Prioritise ‘til it hurts

13 March 2018 | Leaders and Leadership

So, you’re in the C Suite. Congratulations! I hope you’re loving it and enjoying all that makes being a senior leader great.

There’s one common problem for senior leaders. They have too much to do.

Do you find yourself habitually taking home more work than you want to in the evenings and at weekends? Are you busy every day, with hardly a moment to catch your breath, yet find it difficult to wade through the oceans of stuff to get to the things you need to do most? Is there a risk that the pressure of continuous busyness will turn from irritation to stress?

Now, I know you can cope. After all, you’ve proved that you’re resilient. It’s one of the attributes that got you into the C-suite in the first place. You can take the load, no matter what. Maybe you even enjoy it. However, being constantly overloaded is far from the optimum state for great performance and wellbeing. It’s probably more damaging than you think. For example, 1) having too much to do and too little time to do it is proven to shrink our brains through the activation of stress hormones. 2) the brain’s response to continuous overload is to lock-out the creative part of our brains. 3) our thoughts are the foundation of everything we achieve in life. We are best able to manage our thoughts when our mind is clear, calm and focused, not when our brains are overloaded.

Everyone responds differently to having too much to do. I know a few who have found a way to flourish in the busyness and stay in control. The world they inhabit is no less hectic than the world of every other senior leader. Yet, in that out-of-control world, they stay in control. They are the impressive few with clear desks, roomy calendars, and more time to think, to do and to learn. They have more time for others, giving people true attention when it’s needed, rather than providing the distracted attention of a frazzled mind.

How do they do it? Well, in my experience, each, in their own way, is a master of curation. They select and arrange what they do much better than the rest. They follow Dieter Ram’s principle ‘Weniger Aber Beset’ (‘Less But Better’) and it works – it’s like taking stuff out of an overstuffed drawer. Try it, it feels great.

To do it successfully requires 5 things:

1. Accept that the world is so frenetic that trying to do everything is a pipe-dream, and trying to do everything well is just a ridiculous fantasy.

2. Know that effective curation is the new senior leader imperative (curation is the best umbrella term we have for how we select and then arrange what makes up our professional lives). On the basis that we can’t do everything well, curation is the tool that best enables us to get to Less But Better.

3. Declutter, and then declutter some more. Get rid of stuff - the flotsam and jetsam that clogs up your desk, your drawers, your inbox, your filing, your calendar, etc., etc. And then do it again, because you probably won’t have gone far enough the first time.

4. Prioritise ‘til it hurts. Work out what only you can do. Then add the additional critical few things that you choose to do to define your personal brand. And get rid of or reduce everything else by elimination, automation, simplification or re-allocation/delegation.

However, there’s a problem with all of that. It’s almost impossible for you to have the crystal clear objectivity you need to see what only you can do, to choose precisely your critical few and to jettison the rest. It’s akin to being an author. Authors don’t much like their editors, but they understand that the job they do is critically important. The editor’s job is to ‘kill the author’s darlings’ i.e. to get rid of the things that the author loves the most but are not, in truth, adding value. The great editors’ value is in what they take away from an author’s work. Editors get their hands dirty, they get out their red pens and go to work on the author’s work, they are robust provocateurs in the journey to less but better So:

5. Hire yourself an editor to help you curate your professional life. A great coach will fit the bill, so long as they are skilled enough and prepared to get their hands dirty by working with you, hands-on, to clear the clutter and kill your darlings.

If you’re interested here are 3 publications that might help:

  • Greg McKeown: Essentialism - The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.
  • Curation – the power of selection in a world of excess. Michael Bhaskar
  • The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying. Marie Kondo

Author: Oliver Johnston who partners with hpc in Ireland to develop leaders and their teams.

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