Monday, October 31, 2020

Dealing with Distractions (Part 1)

One of the problems managers and leaders mention most often as a significant cause of stress and frustration is being distracted. If you're constantly diverted from your proper tasks, you may feel compelled to rush and cut corners as the only way to get back to what you should be doing.

Some of life's interruptions and distractions are just the way it goes. No one can be free from them, especially in a busy job. But there are others – often a surprising number – that occur because you either let them happen or invite them in. Let's start with some you can probably control, if you're disciplined about it.

It's odd that people schedule meetings and calls, but rarely schedule time to do the major elements of their work — what they're paid to do. Still less do they schedule time for reflection, considering decision choices or developing creative ideas. Schedule everything. Train your staff to treat scheduled working or reflecting time the same way as scheduled meetings. You must not be interrupted or bothered except in an emergency. Also schedule time when your door is open and you're ready to take calls and answer queries. If people try to break into your scheduled working time – and they will at first – politely explain your schedule and agree a time when they can get back to you. Ignore pleas like, "This will only take a moment," or "I'm here now." Stick to your schedule. When people see you're serious, most will get the message and cooperate.

Let everyone know there are times when you're not available by phone or email. Screen your calls. Better still, silence the phone – especially your cellphone – and let calls go to the message center. Check regularly (not too often) and deal only with truly urgent calls. Save the rest until your next scheduled "contactable" time. If your computer beeps or dings when emails arrive, stop it. Ignore emails until you're ready to deal with them. Not only will people quickly learn when you can be contacted and when you can't, they'll be prevented from contacting you the moment some thought hits them. You'll be surprised how many needs to contact you will evaporate in the time they're forced to wait, and how may people will solve their own problems while they're unable to pass them on to you.

The essential point is this: schedule everything and stick to your schedule except in true emergencies. Your task is to train your colleagues and subordinates not to come to you with every notion that happens to enter their minds. You want them to respect your schedule because they've learned you won't give up on it.

It will take a little time. Some will get the idea faster than others. Some will try to persuade or trick you into giving up. They find it convenient to be able to drop things on your desk at a moment's notice. But, eventually, nearly everyone will get into the habit of coming to you only at times you have set. As a result, you will have saved yourself multiple distractions and taught a valuable lesson in setting priorities.

In Part 2 of this short series, we'll look at the worst distractions and time wasters of modern organizations: cellphones, emails and meetings. Part 3 will begin to look at the dark side of distraction: how and why people encourage others to interrupt their work, while loudly complaining they have no time.

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Saturday, October 29, 2020

Right Perspective

Authors are always complaining about "short term thinking" and criticizing organizations for failing to take a "strategic viewpoint." This is mostly hogwash. If everyone walks about staring at the far horizon, they'll trip over their feet. Some demands are short term, and "strategic" is one of those buzzwords that has virtually no meaning left. Neither long-term nor short-term are better in themselves. What matters is being able to decide which is appropriate in a specific circumstance. We also need to restore some meaning to overused words like tactical and strategic. Forget about time scales and think instead about perspective and detail.

A key decision for Slow Leaders is to choose the correct amount of detail they need to be involved in. Getting this wrong causes waste of time and effort. If you need to be aware of fine detail, but you rush it and skim over only the broadest elements, chances are the project will go wrong. You'll not only have to go back over the detail you skimped, but it will take even longer because you'll also need to correct mistakes.

Of course, if you're the type who spends all your time down in the weeds on just about every job, you'll be overworked, harassed and hated by every subordinate. Part of showing trust is the readiness to stand back and let others get on with handling work for you. High-speed leaders typically stick to either the weeds or the mountain tops. They don't allow themselves time to choose the correct perspective. They're in too much of a rush. Habit takes the place of judgment.

The obsessive, "I know you can't do anything right without me" types hold everyone up while they insist on being involved with every detail. Since they're chronically overworked as a result, this can stop progress for days or weeks until they can get to it. Despite this, they work eighteen hour days checking and reworking what others have done before. Why? Because they're terrified they may not be needed if others believe they can do the work without them.

The prima donna, "I'm above all of that" types refuse to handle — or even show interest in — anything that smacks of detail. They wave it away with a handful of strategic position papers. Since they can't be bothered to understand what others need, their instructions are usually vague and laced with the latest jargon. No one knows what they want, so lots of futile work is done while subordinates try to guess. Why do they do this? Because they're obsessed with proving they're truly top executive material. Their actions, of course, prove the opposite, which is why they keep trying to maintain the strategic smokescreen.

Slow Leaders choose. They can handle detail or broad visions, as required. They take time to discover what others need to get the job done right. They check people know what to do, and have the information and resources they need, then let them get on with it. As a result, the work gets done right first time, saving everyone effort and stress. As so often, slow turns out to be the real fast.

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Friday, October 28, 2020

Right Balance

Despite all the books and articles about work and life balance, the problem seems to be getting worse. We have technology our grandparents — perhaps even our parents — would not have believed possible when they were young. In the developed world, we have the basis for universal education, advanced healthcare and enough wealth to pay for ordinary folk to take vacations to exotic places. Yet people still work dreadful hours and ruin their health, their relationships and their lives in the name of desirable employment. What on earth are we doing?

Humans aren't built to compete with computers in speed and data storage. Nor do they prosper through long hours and stressful occupations. Time is so mortgaged to work demands nothing is left for being human. Conversation seems as antique as gas lamps. Some families rarely, if ever, sit down to eat together at the same time. Instead of talking face-to-face, people send emails and text messages and chatter endlessly on cellphones, usually while doing something else "to save time."

Before machines, work was necessarily laborious and slow. Technology should have freed us from drudgery. Yet our technology doesn't take the strain, we do. Instead of using machines to lessen working hours and help us enjoy more of life, we work harder and longer to keep up with the machines. We produce greater wealth, only to spend it on consumer goods we have no time to enjoy, because we must produce or sell more consumer goods to create yet more wealth. We have more clothes than we can ever wear, more CDs than we can ever listen to, and less time than we had a decade ago. No one, it seems, spends wealth on greater leisure. Why are we running so fast, when the reward appears to be the opportunity to run even faster?

I can recall a time, no more than two or three decades ago, when it was firmly stated soon no one would need to work more than four hours a day. Governments fretted over how people might spend their extra leisure time. What happened? People work longer hours than ever. What's even more strange is that the people at the top of organizations usually work the longest hours of all. How did work become so valuable the rich and powerful want to keep more of it for themselves?

What's happening is that we're losing a sense of balance. Because we've become so accustomed to frantic haste and continual action, it's turned into a nasty habit — something you do without conscious thought. An action you take even when it's not needed, simply because … you always do that. At its worst, a habit becomes an addiction you can no longer leave alone. Without a sense of balance, such habits will take over your life.

Every plus needs a balancing minus. Each positive needs a negative. Yin and yang, left and right, forwards and backwards. Our bodies are miracles of balance between acidity and alkalinity, intake and exhaust, waking and sleeping, activity and rest. Sickness upsets the balance. Sometimes an upset balance causes sickness. If you lose the correct balance permanently, you die. Today, we overate work and underrate the rest of life. That's probably the reason for the increase in diseases related to stress, such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and some types of cancer.

Leadership is a delicate balance. You must walk the fine line between control and acceptance. Direction has to be balanced with encouragement and persuasion. Getting the work done and the targets met must be kept in balance with staff development and employee satisfaction. Go too far either way and results suffer. Hard driving leaders get short-term results at the cost of losing talented people. Strong people developers sometimes seem to be less interested in making the numbers than they should.

There is no simple answer to fit every situation. Getting it right takes time and reflection. Can you find the right balance on the run? Can you handle delicate choices when you're tired, stressed out, distracted and already shifting your attention to the next task?

Imagine riding a bicycle. If you go too slowly, you can't balance and you fall off. If you rush headlong downhill, going faster than you can handle, you'll likely crash and hurt yourself. There's always a right speed for keeping a safe balance, depending on the conditions, the bicycle and, above all, your skill, experience and level of attention.

Leadership is a lot tougher than riding a bicycle and takes a finer sense of balance. Don't ride it faster than is safe for you, unless you're ready for a nasty, possibly even fatal, fall.

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Thursday, October 27, 2020

Taking Control of Your Time

Here's a technique for dealing with the distraction of a horrendous to-do list, based on an idea from The Joy of Laziness: Why Life Is Better Slower — and How to Get There by Peter Axt and Michaela Axt-Gadermann.

Start by writing down all the tasks you have to get done, if you haven't done so already.

Take three marker pens: one red, one blue and one green. Mark each task according to this code:
  • Red means "must be done right away — now or sooner."

  • Blue means "really needs to be done today — tomorrow at the very latest."

  • Green means "can be postponed at least two days, maybe longer."

For all you workaholics let me stop you right there — just in case you've marked nearly every item on the list in red or blue. You have to take this exercise seriously, which means setting aside the "everything has to be done yesterday" BS and creating real priorities.

If you have fifty items on your list, no more than three should be marked with red and maybe six or seven in blue. You do the math to adjust this to whatever length of list you have (it's five percent and fifteen percent). Many people — maybe most — will have no red items. It's not true that we're all weighed down with tasks so urgent they can't wait 24 hours. That's just our love of drama and the sneaky wish to feel important. Let them go.

When you've got your list into some sensible ratio between the colors, start work on any red tasks — however awful, boring or frightening they are. The trick to keeping calm and balanced is simple: forget about all the complex planning. Work out what truly needs to be done next and do it. When it's done, repeat the procedure.

When you've done all the red items, start on the blue. Don't even think about any green ones until all the reds and blues are done. If any new tasks arrive, give them a color and put them on the list. Next morning, make a new list and reallocate the tasks into the colors.

So far, so good. But this technique has a second step.

After one week, take 15 minutes to go through the green items.
  • Cross all those that have solved themselves off the list. Do the same for those that you can now see were never important anyway. You'll be amazed how many there are.

  • Underline those you can remove by:

    • delegating them.

    • using technology, rather than your time and attention.

    • creating a routine for handling them so you can delegate or pass them to someone else.

  • Make a red item to deal with them right away by whatever means is appropriate.

Start your list again and revisit the green items in another week. Do the same weeding, only this time also remove any green items that have been on the list for more than seven days. If you haven't either done them or moved them into blue or red in that time, forget about them. They aren't going to get done, however long they stay on your to-do list.

If you stick to this set of actions, I guarantee that you'll get an amazing amount of work done; you'll always be focused on what's genuinely important and your to-do list will be a real one, not a resting place for failed intentions.

Try it.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2020

Right Attention

Fragmented, distracted attention is the curse of modern leadership. People find themselves continually interrupted by call, emails and all manner of people demanding instant attention. The result is frustration and exhaustion, while nothing is ever properly completed. Since how you direct your attention controls what you think and what you do, it's important always to know where you're placing your attention.

Your attention is precious. You have only a finite amount of it, so how you use it is important. Don't be tricked by all the nonsense about multitasking. Multitasking never adds to your attention. It's just a fashionable term to hide an ugly reality: that people who multitask fragment their attention between actions, passing each one off with less than it deserves.

Your attention is finite. You have only 100 percent. So if you split it between two actions, whatever you earmark to each one must add up to 100 percent. Split it evenly and each gets no more than 50 percent. Favor one task over the other and one gets maybe 60 or 70 percent and the other 30 to 40 percent. People who way they juggle four or five tasks at once, can't give any of them more than about 20 percent of attention. Ask yourself this question. What tasks can you do well on 10 to 20 percent attention or less?

We're already seeing how the fashion for instant availability by cellphone is causing road accidents. Every time some driver cuts me up or makes a dangerous manoever, I look to see if he or she has a cellphone jammed against an ear. Sure enough, most times that's the case. When some states and cities have to pass laws to force drivers to put the cellphone down while driving, you know something is badly out of line.

To practice Slow Leadership, the first step is to stop sleeping with the enemy. Don't collude with any practice that fragments your attention or prevents you using it as it needs to be used.
  • Control distractions. Make it clear you are not always available, save in a true emergency. Shut off the cellphone. Check emails only at set intervals. The world won't end.

  • Avoid multitasking like the plague it is. Take tasks in sequence and try to complete each (or reach a sensible point to pause) before moving to the next. Multitasking is a badge of stupidity, not a mark of toughness.

  • Pay attention to your attention. Learn to direct it where you want. Don't let it be hijacked by other people.

  • Set priorities and stick to them. Other people will always want attention instantly, but if you're patient in making it clear this isn't the norm, they'll get the message. Very few things truly cannot wait.

  • Schedule time for thinking and reflection. You need it. It's necessary to keep your mind working and your creativity available. Don't allow yourself to put it at the bottom of your agenda. You'll never reach it.

The first duty of a leader is to set priorities and manage resources. Your attention is the scarcest resource you have. Overwork and fatigue reduce the attention you have available. Interruptions and distractions fragment it into parcels too small to be useful. Allowing anyone to contact you at any time scatters what's left until it becomes lost and hopelessly confused.

Yes, there are pressures. Yes, other people do expect instant answers. Yes, people do keep piling more and more tasks on you. Yes, people who rush about yelling how busy they are often do seem to be the organization's darlings. And no, you can't blame any of these for your problem.

Whose attention is it? If you don't do what's right, who will? If enough people are willing to resist what has become a mindless fashion, maybe things will change. It's surely worth trying.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2020

When Ideas Come Together

Sometimes it seems unconected people share the same thoughts all at the same time. Over at Random Thoughts from a CTO, there's a great post about making sensible time priorities and cutting out anything that isn't bringin value to what you do.

It's exactly what Slow Leadership is about and I urge you to read it.
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Right Tempo

There is a correct speed for every activity. Some you need to do quickly, most you don't. Whatever tempo is the right one should be the tempo you choose. Getting the tempo wrong ruins the result.

If a piece of music is played too quickly or too slowly, the melody is spoiled. If a speaker talks too fast, the words become garbled. If too slow, the meaning is lost and the talk becomes boring. It's no different for the work leaders undertake. Rushing comes from habit and poor organization and leads to lowered quality and a sense of incompleteness. When you've rushed something, you know you haven't done it justice.

Choosing the right tempo is an important leadership skill. Outstanding leaders know when to move fast and when to wait on events. By rushing when it's inappropriate, poor leaders make bad decisions and unforced errors. By procrastinating when they need to act right away, they miss important opportunities.

Taking your time gives you the chance to reflect and consider a topic from many angles. When you rush through a task, you're forced into a one-dimensional perspective. There's no time to sit back and take different viewpoints. This is a severe disability. If you only allow yourself time to consider one way to approach an issue, how can you tell it's the right way?

The overemphasis on so-called industry best practice is a direct result of unnecessary haste. Faced with pressure to decide instantly, leaders naturally look for some way to offset the increased chances of making a poor choice and incurring blame for it. By turning to the most common and fashionable answers, they can at least claim what they did was what most people would have done, even if it turns out to be wholly unsuitable for their particular case.

Do you want an approved answer — or an answer that works? The difference probably lies in the time you allow yourself to decide.

Slow Leadership doesn't favor slowness for its own sake. In a world addicted to speed, it reminds people that doing some tasks correctly always takes time. Sometimes you need to wait to see how events will turn out before reaching a firm decision. Helping others learn always demands time and patience. So does weighing the choices. An organization that demands speed over accuracy is gambling with its money and its future. You may as well toss a coin.

Think about the right tempo for every task. When you find it, stick to it, regardless of the pressure to speed up. This is the first and most essential step to being in control of your time. Being a leader means setting out to control the way you use your time and the time of those who work for you, not letting external pressures control you.

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Monday, October 24, 2020

Hey, I Can Take It!

Read through these descriptions. How many of them would fit you?

  • I take work home most evenings and weekends.

  • I feel anxious if I'm out of touch with my people.That's why I always have my cellphone on.

  • I check my emails any time I have a spare moment.

  • The only way I can get any of my own work done is by going in early or leaving late.

  • The people who work for me don't seem to have much initiative. I have to keep pointing them in the right direction.

  • I am always in meetings. It irritates me, but you have to stay in the loop or decisions are made without your input.

  • Travel is part of the job. In my case, it's a major part. I'm probably away more than I'm home.

  • We're all rushed off our feet. I can't delegate. There's no one with the time to do more.

  • I'm always on the lookout for ways to do things faster or save myself some effort.

  • Making the numbers is what business is all about. You don't do that, you're not worth your pay.

  • I rarely get to take all my vacation. When I do, it takes me most of it to stop worrying what's going on back at work.

  • I feel best when I'm busy. I get anxious if I don't have lots to do and deadlines to meet.

If you said "yes" to nine or more of these descriptions, you're in serious workaholic doodah. Between six and nine is still pretty bad karma. The ideal answer would be none.

Speed and pressure are addictive. They set off brain chemicals that make you feel alert and alive. They give you a short-term high. Nature needed to make humans go all out sometimes. Maybe when a sabre-toothed tiger was about twenty feet behind, or some ugly cave guy was starting to lift his club. No point then in feeling slow, weak or passive.

Of course, you pay for it later, but in the caveman world that hardly mattered. You could sleep off the effects (if you survived). It didn't happen too often. Maybe you even got to brag about it.

Today's leaders operate on overdrive the whole time. If the pressure drops, they feel anxious. As soon as the high is gone, payment falls due. Quick! Grab some more pressure! Get another high. Restore what's come to feel normal.

The pressure is real. You can't simply turn it off. You aren't imagining it, but you don't have to make it worse either. "Taking it" isn't a badge of honor. After a while, it's a sign you've lost a sense of proportion — or worse.

The first and most important step in Slow Leadership is to stop sleeping with the enemy. Don't add to the pressure by inviting it in.

Breaking any addiction is tough. Cold turkey is painful and frightening. You'll maybe need help and support. But it's going to be worth it. There's no chance whatever of breaking the cycle of pressure and workaholic responses until you do.

What would you rather take? More of the same or the first step to a way out?

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Saturday, October 22, 2020

Managing The Work Ethic

The work ethic is a fact of corporate life. It's also a big part of Western culture, especially American culture. It's so highly valued that people believe something obtained through hard work is worth more than the same thing gained easily. Some of the magic of work and effort rubs off. Perhaps this is why there are crazy expectations of how hard it's necessary to work to be thought of as a hard-working person, especially a leader.

The Romans thought every one had a genius — a kind of innate allocation of ability and luck. Some people were blessed with the genius to be great leaders. The proof was simple: it came easily and naturally to them. If you had to struggle for something, that wasn't suitable for your genius. What would they have made of the modern notion that having to nearly kill yourself — and give up most other pleasures in life — is somehow required of anyone aspiring to a leadership position?

A willingness to work hard to get the outcome you want is admirable. But the work ethic, like all other values, can get out of control. When that happens, as it has in our society, it becomes obsessive. Instead of being a means to an end, it becomes an end in itself.

Slow Leadership is about finding ways to manage the work ethic for yourself and the people who work for you. To get it back in proportion. To recognize that sacrificing family time, leisure time and thinking time doesn't prove you're a better person. What kind of working life do you want? One that consumes every waking moment? Or one that's a natural part of a life that also contains fun, relaxation, time to spend with others, and time just to be alone and savor being alive.

Leaders have a special responsibility because what they do sets the standard for others. A workaholic boss usually means everyone in that team has to try to keep up. If the boss arrives at 6.00 am and stays past 8.00 pm, it's hard for others to keep the allocated office hours.

One approach to this problem has been the increase in people simply opting out. They give up corporate roles to start small businesses or work for a non-profit at half their previous pay. For them, it's usually a decision they believe is right. Few, if any, seek a return to corporate existence.

But is this "downsizing" the only way? What if you want to stay in the corporate world and still make a fundamental choice to get in better balance. Is this possible?

I believe it is. This web site is the place to discover how and share experiences with others on the same path.
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Tuesday, October 18, 2020


Welcome to the Slow Leadership site.

Leadership is a demanding activity. It takes intelligence, courage, determination and honesty. It also takes time. Time to consider the facts and reflect on what they mean. Time to search out alternatives. Time to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of each one. Time to reach a sound decision and make sure everyone concerned knows what they need to do.

Speed has become an almost universal assumption. Faster is better, we're told. From Fast Food to Instant Messaging, we're caught up in a world where immediate action drives out the possibility for reflection. We reach for instant answers, driven by constant pressure to do more in less time.

Slow Leadership is all about finding ways to take the time it needs to become the leader you want to be. Maybe some of the fear and frustration leaders feel comes from knowing they have no time to deal with difficult situations properly. That it’s better always to play safe because they know they can’t devote the time needed to handle tough situations properly. They mush choose quick, inadequate, but safe, and ignore slower, riskier, but ultimately better.

If speed is causing us to miss the mark and create a less satisfying working environment for everyone, leaders should get together and advocate a different approach.

That's “Slow Leadership:” showing leaders how to choose what needs to be done and give it whatever time it deserves.
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