according to our priorities. Getting our priorities to line up with our best interests more difficult. That’s called managing yourself. When you manage your priorities well, time is not really a problem.

More thoughts on Bergman’s “Two Lists”

I’ve spent the day thinking more about Bergman’s “Two Lists You Should Look at Every Day” post and realize I took the easy way out yesterday. The focus list of things I want to achieve is kind of a no-brainer. Of course, it helps to have a list of things that inspire me and carry me forward. That first list helps me better define my own understanding of success.

The second list is essential but far more difficult. Few people, Bergman claims, ever make the second list. The second list isn’t just a list of unpleasant or unimportant distractions to be avoided. The second list is hard because it may well contain things that are important, things that are worthwhile priorities, but which, I am consciously choosing to avoid.

What Bergman is talking about here is opportunity cost. For every opportunity I follow up on, I am trading the time and energy I might have made available for some other worthwhile opportunity. This isn’t an easy choice between things I like and things I don’t like. The second list involves guts. The second list involves disappointing people, letting things go, admitting my limits.

This second list strikes me as a very powerful idea. It actually scares me a little. I can’t quite get my head around it. I know I have a hundred things that belong on that second list but I don’t know how to start naming them.

Here is the generosity of Bergman’s suggestion: this isn’t a facile proclamation of what I want to do and what I don’t want to do. This is a public admission that, even if my talents were unlimited (they are not), my time and energy are finite. I can’t do everything I want to do or think I should do. I have to pick and choose.

The second list is about being mindful of one’s limits to avoid the trap of constant reaction. Our mobile, hyper-informed, web-laden lives are brimming with opportunity costs. Activities, projects and notions call for more than our attention. They call for our time. We cannot give them time without sacrificing time from somewhere else.

All of this brings me back to an idea I picked up a few weeks ago about reactionary workflow, the idea that our use of information technologies only make us more productive if we can harness them mindfully to accomplish specific things we wish to accomplish. Otherwise, we spend all our time reacting to other people’s agendas.

Success is spending time making the things you care most about. I’ve got to make these lists. I’m just not sure how to start.

Two Lists You Should Look at Every Morning by Peter Bergman

So, every now and then the universe throws a reminder flag and tells you to slow down and take a look. Today, that flag was “Two Lists You Should Look at Every Morning” by Peter Bergman.

Bergman reminds me that disciplined focus and mindfulness are more worth cultivating than simple information gathering and fast acting information reflexes.

There is skill in being able to define for yourself what kinds of activities are going to get your attention. How very much more powerful and useful to also be able to define for yourself what kinds of activities are not going to get your attention. It helps to call to mind the things that typically distract you and prepare yourself to move beyond those things.

I haven’t built my two lists yet. It does, however, call to mind my earlier post about the Stop Doing List, a mindfulness practice which I have not well-maintained.

Ah well. It’s a new week with new opportunities to do things differently or not do them differently.

A fate worse than procrastination

I sometimes don’t accomplish the things I intend to accomplish in a timely manner. Standing on the outside, I can see how it might appear that I am an inveterate procrastinator. But procrastinators are often seeking fun diversions to keep themselves from doing the serious, un-fun work at hand. That’s just not me.

I rarely take more than a 20 minute lunch break. I often forget to take breaks at all. I usually get to work around 7:30am and leave around 5pm. I have had very few days when my serious, important work felt un-fun. I enjoy working. I like being productive and getting things done.

So what’s the problem?

It isn’t procrastination. It isn’t fun-seeking distraction. I am trying to accomplish too much in one day. I start my day with unrealistic expectations of how much I can accomplish and occasionally bruise myself trying.

The problem isn’t doing too little. My problem is attempting to do too much.

In the spirit of my Stop Doing list, I am (for the moment) no longer using the to-do list productivity app on my iPad. Using it, I feel like I am drowning in my list of things to do.

Instead, each morning I jot down the items on my iPad list that need the day’s attention. By “jot down”, I mean on actual paper. **gasp** Beside each task I estimate how much time the activity should take. And then I number the tasks in order of need and get to work. So far, so good.

Epiphany #1: I am not really good at estimating how much time something is going to take.

Epiphany #2: You only get points for not being a procrastinator if you are actually accomplishing what you set out to accomplish. It doesn’t matter if the problem is too little effort or too much. The end result is the same.

The wisdom of not doing things, differently

I’m one of those people who enjoys New Year’s Eve. I like the whole self-reflection thing, and I’m a sucker for the idea that Things Are Going to Be Better Next Year. I’m pretty much made for the New Year’s experience. I love making lists and am constantly doing a mental self-inventory of things I might improve about myself.

Several of my friends are posting new years resolutions to Facebook. One has gone so far to post a pretty honest self-critique to Facebook in hopes of spurring personal change.

I think that’s great, but I don’t do New Year’s resolutions anymore. I don’t blame people who do. I just don’t. They don’t work for me. For me, it simply isn’t possible to intentionally create a new habit from force of will and start on January 1 to make it clean start date. I have never had success intentionally adding a new behavior to my catalog of habitual acts and/or modes of thought.

But I came across an idea that needs sharing. The idea is this: You aren’t a bad person. In fact, there’s a great deal about you that is pretty terrific. You have gifts, talents and abilities that people need, admire and respect. You have lots of habits that serve you well and carry you toward excellence.

If you aren’t as excellent as you believe you need to be, it probably isn’t because of something you aren’t doing. It is very possible that you are being hindered by something you are doing. It is much easier to stop doing something old than it is to start doing something brand new. So, instead of making a list of new things you are going to do to improve, make a list of things you intend to stop doing.

This isn’t a resolutions list. This isn’t a list of new behaviors to start. It is a list of old behaviors to stop. Stop doing those things that interfere with your basic excellence. Keep this list with you. Add to it. Consult it often. Ask people who care about you to help you remind yourself when you do something on your stop doing list. You will succeed. You will uncover more of the excellence that is already there.

A few items from my personal Stop Doing list:

  • Stop explaining yourself to others unless they ask for an explanation.
  • Stop being vague when being direct would serve someone better.
  • Stop avoiding unpleasant conversations.
  • Stop assuming that the current situation is the best possible situation.
  • Stop interrupting.

Feel free to tell me how I’m doing with any of these at any time.

Happy New Year.