Have you ever noticed that when you get busy, things fall through the cracks? Have you ever “over prepared” for something or “had too much on your plate?” This common scenario for leaders popped up on a call between myself and one of the people I’m mentoring, whom we’ll call Cal. Recently Cal had to reschedule two of our meetings, which is a big red flag for me as a mentor. I wasn’t upset that he needed to reschedule. Life happens, but two in row means too much life is happening. If he’s rescheduling with his mentor, then what else is he not able to focus on?
The next day I was driving down the sunny Florida highway and was finally able to get Cal on the phone – he was practically out of breath. After exchanging pleasantries I asked, “Cal, what is going on? Either you have too much on your plate or you’re at the gym, and I called you at the office.”
He replied, “I’m fine. It’s a busy time of the year at the office, and I just need to get better at multitasking. My assistant is out for family leave, and I haven’t had time to interview the temp, and I have a stack of decisions waiting on me, and I’m trying to weed through the research to make sure I don’t send my teams down the wrong path. I’m going to work through lunch and cancel my other meetings this week and next to get caught up.”
What is Cal doing wrong?
We’re going to pause the story right there to see if you caught what Cal was doing wrong. You might say, “Cal gets an assistant? I don’t get an assistant, and I’m at least that busy.” Or, “Every leader has to make a lot of decisions,” or even, “Leadership comes with a lot of work and lot of hours. Why doesn’t Cal know that and know how to deal with it? Perhaps he’s not cut out for it?”
As his mentor, I heard different things. I feel a need to remind him about some of the rookie mistakes many leaders make. He was, in fact, making the most common leadership mistake – attempting to multi-task.
The Power of Delegation
Not many people are impactful leaders 10 hours a week and spent the rest of the week in leisure. Leading in any organization is a busy and demanding role. Leaders need to focus on what is most important and learn to delegate. This is something Cal and I have been working on. He has been improving, but I believe in this scenario, under extreme stress, he is holding on instead of letting go and asking for help.
I reminded him this needs to change today. We made a list of all the “busy things going on in the office” and who could help take them over. I challenged him to make those changes and assignments before the end of the day, being careful to make sure the team knows what he expects so they don’t work toward the wrong outcome. I talk specifically about outcomes and how important they are here. This has the double benefit of freeing Cal up while equipping, empowering and engaging the people on his staff.
How to Prioritize as a Leader
Don’t accept that putting off important things for other important, but more pressing things is just “how it is.” Why isn’t Cal prioritizing? Well, as a leader it’s difficult to tell people around you that their task doesn’t need your attention right away or even at all. That gets easier when you set priorities on what should be on your plate and what should not. When you do this, you’re less likely to make that critical leadership mistake.
Do this in conjunction with your team to make sure you have their perspective and aren’t operating autocratically. Leaders need to remain focused on serving. Cal needs to mercilessly prioritize and delegate his tasks that don’t require his full attention. I challenged him to make a list of his important items and break them into three sections:
#1 – Critical 24/48 hour response needed
These items require Cal to act on them quickly. For example, getting forward movement on his temporary assistant and making key business decisions.
#2 – Needs review and feedback
This includes business that is not moving forward because people are waiting on Cal’s insight. Only items which require his personal and professional insight should go in this pile.
#3 – Does not require Cals’ attention (easily delegated)
These can be cleared quickly. They go in the same list as the previous section. I told Cal to give these to his team with a quick note or a focus area that he’d like to see them act on.
Multi-tasking is a Myth
He, and others, may thing that he can solve all of these by being a better multi-tasker. This is likely the biggest myth in productivity and the biggest mistake a leader can make! There is no such thing as multi-tasking. This is something leaders without focus convince themselves passes for productivity. The problem here is that multi-tasking not only hurts your productivity, but it’s making you dumber.
Dr. JoAnn Deak, a noted educator and psychologist, talks extensively on this subject and reminds us that the human mind can only focus on three things at any given time. Working on many short-term tasks and jumping between them actually makes our brains lose their elasticity and capability for deeper thinking. So that analytical ability that got you into the job? Multitasking erodes that skill the more you do it!
Fifty years ago Dr. George Miller also noted that we can only process three multidimensional items in our brain’s channels at any given time. If this was true in the 50s without smartphones, then what are we doing to ourselves as leaders now? Dr. Miller’s research (and the research of others like Dr. Deak) credibly show that we are losing 15-30 IQ points when we multitask. In fact, the University of Sussex went so far as to report brain damage to certain parts of the brain. The research on what multi-tasking does to children is staggering.
I shudder when I think about the amount of time I spend trying to multi-task when I get busy before I remind myself to stop and prioritize. This is and other rookie mistakes here. We have only made it worse over time. I wake up thinking about 20 different things. I need to make an effort to shrink that down to a more manageable list of priorities. I make extensive list on a personal Kanban tool (KanbanFlow.com) to keep myself focused and on track. It works well for my team, too!
Research also shows people who multitask too often also have much lower social and emotional intelligence factors (EQ). I notice this when I interact with leaders in my organizations. The ones who are very “busy” often struggle to create deep meaningful impact.
3 Steps to Staying Focused and Getting Things Done
So how do we stop making the multi-tasking mistake. I can’t solve all your individual scenarios in one blog post but I can tell you some of the things I do to help me. There are many popular methods out there for prioritizing and focusing such as the “Getting Things Done” method. Many people find this successful. I’m often juggling initiatives for several organizations. My professional life, personal family life, and charitable time, together, result in a pretty busy life.
Step 1 – Use a tool to help keep you organized
I use Kanbanflow.com to help me keep things prioritized and in focus. You could start with post it notes, as long as you have a system. I like something I can keep handy on my phone to put things in whenever I think of them or have a meeting. Make sure you’re focusing on the highest return on leadership investment.
Step 2 – Reduce distractions
Email is the worst business productivity tool around. I only check my email three times a day (if I can help it). I have turned off the pop-up notifications on my devices for email and social media, and I tell all the important people in my life that for me email is not a form of critical communication. If it’s important make my phone ring or show up in person. Otherwise I’ll get to your items as soon as I can. I schedule work time for email and other items, and I don’t give up that time unless it truly is an emergency. That is my time to respond and serve those who need me, but didn’t need me urgently.
Step 3 – Delegate, delegate and delegate
I meet once a week with my direct reports to find opportunities for them to take things off my plate, which gives them new and interesting assignments and brings them closer to the business. I set due dates and define outcomes. Then, instead of managing the process from start to finish by myself, I remove roadblocks and remain strategic in my role, which allows more time for the priorities in my day.
Back to Cal. I closed my conversation with him by reminding him that to create something excellent, he needs to focus. No one ever multi-tasked something great into existence. “If you’re not after greatness either personally or professionally, then why did you get out of bed this morning?” I asked. He understood and was already summoning folks into his office to get our plan rolling. I’m excited to speak to him next week to see how he’s progressing. I know he’ll do great things with the time he’s going to get back!
How many things are you doing right now? Are you on a conference call and reading this? I appreciate you reading, but stop and come back later!
Where is multitasking hurting your focus?
Share it with us in the comments or on twitter @wadamj. I’ll have more on Cal in the future. He’s an amazing work in progress!
Until then – see you out there – Adam