You and I are exceedingly busy, which is what we have been working for, right? There are multiple projects in the works, urgent timelines approaching, a few fires burning, and important meetings to attend. Perhaps one of the upcoming meetings has the potential for a breakthrough which could be huge for the team. There are endless emails to send and a list of follow-up phone calls to complete. This is business. There is simply lots to do – a virtual tsunami of opportunity.

The problem with the tsunami is that it keeps you and me buried in the business with little time to think about working on the business. Much of our valuable time is dedicated to doing, and very little is devoted to thinking. However, there is hope. If we can just get through these next 30 to 60 days, past the big meetings and across a couple of finish lines, there will be relief. In just two short months, there will be the space we need to reflect on where we are, what we’ve accomplished, and where we go from here.

Or not.

That spaciousness we see from where we sit today won’t be there as we approach the horizon.  It will be gone; it’s a time mirage. In place of the spaciousness we envisioned, there will be new urgencies, new fires burning, a few surprises, and nothing resembling the relief we envisioned. We’ve been duped.

The time we see will not materialize unless you and I take active steps to tame the tsunami. This is so because, in the words of Terry Pratchett, chaos is found in greatest abundance wherever order is sought. Chaos always defeats order, because it’s better organized.  A funny thought, yet one that is  painfully true.

As you and I struggle to fight the tsunami so we can get to the calm space we need for thinking and planning, the natural order of the universe conspires against us. If we are to reclaim time, we must do so proactively.  Meg Wheatley has an insightful reflection on the necessity of creating time to think – words that apply to both our business and personal lives:

 But don’t expect anybody to give you this time. You will have to claim it for yourself.  No one will give it to you because thinking is always dangerous to the status quo.

Those benefiting from the present system have no interest in your new ideas. In fact, your thinking is a threat to them. The moment you start thinking, you’ll want to change something. You’ll disturb the current situation. We can’t expect those few who are well-served by the current reality to give us time to think. If we want anything to change, we are the ones who have to reclaim time to think.

In other words, you and I must act on our own behalf to create the time and space we need to have the impact we want to have on our work or our world. We must reclaim time. If we don’t, the time mirage will be an ever-present illusion that will cause us to delay our most important work in service to the current fire. Ironically, it’s the fire that will ultimately burn us out.

You and I can each find our own way to reclaim time. For me, there are three counterbalancing beliefs that have served as a mantra to create space in which to think about and do My Work. Here is how I have approached the time mirage and worked to reclaim the time.

1. To gain flexibility, keep a rigid schedule

Over the years, I have tried one time management system after another. In each case, there was promise and no shortage of good ideas. Still, the time management system you and I should use is the one that suits us best – the one that works for us. In my case, advice from Dan Sullivan, The Strategic Coach, has been most helpful. The system defines three types of days: Free Days, Buffer Days and Focus Days.

Free Days

In short, Free Days are totally unencumbered. They are intended to rejuvenate, to create time for doing things we love, or to allow us to do very little at all. While I’ve always intended to implement these unencumbered days in my own approach to work life balance, being more thoughtful and deliberate about planning them within the context of this system has been most effective for me.

Buffer Days

I see Buffer Days as time to do the back office work: the work that can sometimes be ignored or often serves as the busy work that allows for procrastination by doing something rather than doing real work. While the administrative work needs attention, by putting it in its place during the week, I know the time is set aside and that I can stay present more easily by being rigid about my schedule and doing buffer work on buffer day. Buffer Day always precedes Free Day, which is the magic for me. By clearing the deck of the busy work, Free Day becomes more free.  

Focus Days

Focus Days are time to put on your game face. Having cleared the deck 48 hours before on Buffer Day and having spent the last 24 hours unencumbered, I am rested and energized to focus my attention on doing the work that sustains me emotionally and economically. I have found that by seeing discipline as a commitment to this scheduling pattern, rather than the need to grind day in and day out, my work on Focus Day is much more focused and therefore more productive. I feel better overall as a result. For me, the weekly pattern is:

 

SUNDAYMONDAYTUESDAYWEDNESDAYTHURSDAYFRIDAYSATURDAY
Free DayFocus DayBuffer DayFree DayFocus DayFocus DayBuffer Day

 

My week consists of five work days and two free days. However, as I refine my business patterns, I plan to transition to four work days and three free days. For me, four work/ three free is the blend that will improve my work and my life.

2. To make more progress sooner, slow down and do less

In his book, Focus, Al Ries relays a helpful analogy that goes like this: The sun has a billion kilowatts of energy. Still, the worst that can happen is a sunburn – a little sunscreen will help. By contrast, a laser beam has only a few kilowatts of energy, yet can cut through steel. You and I are more like laser beams than we are like the sun. We have only a limited amount of energy to spend each day, week, year, an so on. If we succumb to the tsunami of useful ideas that come at us day in and day out, if we try to boil the ocean, we’ll spin our wheels. However, by focusing on our vital few priorities – three to seven  at the most – we can slow down, focus our attention, and gain the traction that will speed our progress.

In his book, Traction, Gino Wickman calls these three to seven top priorities Rocks, and advises that we think in 90 day time-frames where we focus our attention on pushing the Rocks over the goal.

The reason to limit Rocks to three to seven is that you are going to break the habit of focusing on everything at once. It simply can’t be done. By limiting priorities, you can focus on what is most important. With the intensity of focusing on a limited number of Rocks, you will accomplish more. When everything is important, nothing is.

Once we embrace this simple concept – less is more – we will be able to adopt the laser focus needed to drive the results we want. Stay focused; do less, better.

 

3. To have greater influence, elevate others

As leaders, you and I cannot motivate others. What we can do is to create the conditions within which others are motivated to do their best work. This is neither nuance nor a play on words. The growth and development of others is the primary role of any leader. In the early business school textbooks, management was often defined as getting things done through other people. While the early methods may have been about command and control, thankfully, our world is now about inclusion. There are many timeless principles gifted to us by our most influential thought leaders. For example, Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey gave us Situational Leadership. Written in the mid 1970’s, it’s still current.

In essence, Situational Leadership (SL) advises the leader to diagnose where the follower is on his or her developmental curve. The diagnosis of the follower is based upon the degree to which the follower is competent and committed to the role or task at hand. Blanchard and Hersey define four levels of development along the developmental curve, referring to them as:

  • Enthusiastic Beginner
  • Disillusioned learner
  • Reluctant Contributor
  • Peak Performer

When the leader provides the right blend of direction and support at the right time, the follower advances along the curve. Importantly, it is incumbent upon the leader to work with the follower to determine where the follower is on the curve, and, to meet them where they are on that curve. Leadership is something you do with people; not to people, is the mantra.

SL is, at its root, a relationship-centered model where both the leader and the follower benefit from its application. The follower climbs the developmental curve toward increasingly challenging and meaningful work, while the leader has less time and energy devoted to developmental work as the followers progress. Through thoughtful, personalized work by the leader, both individual team members and the team as a whole elevate their work.

What does this have to do with the time mirage? You and I cannot do it all. In fact, as I have worked through a 35-year career in leadership, there is one truth that has been consistent. When asked about the accomplishment in their professional lives that make them most proud, I’ve not heard a single leader say, I did this great thing. Every leader recounts a time, an event, an accomplishment that took the time and energy of a team working together to get good work done. A cohesive team amplifies the outcome and the reward.

To close, I’ve provided a summary of the fallacies of the time mirage and a few counterbalancing beliefs that have helped me to tame the tsunami. This mindset is my way of reclaiming the time I need to work on my business, to make more progress and to help my colleagues along the way. I hope my thoughts have been helpful to you.

 

TIME MIRAGE FALLACYCOUNTERBALANCING BELIEF
Productivity is about resources & response timeTo move with agility, keep a rigid schedule
Progress requires that we boil the oceanTo make more progress sooner, slow down; do less
Success for us means ‘nose to the grindstone’To have greater influence, elevate others