by Jesse Newton, author of “Simplify Work: Crushing Complexity to Liberate Innovation, Productivity, and Engagement“
We live highly cluttered lives, have become addicted to checking our phones, are too responsive to interruptions, and do not nurture, protect, and direct our most productive energy. We experience a constant stream of interruptions. We have phones that vibrate or ping anytime we receive a new email, a calendar invite or reminder, a LinkedIn or Facebook update, or a notification from the plethora of apps that want to keep us engaged. These disruptions break our focus and reduce our ability to think deeply. But we don’t seem to mind. We are now so addicted to checking our phones every few minutes that if we are away from them for any extended period of time, we suffer withdrawal. According to one publication, we check our phones well over 100 times per day and up to every six seconds in the evening.
If we’re working on our computer, we have instant messaging popping up at random times breaking our focus. We have multiple programs open at the same time and seem to click back and forth between them endlessly. We have the browser open with multiple pages up at the same time. We make it too easy to get distracted and pulled from the work that matters.
We allow our calendars to be booked back to back with meetings on every topic imaginable. Our global teams demand an always-on mentality, and that’s what we give them. We do not recognize when we do our best work and religiously protect this time to focus it on what matters most. And we don’t let ourselves recharge our batteries when we’re not doing work, thereby increasing the speed of burnout and generally limiting our potential.
It’s time we took a step back and simplified our complex lives. Here are three steps you can take to do this:
- Get Clear on What is Truly Most Important
- Plan Effectively
- Manage Your Energy
1. Get Clear on What is Truly Most Important.
One of the major issues with highly complex lives is that we become highly reactive and we lose focus on what is most important. Your time is spent on relatively lower-value activities as you get caught up reacting to requests or the latest issue. Your ability to make a big impact on the most important stuff is diminished, and it can seem hard to break free from it. Getting clear on what is most important, those things that will deliver the greatest impact on your highest priorities, will allow you to free yourself from the chains of reactive working and take control over your time and focus.
Take some time to answer the following questions:
- What are you biggest objectives this year?
- What are the activities that will have the biggest impact on you realizing these objectives?
- How can you spend more time doing these activities?
- How can you remove or redesign the low value stuff that gets in the way?
2. Plan Effectively.
Effective planning can serve to keep you focused on what matters most, both professionally and personally. It breaks down how top goals will be achieved and carves out time to be spent on personal priorities like family and health. But it requires discipline to stick with the cadence and not get pulled away from the structure.
You can break down your planning process into annually, quarterly, and weekly. The planning process begins with an annual plan. This is obviously very macro as you formulate the broad objectives for the year ahead. An important strategy with annual planning is to start by melding your professional and personal goals so you have a comprehensive view of your goals. I think of the traditional “balanced scorecard” that some companies use to broaden how they measure the performance of their business. In using this method to meld professional and personal goals you can distill and combine goals to establish a broader view, such as:
- Professional: Launch the Organization Effectiveness Center of Excellence.
- Health: Complete a triathlon. Attend touch rugby nationals competition.
- Family: Establish Sunday as a family day. Take girls to school twice a week.
- Relationships: Establish weekly date night with wife.
- Finance: Save x amount of money
Annual goals should be broken down into quarterly objectives. Quarterly planning enables focus to be retained on what is most important for you, professionally and personally. The output of this level of planning should drive the next level of planning: weekly planning. At the end or the beginning of each week take time to set a few specific objectives for the week ahead. With your quarterly goals in mind, craft a list of specific actionable goals.
Once you have your weekly goals, you need to plan your week around achieving them. This is where your calendar plays an integral role. You should be living by your calendar. You should hold sacred the time you carve out in your calendar for each activity or commitment.
3. Manage Our Energy.
Mindfulness is a buzzword that has become quite popular over the past few years. Being mindful is essentially being present in the moment, not focused on what is coming up, like a critical corporate event or a vacation. Being in the present enables clarity of mind and reduces stress and anxiety for things that have not yet happened. It also encourages appreciation of the now, which is a major driver of happiness.
Meditation is a great exercise for being mindful and fully aware in the moment, and it is increasingly being used in the corporate world. Just practice sitting still in a preferably quiet place and direct your focus to your breath. Straighten your back, relax your shoulders and your face, and keep focusing on your breath. Actively let all of the noise in the front of your brain quiet, and let go of all the things on your to-do list and any concerns you may have. If your mind drifts and you start to think about an email you need to write, bring it back to the present. If you have no experience meditating, you’ll likely find it very difficult to keep your focus on your breath and the present, but the more you bring it back and focus on quieting your brain, the more you’ll slip into deep meditation. Only a few minutes in a meditative state is hugely energizing. When you emerge from only five minutes of meditating, you’ll find that your perspective has shifted. You’re no longer mentally grappling with all the things that need to get done and you now have a quiet recognition of the bigger picture. This exercise to get to a mindful state can easily be done at your desk or on a lunchtime walk and is a highly effective way of recharging your energy as well as simplifying the seeming complexity of all your to-dos.
In this day and age the opportunity to simplify our lives is significant. By getting clear on what’s truly important, planning effectively and managing our energy we can build the skills and discipline to simplify our world, get a handle on complexity, and take control of our productive capacity.
Jesse Newton is the author of “Simplify Work: Crushing Complexity to Liberate Innovation, Productivity, and Engagement“. He is the founder and CEO of Simplify Work; a global management consulting firm that helps organizations throw off the shackles of debilitating complexity and reignite top performance.