My team works in solving problems.
Whether we’re framing a business question, such as determining whether a major manufacturer would see a positive impact by investing in a social media presence for a given brand, or an organizational need, such as creating a roadmap to stabilize Analytics and measurement throughout the business unit, we’re always aiming towards solving for an outcome. Solving problems requires time — good, quality down-time. You know what I’m talking about: Headphones on, your favorite music jamming, and getting into that focused flow state.
At the same time, my team works in advertising. For those of you who don’t, what that means is constant opportunity, constant shifting priorities, and a constant sense of urgency. And as we become more experienced, we’re each confronted with the expanding list of responsibilities we’ve won for ourselves. That list includes managing execution, managing customer success, and managing growth.
The educational reformer and philosopher John Dewey once said, “We don’t learn from experience; we learn from reflecting on experience.” Doesn’t that feel true? To be our best, we must preserve our time to reflect and, if necessary, execute on important ideas.
Yesterday, one of my team members came to me and said it had happened again — there are too many emails, too many conversations and opportunities, to focus on solving a problem. Getting time to focus is becoming a rarer and rarer occurrence. It’s getting harder and harder for him to even know what’s most important to do first, he said.
For me as a team lead, comments like this present a serious problem. Put simply, if we’re struggling to find our priorities and struggling to find our time to think, we’re struggling to find our power.
The unfortunate cost of being good at what you do is that you get more of what you’re good at, to do. And to be good at what you do, you need time to think. And therein lies the problem — more great problems to solve for, with less time to solve them in.
So what’s the best next step? How can we preserve our biggest asset–our minds — while managing the steady flow of demands on our attention and time? My teammate and I have set up a meeting to chat this through, and this is what I’m going to tell him:
- USE THE MORNING
The early part of the day is when we are all freshest. What looks and feels dire at night feels much more straightforward in the early part of the day. The added bonus of using your mornings is that you can shut off your email, Slack, Teams, and texts.
To use the morning best, get clear on what you’re doing that requires real focus–that requires 100% of you. Give yourself at least 2 hours of you-time*, and stick to that, even if it means going to bed earlier. Your quality of life will improve. I guarantee it.
2. LEARN TO KNOW WHEN YOU’RE TIRED, AND END THE DAY WHEN YOU’RE TIRED
Since so many of us work at home these days, we’re constantly looking at a screen and chatting on our phones, pacing in our living rooms or outside on our lawns or sidewalks. It can be difficult to discern when it’s time to shut down.
This is unacceptable. We’re living in a disembodied age, but it’s imperative that we stay connected to the signals our bodies send. Learn what tired means for you, and accept it. Yes, there will be days when you need to bring your A-game and work while exhausted. But you train for that day–you don’t let that type of day become your norm.
3. LEARN TO COMMUNICATE ABOUT YOUR AVAILABILITY, LEARN TO USE YOUR TEAM
A simple auto-message saying “Hi, I’m offline at this time. I’ll be back on in the afternoon and will be reading and replying to emails then. If this is urgent, reach out to Jane Doe,” can really work wonders for your attitude.
Just make sure Jane Doe knows, and make sure to return the favor when she needs time to focus and execute.
4. CREATE YOUR OWN SENSE OF WHAT’S PRIORITY, HAVE A POV ON IT, AND STICK TO IT
It’s very common to inherit a sense of urgency from the people we’re working with — managers, clients, and even spirited co-workers. But by not making choices about whether or not we agree on a given urgent need, and not making choices about whether that urgency makes sense to us, we risk getting drowned and losing our center.
If you’re smart (and you probably are), your time and thinking is incredibly valuable. You’re the steward of your time. What’s urgent for you needs to come from you. Take it seriously. Every day, make a What’s Needed list. What is truly needed from the day? Figure it out, and protect it by communicating about your availability.
When I meet with my team member, I’m going to challenge him to Use the Morning, Create His Own Sense of What’s Priority, Communicate About His Availability, and Know When He’s Tired.
These are techniques I use myself to make sure I’m keeping my head above water, flourishing, and moving forward.
*I am writing this as a childless middle-class person in the urban US. I recognize the inherent privilege in calling for 2 hours of time. That’s why it’s even more critical that those of us who do have the luxury of time, use it and use it well for the benefit of ourselves and others around us.