October 2018

A well-worn cliché. Worn for a reason.

Everything old becomes new again.

If you took a class on time management 20 years ago, chances are they taught you about prioritization, and they taught you about batching.

Then the internet arrived. Social media. Information glut. Just when we needed batching the most, our collective attention to batching flew out the window. The seductions were simply too great. Many of us fell into increasingly distracted lives.

More fractured, less productive.

Batching is the simple habit of performing like-minded tasks together instead of bouncing from one task to the next.

We live in a bouncing time. Mental bouncing, task bouncing. Enter Adam Grant, award-winning rock star author and the highest-rated professor at The Wharton School. In his terrific book “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World” Grand Central Publishing/2016), Cal Newport describes how the prolific Adam Grant batches his time.

Though Grant’s productivity depends on many factors, there’s one idea in particular that seems central to his method: the batching of hard but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches. Grant performs this batching at multiple levels. Within the year, he stacks his teaching into the fall semester, during which he can turn all of his attention to teaching his students. By batching his teaching in the fall, Grant can then turn his attention fully to research in the spring and summer … Grant also batches his work on a smaller time scale. Within a semester dedicated to research, he alternates between periods when his door is open to students and colleagues, and periods when he isolates himself to focus completely and without distraction on a single research task. (Deep Work, page 39)

Common-sense, isn’t it? And yet we forget. Here’s the very simple law of productivity:

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

Batching helps us get there. Let’s take a look at how you and I can better batch the basic tasks we perform every single day at work.

  1. Batch Your Writing Time

    When you have to create documents, write reports, craft power point presentations – any tasks involving the sustained written and/or visual creation of a product that requires a significant level of detail, nuance, and which may be subject to substantial scrutiny, batch these tasks. You will create momentum, get these tasks done faster, and enhance the quality of your output.

  1. Batch Your Talking Time

    When you have to attend multiple meetings or conduct a series of phone calls, whenever possible batch these tasks. Even though context and conversation partners will change, you will drop into a “conversational groove” where you engage with greater ease and more fluidity in every one of your conversations. The quality and outcomes of your conversations will notably improve.

  1. Batch Your Correspondence Time

    When you have to participate in lots of email correspondence, both sending and receiving – avoid the constant interruption of one task for the sake of checking emails or crafting instant responses to emails. Chances are, very few of your emails are true emergencies. Instead, batch your email reading and writing into a sensible cadence that suits you and your work duties. For some this may mean handling emails once every hour; for others it may mean handling emails only 3 times a day. Whatever your cadence – your choice to batch will add a higher degree of focus to both your email activities and all the other activities you don’t abandon for the sake of an email.

  1. Batch Social Media Time

    Checking social media can be a fun distraction, a quick way to switch out of an unenjoyable task, an instant way to chat with a friend, a short-cut to entering alternate realities. Most of the time, it is simply a willful distraction from a task at hand. Avoid the constant and impulsive checking of your social media streams. If you play in social media, batch your social media time. Every time we visit a social media site, we fill our minds with random and unfiltered information. We disrupt the focus on whatever task we happen to be engaged with. We tire our brain with the constant switching between task and distraction, task and distraction. Batching our social media time is a no-brainer. Batch it consistently, and you will instantly notice a heightened focus for everything else you’re doing.

Bonus suggestion: When you transition from one batch of activities to the next batch, give yourself a bit of rejuvenation time. 5 minutes will often do the trick. 5 minutes to help you shift gears. Not 5 minutes of distraction time – no, 5 minutes that calm, center, and help you to re-energize. 5 minutes of going for a walk. 5 minutes of having a healthy snack. 5 minutes of listening to music that energizes you. 5 minutes of doing nothing.

Sound easy? It’s not. In the midst of writing this simple article, the temptation to check my social media feeds and email messages, even on a Sunday afternoon, is relentless. The price of a distraction culture. You pay it, I pay it. Brutal.

Remember: High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

Batching works. It’s straightforward. More importantly, it frees us the moment we commit to it.

So, commit. And reap the rewards.

 1

I was aghast.

Watching Brett Kavanaugh conduct himself in front of the Judiciary Committee last Thursday. I’m not talking about Mr. Kavanaugh’s prepared remarks, startling as they were. No, his behavior while engaging with senators who were questioning him. Both in his choice of words and the involuntary body language.

Petulant, impatient, dismissive, petty, indignant.

Sorry, Mr. Kavanaugh. That’s not how a leader behaves when the stakes are high. When your messy emotions kick in. Not any time, ever.

It’s the behavior of an entitled brat who fears that all his entitlements will be taken away, says my friend David, like Mr. Kavanaugh a Yale Law School alum, as we watch the proceedings together on tv.

So nakedly un-leaderlike. So brazenly out of control.

I think of Serena Williams’ well-publicized outburst during her loss in the Final of this year’s US Open. I am in awe of Ms. Williams accomplishments and her athletic prowess. I applaud her for challenging the umpire when she felt that his calls were unfair. For suggesting there might be sexism at play. And then Ms. Williams’ rage got the best of her. She went on and on. And on. She couldn’t stop.

Emotion ran her. She paid a price for her high-stakes behavior.

I watched part of the wonderful HBO documentary “Being Serena” just days before the US Open Final. Filmed during Ms. Williams’ pregnancy, I was struck by the disarming clarity and honesty with which she articulated her anxiety: I had the fear that I can’t be the best mother and best tennis player in the world, Williams says.

Fear.

It gets a bad rap in current pop psychology. Folks like to label it a “bad” emotion. An unenlightened one. Dwell on fear and you will magnify it, so they say.

Hooey. Our anger is more often than not a mask for fear. Stuff it and ignore it, and it will boil up big time in a high-stakes situation. Be emotionally intelligent, please. Notice it. Own it. Dance with it.

Consider Christine Blasey Ford.

Afraid? She was terrified, by her own account. A professor and psychologist with an impressive professional pedigree, she teared up in her testimony – her voice cracking – but she did not openly cry or break down. She smiled. She pleaded for caffeine and joked about Google interns renting out her home.

Ford was emotional. And she managed her emotions. She cracked the high-stakes behavior code.

Women are walking a very fine line, says Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at Stanford who studies gender inequality. Too much or too little of something can lead people to discredit them. That so many people found Dr. Blasey Ford credible suggests that she was able to get across that tightrope and not fall off. (NY Times, 9/29/2018, page A17)

Mr. Kavanaugh displayed the wounded-little-boy code. Pouting, bullying, juvenile temper tantrums. Sorry, Mr. Kavanaugh. No. Not ever. Not leadership behavior under any circumstance, other current leadership examples notwithstanding.

If he were a woman we’d be questioning if she were unhinged, said Alicia Melendez, a correspondent for PBS, when describing Judge Kavanaugh’s behavior during his hearing,

Fear. Face it. Serena Williams got it right, even if her own behavior at the US Open showed how hard is to do just that.

Face it. Own it. Dance with it.

Retire the little boy code. Its time has come and gone. Want to act like a leader? Play a high-stakes game in the big leagues? Own your emotions, all of them. Know what you feel. Face it. Dance with it.

And stop lashing out.

That’s the high-stakes leadership code. Time for the little boys to grow up.

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