By Liz Bywater, PhD
Today’s workers are constantly faced with too much to do and too little time in which to do it. From employees on the front lines to leaders in the C-Suite, the frenetic pace of business is taking a toll on workers’ productivity and personal health. A recent survey found that an alarming one in four employees feel burned out at work. The resulting psychological and physical problems associated with burned-out employees add up to $125 to $190 billion each year.
In our fast-paced world, everyone is under intense pressure to succeed at work. They face back-to-back meetings, nonstop emails and voice messages, pressing deadlines and the kind of excessive busyness that leads to a sense of overwhelm. And, at the end of a day of rushing, they’re left asking: “What did I actually accomplish?”
When you’re moving at breakneck speed, you’re not thriving — you’re just surviving. Until you learn to hit the brakes at crucial intervals, you’ll have little time to reflect on the hurdles in your way. Often, you go into autopilot without preemptively considering the pros, cons and implications of your decisions.
But when you teach yourself to pause and reflect before acting, you’ll make better decisions, achieve faster results and avert the kind of mistakes that take precious time, energy and political capital to correct. Even building in a modest 15-minute pause into your daily schedule can do wonders for gaining a competitive edge.
If you or your team have a project that requires your urgent attention — a client who needs your immediate help, a regulatory agency demanding rapid response or a sales target that cannot be missed — then your attention must go to those pressing priorities first. On the other hand, if you only attend to the here-and-now but neglect the bigger picture, you may do well enough for a while. But it’s unlikely you or your organization will thrive over time.
Taking a step back in your daily routine to thoughtfully reflect will allow you, your team and your organization to thrive in the following ways:
1. Developing a clear vision. Adjust your focus from near-term activities to the longer-term, more strategic view. This will allow you to become far more proactive than reactive. By taking your foot off the accelerator, you allow yourself time to assess your current situation, analyze challenges and consider opportunities from a variety of angles. For example:
Effectiveness of team – You’re able to take stock of the individual and collective performance of your team and determine whether you have the right people in the right roles.
Competition – You can evaluate whether you’ve gained an advantage over competitors or how to differentiate your business to increase market share.
Challenges – Unless you slow down to ask the question, “What’s holding me back?”, you’ll miss important opportunities for growth.
2. Creating a strategy for moving forward. It’s easy to become bogged down with fielding complaints and non-urgent issues. But it’s important to step out of the details and periodically re-evaluate whether the strategy you’ve developed is still on track to lead to a stellar outcome. Pause to ask yourself these questions:
Strategic priorities – How does a particular challenge or opportunity fit into your strategy?
Milestones – Are these the correct milestones? Are the timelines sound?
Team dynamics – What’s helping or hindering progress? What could mitigate the problem?
3. Better decision-making. On average, you make 3,500 decisions a day. Every one of them, large and small, takes up mental energy that can impact your effectiveness. Hasty decision-making, while moving too quickly, is bound to lead to mistakes. Repeated mistakes. Costly mistakes. Preventable mistakes. Better decision-making begins with refusing to be pulled into fire-fighting mode. Train yourself to slow down and fully assess the situation before deciding. Reflect on any important decision using the CIA framework: Control, Influence, Accept/Adapt.
Control – Ask yourself if this is a situation over which you have direct control. If so, what outcome do you want to achieve?
Influence – If you don’t have direct control, can you influence the decision or outcome? If so, how can you most effectively exert that influence?
Accept/Adapt – If you have neither control nor influence, can you accept the situation? What can you do to make it more palatable and positive? What must you do to adapt?
4. Prioritizing time allotted to stakeholders. With a finite amount of time to attend to everyone’s demands, create a Stakeholder Priority Plan. Think of all the stakeholders relevant to your success and assign each to one of three tiers:
Tier I – These are your most important stakeholders. Their support will help you rapidly progress. Conversely, their opposition will create major headaches. They are the people with whom you must closely align to move your agenda forward. Tier I stakeholders may include your manager, his or her manager and peers, your closest colleagues and leadership team. If you are the CEO, tier one includes members of the board. Important customers and clients are tier one.
Tier II – Tier II stakeholders are a moderately lower priority, but still important. They’re the people you must influence and with whom you must have a trusting relationship — but the urgency to do so is less intense. Tier II stakeholders may include the people who work for your direct reports. They may be colleagues in other areas with whom you need to collaborate. Some of your customers and clients will fall into this category, too.
Tier III – This tier consists of everyone else. Tier I and II get first dibs on your attention, but Tier III shouldn’t be ignored or dismissed. After all, you need to inspire and engage the entire organization. And, you never know when a small client account may turn into something big, so don’t neglect your Tier III customers.
5. Effective delegating. As a leader, you can’t allow yourself to continually get pulled into the details or become bogged down by day-to-day execution. Some things simply must be delegated. Before diving in yourself, ask the following:
Capacity/Interest – Who has the capacity for the work or has an interest in taking on the challenge?
Promising potential – Is a direct report ready for the opportunity to stretch and learn?
Suited for another team – Is this task best directed to a different department or team? (Be careful here: you don’t want to be viewed as someone who passes the buck.)
6. Improving communication. When you’re overly busy day after day, it can be difficult to keep all parties sufficiently informed and updated. But a lack of communication and coordination means mistakes are more easily made and relationships strained. Communication is particularly difficult given the intense reliance on email, with the average manager receiving more than 120 emails each day — and senior executives often facing 500-plus a day. Instead of spending precious hours clearing your inbox, train your staff to start the subject line of any email message with one of three headings:
Action – An immediate action/decision is needed
FYI – No response is required, but the content is something you should know
Talk – Coming to a resolution would be easier through a phone discussion
With this system in place, resolve to check email at specific times each day, rather than continually, to avoid constant distractions.
The consequences of rushing add up in missed opportunities or remaining mired in projects that don’t add real value. Rushing also leads to costly and preventable mistakes. Instead, give yourself the time to slow down and ponder the broader view.
Deliberately pausing to re-evaluate strategy, determine where you want to exert influence, decide where you can delegate, and prioritize where to focus attention will make it much easier to move forward thoughtfully, prevent needless mistakes, and ultimately succeed at work.
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Liz Bywater, PhD, works with senior executives and teams across an array of companies, such as Johnson & Johnson, Bristol-Myers Squibb, AmerisourceBergen and Nike. She brings a rapidly actionable framework for success, which is captured in her new book, Slow Down to Speed Up®: Lead, Succeed and Thrive in a 24/7 World. She writes a monthly column for Life Science Leader and provides expert commentary for the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, FierceCEO and other top media outlets. Learn more at lizbywater.com.