Self-Management

First time I had a 9-5 job, on the heels of a showbiz career that came with a more mercurial schedule, I was stumped. I wondered, how did people function between 3 and 5 in the afternoon? By mid-afternoon I was spent; I merely faked my way to the end of the day.

I have since built up stamina. But I am describing my natural daily pulse. It is likely different from your natural daily pulse. And yet, we are constantly asked to “perform” in ways that are not aligned with our pulse. Tony Schwartz, author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, is an outspoken champion for the benefits of knowing and respecting our various pulses.

Some very simple pulse principles:

  • Your Daily Pulse

    There are times of the day when we are more physically energized, more mentally attuned, more emotionally primed. For many folks this occurs in the early part of the day. Not for everyone.

    Tip: If at all possible, schedule your most critical tasks during your peak-pulse-times. When I write, I tend to write in the mornings. My peak.

  • Your Weekly Pulse

    Debbie Moskowitz, a researcher at McGill University, found that any given work week tends to have its own pulse. According to Moskowitz, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the days when our capacity to focus is likely at its peak.

    Mondays are often warm-up days, best suited for less rigorous administrative tasks. By Thursday afternoon, our mental and physical energies may wane. Fridays, Moskowitz suggests, are best suited for open-ended work, relationship-building, long-term building. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

    Tip: Consider your weekly pulse as you plan your week.

  • Your Yearly Pulse

    Most of my clients work with great intensity, week after week. And then there are those weeks or months when intense becomes hyper-intense. Budget time. Sales convention time. Internal reporting time. These hyper-intense periods are cyclical AND predictable. They are part of the annual pulse of your work.

    Tony Schwartz created a Survival Guide for Sony UK to help its staff better manage their energy during these annual peak times. The guiding principle: The greater the demand, the greater the need for renewal.

    Tip: Facilitate renewal by reducing alcohol intake during evening meetings. Ritualize morning exercise. Eat more frequently and more lightly. Go to sleep at a designated hour.

Common-sense stuff. The results, according to Sony UK’s Commercial Director, were astounding. When we know our pulse and arrange our work in harmony with it, we become more impactful. Go ahead, incorporate words like renewal, recovery, and managing energy into your daily thought process. The moment you do, you are actively aligning with our pulse!

It actually is that simple.

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It’s an ironic part of the year. While we hustle and bustle from one social activity to the next, many of our social interactions will feel rushed. The volume, the pressure, the accelerated pace. What longs to be a time of connection can quickly devolve into a series of rushed non-connections.

Classic wisdom is that if we desire stronger relationships, we need to spend more time with folks. If you don’t have more time to spend, use language that accelerates connection. This works best in person. It will work equally well on the phone or in writing.

People with rich vocabularies, success guru Tony Robbins suggests in his book “Giant Steps,” have a multihued palette of colors with which to paint their life’s experience.

Agreed. And the colors in your palette don’t need to be high-falutin’. Here are my top 5 verbal cues that I know will strengthen any business relationship we’re in – and all others, as well. They may come in handy in this period of harried social contact:

1. “I was touched by …”

Most of us, even if we’re a little gruff on the outside, have a keen desire to impact folks. The deepest impact occurs when we touch someone’s heart. This simple phrase indicates to the other person that s/he has, indeed, via an action or a gesture, had that sort of impact on us. Powerful.

2. “You really helped me …”

It feels good to know that something we have done, no matter how small it may have seemed to us, has been of help to someone. It feels even better to hear this acknowledged. Whenever possible, let someone know that something they said or did, even if it was routine behavior for them, was helpful to you. “Help” is a crucial relationship word.

3. “I never looked at it this way before …”

Especially in a conversation that may have had its rough patches, acknowledge that the other person had a positive impact on you. Made you think of new possibilities, had you question hidden assumptions, forced you to reach beyond easy answers. This phrase celebrates the positive aspects of a potentially uncomfortable conversation.

4. “I don’t agree with …”

You may wonder, hey, how is disagreeing with someone a relationship-builder? Folks who have strong relationships with others are not afraid to disagree. They don’t waste time dancing around a moment of disagreement. They state their disagreement “in neutral.” No raised voice, no elevated emotion, no drama. Just a fact. The moment a disagreement is stated, the conversation can shift toward new ideas and fresh solutions. How liberating!

5. “I know we can come up with something better …”

Even as we discard a present state that we believe isn’t working, we look to the future with unwavering optimism in our ability to deliver. The word “we” is a potent non-blame word. The affirmation of my faith in the “we” is a sublime relationship-shaper. Couple it with the verb “can,” and it is sure to melt at least a modicum of doubt and resistance.

There are folks with whom it is tough to build relationships, I know. But even a tough nut tends to crack when approached with a relationship-enhancing cue.

The most common objection I hear to the just-listed cues: This is simply not how I talk. That, of course, is the point. Would you say this when you start to learn a foreign language? Of course not. Consider these cues part of your new and enhanced vocabulary. Toss the objections. Expand your palette. And accelerate connection.

 

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My friend, the actress/singer/writer Renee’ Flemings, posted this message on Facebook a few weeks ago:

Screw the presents and madness I want see people in the flesh. Coffee, tea, a glass of wine, a walk around the block. In this time of crazy-who-knows-what’s next-ness, it’s good to see friends. Whatcha doing the next few weeks? Let’s meet up.

Renee’ listed names. Her friends responded. Renee’ has started having her 1-1 “Meet-ups.”

Obligation by choice and request. Nice.

That’s not how the bulk of this high-social season tends to go. If you’re American, you just celebrated Thanksgiving. You may have had a spectacular time or you may have had a lousy one. You may have challenged yourself to have a fine time even though you would have rather lounged at home and watched Netflix. Whichever way it went, chances are you played the obligation game. And you did not play it on your terms.

Here are my biases:

Social time is great. Tradition is wonderful. Choice is essential.

And screw obligation.

Not so easy when it comes to the work holiday parties, professional association events, family gatherings. Understood.

Here are some ways that may help you and me navigate our desire to participate or not in the flurry of social opportunity this season:

1.Turn off the switch

That would be the obligation switch. This switch is linked to the narrative in your mind that says I HAVE to attend the company holiday party or I HAVE to spend part of the holidays with my family. We may indeed feel a whole lot of pressure, real or imagined, to attend the holiday party or see family. But HAVE to? No. How about flipping your thoughts to I choose to attend the party. Even though I may not really feel like going, I CHOOSE to go. And if you choose to not go, choose to assume full responsibility for that decision.

2. Have the courage to be truthful

If you choose to not attend the holiday party, be truthful with your boss. I feel a lot of pressure to attend the holiday party but these parties just aren’t my thing. I want you to know that I love the folks I work with – but these parties simply wear me out. I don’t enjoy them. Can we grab lunch 1-1 one of these days instead? I would very much enjoy that!

Mind you, part of being a successful professional means developing a bit of a social muscle. Consistently not showing up for group events can, indeed, be a career derailer. But chances are, an honest explanation of why you choose to not attend a party will be appreciated by your boss. It may allow her to be honest about her own mixed feelings about this professional obligation. A social win.

3. Offer alternatives

A No, thank you can be a powerful choice when combined with an alternative offer, as indicated above. I would much rather spend some quality 1-1 time with you. Shall we grab a meal or catch a game? And if this season is too packed for you, I will be happy to do so first thing in the New Year. Now doesn’t this sound like a much richer opportunity for everyone involved? Perfunctory participation in a “mandatory” party has just been transmuted into a more special occasion. Bring it on.

4. Set yourself up for a good time

Whenever you choose to attend an event, make sure you show up ready to have a good time. This is, of course, crucial for any function, any time; it becomes doubly important when social events pile up in the middle – and on top of – an already heavy work week.

Do NOT show up tired and cranky because you have already been out every night that week. Do NOT schedule a packed-to-the-rafters day for yourself and then run straight to a party. Do NOT manage your stress by imbibing a bit too much of the free booze.

DO the following instead: Plan a 2-hour break between work and any social gathering you attend. Leave work earlier if you need to. Use this break to rejuvenate yourself. A nap, a massage, a swim, meditation. Un-busy yourself. Help your body feel its absolute best. And decide – fully, clearly – that you will enjoy the event. Make this a bold and unequivocal choice. Then walk in the door.

Social pressures, seasonal pressures. They seem to wrest choice from us. Emphasis on seem – they will indeed if we let them.

Don’t. Mind your switches. Turn them off. Choose to choose.

And then, goshdarnit, enjoy being social.

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The final episode of Anthony Bourdain’s compulsively watchable CNN series “Parts Unknown” aired a week ago. A take on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a neighborhood I know well from my days of living in the East Village. I think back on a moment in Bourdain’s Miami episode, my current home, that is etched in my memory.

Iggy Pop, scraggly-faced musician, former front-man for The Stooges, the grandfather of punk, and Bourdain stand in the sand on Miami Beach, looking at the sky. Two aging men who, by most people’s standards, have been there, done that, seen it all, muse on what’s left.

Iggy: I’m still curious. You seem like a curious person.

Anthony: It’s my only virtue. (said with a chuckle)

Iggy: There you go. All right. Curious is a good thing to be. You know it’s seems to pay some unexpected dividends.

Final words of the Miami episode as birds soar in the sky and Pop’s song “The Passenger” pipes in. Quintessential Florida.

In the end, curiosity.

You and I know that when work starts to feel stale, curiosity can be hard to come by.

Before I opened my first firm I spent 5 years on the road, delivering training programs for an international training company. Within a year the programs I facilitated had become entirely routine for me.

It forced me to think. In the face of routine, what am I still curious about? There were endless nuances to program content, but I knew these nuances would reveal themselves on their own. My curiosity needed to transcend the task I was performing.

My choice: Be curious about the variables, not the routine. Every person who showed up at one of my seminars was the variable. Every latest trend in the training industry was the variable. Every new city I trained in was the variable.

Be curious about everything. That’s the grand thought.

Easy when we stand on the beach with Pop and Bourdain and contemplate the meaning of life.

At work, however, focus your curiosity. If you’re not the one who makes presentations to your firm’s Board of Directors, perhaps let someone else be curious about that. Fire the curiosity that will drive your commitment to the things YOU do every day.

Be curious about the variables in your sphere of influence.

Would it serve you to be more curious about the folks in your sphere?

More curious about what brilliant competitors do?

Curious about solving a recurring problem? Curious about the interplay of what you and other business units do?

Curious about what “simpler” might look like?

Curious about all you that you do not yet know about what you do?

You decide. But be curious, please.

Here’s a conversation I have had with more than one person I have coached.

Coachee: I dread all these endless business dinners I have to attend.

Part of me empathizes and understands. And yet, here’s where we always land.

Achim: Not attending is not an option. What would it take to attend with curiosity?

Dale is a fellow who shows up every day at the Bagel joint where I like to grab my morning bagel. When I ask Dale how he’s doing, his answer is always the same:

Same old, same old.

Curiosity extinguished. Same old, same old is simply not an option.

The unexpected dividends?

Curiosity is a choice. It requires vigilance. It is available to us every moment of every single day. It keeps our inner spark alive. It adds a deeper purpose to every task you and I perform and every conversation we engage in. It connects us to a larger world of wisdom and possibility.

Bourdain took his life earlier this year. A choice, as well. I am curious about the why. We’ll never truly know.

But Iggy Pop, punk survivor, got this one right. It’s a good thing to be.

Routine has the potential to unleash a rich deep curiosity. Be vigilant. Be curious about the variables, not the routine. Be specific. But please, be curious.

And receive your dividends.

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It’s like I’m standing under a waterfall, I said to her. The water just keeps coming and coming. For a moment it’s thrilling. Then I find myself gasping for air. Like I can’t breathe. And then I just want to get away.

We’re not talking about waterfalls, of course. We’re talking about this person’s communication style.

Her words, indeed, keep coming and coming. With passion. With enthusiasm. With ferocious commitment to a vision and a specific plan of action.

Wonderful. And I want to run.

Not because of the vision, because of the waterfall.

Let’s switch for a moment from execution to intent. It’s a very corporate word but I like it. To align. I long to align you with my vision, my ideas, our plan. I want to bring you along and onboard.

The toughest part of having a conversation about a decision that has already been made? You are 3 steps ahead of those you speak with. You have had time to align. They haven’t.

Waterfalling never gets us to alignment. Waterfalling is a narcissistic act of communication. Waterfall me, and I will either shut down to protect myself, or I will run.

Want to align others? Give them room to breathe. To think. To absorb.

Not under a waterfall.

Anytime I find myself with a waterfaller I’m reminded of the wisdom of the basics. How simple they are. How profound. These simple guidelines, honed in a previous career of coaching speakers, will immeasurably enhance the impact you have in any conversation. They will most definitely encourage alignment:

  • Mind Your Pace

    When we’re waterfalling we tend to spew and gush our words. This rapid delivery is usually fueled by a noble instinct. I am passionate about what I’m saying. I believe so very strongly in my cause. I am “fired up.” Fine. What you experience as passion I experience as an assault. Remember, you’re 3 steps ahead of me. Your firehose style quenches my desire to come onboard.

    Bear this in mind, as well: Waterfalling is easily interpreted as nervousness. As not being in command of a message. Waterfalling and rapid delivery are styles of junior leaders. And it makes it harder to align around your junior-ness, great intent notwithstanding. Do not wear your junior-ness on your sleeve. Mind your pace.

  • Pause frequently

    Your pause allows me to hear my own thoughts. Know my own reactions to what you just said. Yes, to absorb. If you want me to align I need time to absorb. Only when I begin to absorb do I have the energy to align. When you waterfall without pause I reach my absorption limit very, very quickly. Help me out, please. Pause a lot.

    Bear this in mind: The pause is not so you can overthink what you’re about to say next. That would be a narcissistic pause. Pause purely so I can breathe. That’s the altruistic pause. I thank you in advance.

  • Check for understanding

    Waterfallers speak from a sense of noble purpose or entitled authority. Anytime you and I speak – yes really, anytime, especially in a business conversation – what matters is that our communication lands. That it is heard. Hopefully understood. Waterfalling without knowing if a message has landed is a waste of time and energy. Ours and theirs.

    Let’s not waste either. Simple questions like Does this make sense? or How does this sit with you? or Is there anything I have missed? or May I clarify anything I have just said? indicate that we are interested in helping our message land. Alignment encouraged.

  • Invite responses

    I’m much more likely to align when I am given space to voice my doubts and concerns. Just speaking my thoughts out loud liberates them and sets them free. Your thoughtful response and the comments and clarifications of others will help me to make sense of what you’re proposing, even when it is non-negotiable.

    Alignment often happens in the act of “talking it through.” Under the spell of a waterfall I am condemned to silence. Voluntary silence sometimes creates the space I need to wrap myself around a new initiative. Forced silence rarely does.

So yes, the basics. Avoid the temptation to spew and gush. Mind your pace. Pause often. Check for understanding. Invite discourse.

Alignment is more likely when I am given room to breathe. So let me breathe. Better yet. Create the space so we can breathe together.

Alignment facilitated.

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I like to talk.

I have been known to over-talk.

It is what happens when I go to the dark side. I have a strong point of view and I will let you know. And darn it, sometimes you don’t respond. My unchecked instinct is to keep talking UNTIL YOU DO RESPOND! The more I talk, the more impassioned I tend to get, the more stone-faced you will become.

Not pretty.

Being habitually silent certainly does not work in a business meeting. We abdicate our ability to influence. We stifle our voice.

Also not pretty.

Choosing to shut up when we really long to talk is at times the most inspired choice. Silent not because we are afraid to talk. Silent because our silence will advance the conversation.

How do we know when it’s time to shut up? Here are 4 simple considerations.

1. Does it need to be said?

Whenever you have a compelling urge to speak, especially when you know that your conversation partners may have a strong reaction to what you will say, do a gut check. Ask yourself these 2 questions:

  • Does it need to be said?
  • Am I the one who needs to say it?

If your answer to both questions is an unequivocal YES, say it. If not – it may be time to shut up.

2. Has it already been said?

If someone else has already said it, I don’t need to say it again. If I have already said it, I don’t need to say it again. Trust that ONCE IS ENOUGH. Repeating the same old point again, no matter how passionate you are about it, is a surefire way of giving up your social influence.

When you speak because you wish to be an ally to the one who has already spoken, keep it brief. Because it may be time to shut up.

3. Can I say it succinctly?

Here are 2 little guidelines to gauge an optimal level of conversation-contribution:

  • If you’re telling a pertinent story, take all the time you want. Your story will live in the scintillating details.
  • If you wish to make a point, make it in 4 sentences or less. Short sentences, not long rambling ones.

Even if the point you wish to make is complex, don’t unload all of the complexity on me at once. Deliver complexity one message at a time. 4 sentences or less.

If you can’t break it down for me, it may be time to shut up

4. Can I generate deeper commitment?

The biggest reason to NOT shut up is when I am certain that my speaking has the potential to invoke a deeper commitment to a course of action. Deeper commitment is rarely stirred by sharing more data or passionately stating my point-of-view. Chances are others have already done so. Commitment is more likely invoked by a powerful image, a metaphor, a surprising gesture that stirs the soul.

Don’t have a metaphor handy? Can’t think of a surprising gesture? Silence may be your golden choice. More blabber rarely is.

When I first worked as a corporate trainer, back in the 90s, I was mentored by two very different colleagues. Margie was a diva. She could spin circles around a message and was frequently entertaining. Margie held her conversational space well. Devon was a master-distiller. He could convey a message in a sentence. The message was always essential. Simple and clear. Deep.

Devon knew when to shut up. And when he spoke, it mattered.

Devon was the brilliant one.

Habitual silence renders us impotent. Strategic silence accelerates our social influence.

Be the brilliant one. Know when to shut up.

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Agile. Nimble. Flexible.

The opposite of rigid and fixed.

I just spent a few days with the Agile Humans community in Belgrade, submerged in the world of Agile project management and Scrum. Yes – iterative project practices, smart technology, but my very own association with the word agile is physical agility. It’s a swimmer’s view. The way I slice through water when I swim. The ease with which my body moves. The way I flow with the current. Note it, seize it, use it to advantage.

Work with the elements, don’t fight them. Get out of the way of what wants to happen.

I ruminate on this as I sit at Charles de Gaulle airport, waiting to fly home to the US after a European week. From the moment my friend Suzanne Daigle and I arrive at the airport, chaos. An overbooked flight. Mechanical failure. Delayed departure. Evasive public announcements. And the eventual cancellation of the flight.

I won’t bore you with a war story – but I find myself considering its essential ingredients as they envelop me. Moment-by-moment changes. Increasing uncertainty. Bubbles of emotion. Eventual complete change of plans. More uncertainty. More emotion. So it goes.

A near-classic narrative arc.

I’m in the midst of an agile situation.

This is relatively simple as far as agility goes. The bulk of the decisions here are made for me. I can change my response to a sudden change in circumstances but I cannot change the circumstance itself. The circumstance is blatant and right in my face. Detailed observation or keen insight are not required.

I am responsible for my attitude about what unfolds – that’s the mental part – and my emotions. These two are intertwined.

I think of situations where the need to adapt quickly isn’t so clear-cut. When things kinda sorta work but never excel, never become great. When mediocre is the standard we have become used to, when complaining about the way we do things is the norm but nothing is bad enough to scream change now. When the everyday is a steady drip drip drip drip of more frustration morphed into uninspired routine.

What does personal agility look like in the face of that? How do I stay agile when nobody demands that I be more agile? Here are a few personal guide-posts to help you sharpen your own everyday agility:

  1. I notice when something isn’t working. I stay present. I stay aware of the emotions that kick in. Instead of stuffing my emotions, I consider what may be causing them. Considering my emotions will lead me to indicators about my own thinking (internal clues) or relationships with collaborators (external clues) that may require adjustment.

  2. I notice when pressure is mounting. I choose to stay calm under pressure. More importantly, I do not ignore pressure. I have a healthy pressure-meter that can distinguish between necessary pressure and debilitating pressure. I do not succumb to prolonged debilitating pressure. I know the difference between pushing through and changing a course of action because what I’m doing is not working.
  1. I seek help. I do so quickly. I do not hide when the going gets tough. I approach professional challenges with a sense of healthy curiosity. Most importantly, I view seeking help as a sign of strength. I seek help freely and am mindful of whose insights may be most pertinent when an adjustment in process or strategy seems necessary.

  2. I invite multiple viewpoints. I understand that multiple inputs will produce a better new course of action. I am not afraid of the complexity that may be invoked by multiple viewpoints. I know that embracing complexity will lead to more fully considered next steps. More fully considered steps accelerate the likeliness of success.

  3. I act quickly. I understand that changing course and adapting quickly to changing circumstances is the only way to release forward-moving energy and create momentum. This may be the most crucial of these 5 points. I don’t get locked into the jail of this is what I had planned or this is how it should be. Taking swift action is my friend. I welcome this friendship.

There are many ways to define illuminated leadership. Mental and emotional agility hang at its very core. Great thing is, we can practice this agility every day. Each encounter at work, at the supermarket, at the airport, in our personal relationships is an opportunity to practice agility.

Yes, I have a swimmer’s mind. I love the sense of forward motion that I experience in water. It feels so very very good. An agile mind helps me to experience this sensation in every aspect of my life.

So, stay agile. Practice diligently and practice with an open mind. Notice how wrong effort will start to disappear.

How liberating that is.

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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.

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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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Yes, I’m biased. I’m a former theatre guy. 

I think of this as I stumble on an old article about improvisation in, of all places, a copy of the Wall Street Journal (7/8/2016). From a young age on we’re taught to master impulse control. It’s what grown-ups do, right? We manage our emotions. Avoid distraction. Aim for a zen-like focus, a sense of control. Squelch the impulse, avoid distraction.

Enter improvisation. The art of conscious impulse surrender.

At Second City in Chicago, the improv comedy troupe that has launched the careers of celebrities like Jim Belushi and Tina Fey, scientists and engineers and nurses and psychologists now practice the art of impulse surrender. It’s been a total change from left-brain attorney to right-brain class-taker, says Second City student and retired attorney Irv Levinson. In a recent episode of “The Simpsons,” Homer recovers from giving a disastrous speech by taking an improv class. Yes, improvisation has left the theatre vault.

There is a place for impulse control, of course. It behooves me to know my blind spots. Left unchecked, I can swing toward sarcasm. I am a better person when I stay mindful of this impulse and let it pass.

But here are just a few of the brilliant gifts of conscious impulse surrender. They are subtle and delicious, and they have the potential to elevate any business conversation we have.

  • Celebrate the wealth of words.

We habitually consume language as if were fast food. Taste-less, quickly discarded, instantly forgotten. We babble without paying attention to linguistic nuance. Improv reminds us that at our best, we are consciously creating a conversation, moment by moment, word choice by word choice. It begins by truly hearing the words that come our way. By explicitly picking up on those cues in our response. Choosing words that are distinct, unexpected perhaps, surprising. When done well we actually call it word play. Nice, right?

  • Seize the energy of the moment.

Every moment has pace, velocity, stasis or momentum. Improv sharpens our ability to sense these dimensions. We tune into the energy of a person, a group of people, a moment. We feel it, and we consciously merge with that energy, subvert it or expand it. We begin to revel in the unspoken dynamics of a conversation, and we have the courage to playfully mold them. So liberating, right?

  • Embrace the gift of the detour.

In our linearly prejudiced world, we are programmed to avoid tangents like the plague. Detours are considered sacrilegious. Improv gives us shameless permission to investigate any cue, linear or not. It knows that a detour is often more illuminating and insightful than the predetermined path. A detour is the expression of an impulse that, for whatever reason, shows itself. It implores us to not simply give the answer(s) we think others wish to hear but to follow, instead, the thought that yearns to be expressed. Way cool, right?

  • Excavate meaning.

Great improvisers don’t simply spout funny stuff and or do silly things. They seize an impulse and create meaning in split-seconds. They have trained their meaning-antennas in improv class. They note implicit or emerging meaning, seize it, blow it up, shape it into a story. A key leadership skill for any corporate leader is the ability to articulate meaning. It’s easy to offer pre-packaged meaning. We carefully plan our meaning messages in advance. Advance planning is encouraged, of course! But how much more resonant it is when we notice the meaning that actually emerges in a moment! Notice it, name it and claim it. Stirring, right?

Wanna transcend basic transactional competence in your daily endeavors? Well, you may not be able to take a course at Second City, but you can sure as heck practice a little bit of impulse surrender every day.

It doesn’t mean simply “going with the flow.” It means consciously shaping the impulses you notice in a moment. Words. Energy. Thoughts. Meaning.

Conscious impulse surrender helps you to stay more fully present. It’s also great fun. And as you practice it more often, more experiences of flow will show up.

And that is really way way cool.

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