The power of focus

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We live in a distracted world. We check our mobiles phone countless times during the day while FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) keeps us addicted to social media. Even while working we experience countless email distractions and our #AlwaysOn technology means we’re accessible to others 24/7.

The upside of this technology is that it’s made parenting and caring easier. We can be connected to our teenage children in ways that were not available to our parents – so we can stay at work longer knowing they’re safe. In recent months I’ve even been introduced to the idea of a family WhatsApp group as a way of keeping in touch.

The downside is that it limits our attention spans and makes it difficult to do what Professor Cal Newport calls the “deep work” of creativity. It’s becoming increasingly clear that multi-tasking doesn’t work – it simply pulls our energy in too many directions and leaves us exhausted. To achieve anything worthwhile we need to focus. As the saying goes:

Energy flows where attention goes.

Before we can focus we need clarity. What do we want to accomplish? As our children grow and our parents age our own role within the family will change. And as we progress our career we find the nature of our work also changes. So as we approach the end of another year let me ask you:

  • Who do you want to be in 2018?

  • What do you want to achieve in the coming year?

You may want to start – as many of us do – by reviewing how 2017 went. If so you’ll find this blog entry from the end of last year helpful.

Clarity requires us to review and adapt our behaviours. We may need to be more mindful. And separators are likely to find focus more easily than integrators.

Cal Newport maintains a novice is only able to do deep work for one hour at a time: to work for longer requires training. Attention is a skill that can be cultivated; and you will get distracted.

When you do take five minutes to refocus with this short visualisation adapted from the work of Piero Ferrucci:

Take a slow deep breath and bring to mind your main focus for 2018 – whether at work or home. Close your eyes and imagine a long straight clear path reaching directly to the top of a hill where the object of your focus lies.

On both sides of the path are beings who will try and divert you from the path and prevent you reaching the top. They can do whatever they want except one thing: they cannot directly obstruct your path.

These entities represent the various people and situations in your life that divert you from your focus. Experience yourself having the clarity to keep walking your path. When you reach the top enjoy the positive emotions you experience at having reached your goal. Think about what this goal means to you – how achieving it makes your life better.

Open your eyes and make any notes you need to remind you about the distractions you’re likely to face during the day and how you will overcome them. Notice how doing this impacts your energy.

To quote Cal Newport:

It’s surprising how much you can do in an eight hour day when you’re not distracted.

Wishing you a more focused and better balanced 2018.

Propel yourself to Balanced Leadership

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Becoming a Balanced Leader challenges us to hold a vision of living a balanced life as the foundation for our plans and actions. To succeed we need strategies and tools that work for us; together with a map to point us in the right direction. Over the past few months I’ve been pulling my expertise into a structured model which serves to do exactly that. On the eve of National Work Life Week if you’re in the UK and Work Family Month if you’re in the US I’m sharing that model.

I chose the acronym PROPEL as I know that following my model can literally propel your career to new levels.

P is for preferences in the way we choose to manage our work-life balance. While some of us are avid integrators others feel uncomfortable as technology and corporate expectations push us further and further in that direction. These are the separators who prefer to keep firm boundaries between work and the rest of life.

R is for the roles we play and the ways in which we play them. We begin to understand we have choices and that role scripts can become outdated. We can focus on combining roles in ways that enrich our lives and reduce the conflicts we may feel.

When we work through these first two steps we become much clearer on how we want to structure our lives and manage our boundaries. We can then begin to explore possibilities for redesigning our work.

O is for the options open to us within the culture and practices prevalent in our workplace. While some cultures openly embrace working from home others frown on reduced hours at senior levels. Gently pushing the boundaries of what’s currently acceptable is more likely to succeed than proposing radical changes that make people feel uncomfortable.

P is for possibilities. For considering how we can craft our work role to make the most of our key skills. So we become an even more valuable asset to our employers; and more productive and efficient into the bargain.

E is for the essential skills we need to make a success of all this. Many of these skills will already be in our portfolio – we may simply need to upgrade them. A small number – such as job crafting – may need to be learnt. The good news is that these are the same essential skills we’ll need to be successful leaders in both our workplaces and our lives.

L is for the leadership qualities we’re cultivating and the Balanced Leader we’re becoming.

So there it is: the evidence based road map to becoming a Balanced Leader. Straightforward, easy to understand and built on twenty five years expertise!

Set your own agenda – or someone else will

A group of my academic colleagues have set up the Switched On Consulting Research Group. Their aim is to further the understanding of how technology and being constantly “switched on” impacts our lives.

Technology that ensures we’re always accessible to colleagues is undoubtedly changing the way we work. For many of us this fast pace results in burnout, poor sleep – essential for recovery – and ever diminishing attention spans. We find ourselves operating in responsive mode – always firefighting.

That’s not how leaders behave. Leadership is about providing clarity and strategic direction. For that we need time to think and time to access the deeper wisdom required to navigate our VUCA world. According to Professor Herminia Ibarra – as I pointed out in this earlier post – we must Act Like Leaders and create that space in our working lives. Nobody else is going to do that for us.

Setting an intention to live in balance should not become another chore. It’s the foundation that enables us to perform at our best in our many roles. Here are three small steps we can take immediately to regain our balance:

  • Re-write outdated scripts and eliminate unnecessary tasks. What in your work and personal life needs to go to provide space for better balance? As parents and workers we’re so often squeezed by other people’s timetables and demands. Aspiring leaders must be strategic thinkers rather than operational doers.
  • Clear the mental pressures by separating – even if just for an hour each day. Switch off the devices and aim for single focus and mental clarity.
  • Get enough rest to refresh and recharge. An emerging trend in recent months has been the greater focus on doing less and being less busy but more productive. Indeed Arianna Huffington is so convinced of the importance of sleep that she’s written a book on the topic.

Listening to a motivational speaker today I was reminded:

“if you don’t have goals of your own you become part of somebody else’s goals.”

Focus on your goal of becoming a Balanced Leader. Pick one small step from the three above and give it a try for the coming month. See whether you become more balanced and more productive. Then get in touch and let me know!

Reviewing progress and celebrating victories

We’ve reached that point in the year when even the busiest of us endeavour to carve out some time for reflection. To consider the year that’s finishing and how the New Year might be different. Reflection is generally a good thing and when we choose to carve out our path as a Balanced Leader it becomes essential. We’re slowly creating a new paradigm of 21st Century leadership and recognising that work-life balance is personal and dynamic. As we close 2016 I offer you five questions. Reflecting on your experiences will enable you to find better balance in 2017.

  1. When during this year did you feel your life was in balance? Please think hard and try to identify even the briefest moments. What made you notice that things were balanced? What else did you notice? What were you doing at the time? How could you do more of it in the coming year to make balance a more regular feeling? What were people around you doing to support you? How might you influence them to support you more regularly?
  2. How did your life roles change this year? Did your children grow another year older and less dependent on you? Or did your parents grow another year older and more dependent? How did your work circumstances change? Did you feel compelled to work longer hours? Were you able to find more flexibility – perhaps by working remotely? Did these changes highlight areas where your skills need to be enhanced?
  3. How did technology impact your quest for balance? If you’re a separator to what extent did other people’s expectations and behaviours add to your feelings of imbalance? If you’re an integrator did you spot areas where you need to set better boundaries?
  4. What role models did you come across this year? Who inspired you or opened your eyes to alternative working possibilities? Who encouraged you to strive for better balance? And where were you able to be a role model for others?
  5. When did you show courage? Perhaps in managing your boundaries or renegotiating expectations. When did you experience moments of mindfulness that led you to realise boundaries need to be more clearly defined?

So, as the old year closes we celebrate the small steps that led us in the direction of our vision, acknowledge the journey continues and ask ourselves: what’s the next small step for 2017?

Who’s writing your scripts?

“All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players,

They have their exits and their entrances,

And one man in his time plays many parts”

 

Four centuries after Shakespeare wrote these words the American psychologist Donald Super proposed “A Life-Span, Life-Space approach to Career Development”. He identified nine roles played by human beings as they progress through life; explaining a role as: A set of expectations – defined both by the individual and the wider society – of a person occupying a position. So, for example, the roles of parent and worker each come with a set of expectations – a script.

Super proposed four main theatres where roles were played: the home; the community; the school (including college and university); and the workplace. At the time he developed his theory it was likely that a specific role would be played out primarily in one theatre. Over the years – however – the goalposts have moved; so that – for example – the role of parent is initially played primarily in the home but may also be played in the school and the workplace as the need arises. Similarly the role of worker is increasingly also being played in theatre of the home or the community Third Space.

Where do these role scripts come from? Consider – for example – how you play your roles as parent and worker and answer the following questions:

  • Where did you learn the “script” for the role? Who is judging how successful you are in the role?
  • Is the script for the role still current – or have the goalposts moved? How could you change the script to better serve you? (Perhaps just by making some small adjustments?)
  • Are there other ways you could play the role which would enable better balance in your life? If so, what are the likely implications for the people around you?

Role Conflict or Role Enrichment?

Most of us play several roles simultaneously which means they impinge on each other. According to work life balance theory we can choose to see this negatively and as depleting our energy – the result of juggling conflicting demands. Or we can view each role as enriching the totality of our life experience. In this earlier post I explained how Separators tend to feel more conflict while Integrators experience more enrichment.

Viewing the two roles as complementing each other can bring about a more positive outlook. But as both roles make demands on our time and our emotions we may need to make adjustments in order to achieve that more positive outlook.

Back to those parent and worker roles then:

  • How much of your physical time does each take up? And how much mental or emotional energy?
  • Could you change the impact of these roles on your overall work life balance by reducing – even slightly – the amount of time or emotional energy you’re investing in them?

Super said decision points occur before and at the time of taking on a new role, of giving up an old role, and of making significant changes in the nature of an existing role. And that these decisions are often influenced by the other roles we’re playing.

Make this moment your decision point. Take control and choose how you’ll play your roles going forward. Since you first learned the scripts it’s likely the goal posts have moved. And – given the pace of modern life – will continue to move. To be a Balanced Leader you’ll need to shift your scripts accordingly.

Integrator or Separator – what’s your style?

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How do you prefer to manage the interface between work and other aspects of your life? Psychologists place us all on a continuum with Separation at one end – which means a preference for keeping work and non-work separate – and Integration at the other.

Separators prefer not to socialise with work colleagues in their own time. They neither discuss work matters at home nor personal issues at work. Clear physical, psychological and temporal boundaries are maintained between work and home activities. This is the traditional “male” model embedded in workplace cultures during the early part of the last century and still seen as the epitome of professional behaviour in some organisations.

The upside of being a Separator is less pressure on mental resources. When at work you’re focused on work and when at home focused on home rather than constantly switching between the two – which requires considerable mental effort. We’re increasingly recognising that multi-tasking is an ineffective approach to life!  On the downside, these people are more likely to experience conflict between their work and non-work roles – particularly if they are caring for others. For example, it can be hard to focus on work when a loved one is unwell.

Integrators on the other hand prefer to blur the boundaries between work and non-work. Many working mothers will fall into this category and it does have a big upside in that they see the two roles enriching each other. Thus we’re often reminded the same self-organisation skills developed as a parent can be useful at work; while high quality negotiation skills are almost essential for navigating toddler tantrums. On the downside Integrators incur mental costs in switching and have less of a buffer if something goes wrong in one role. They can find it harder to “switch off”.

As technology becomes increasingly more intrusive we too are increasingly expected to behave as Integrators. If that’s your natural style you’ll be fine with this. And it’s undeniable that the advent of mobile phones in particular made it much easier for many mothers to combine work and home roles in ways they could control. On the downside commentators are increasingly saying technology is getting out of control. We’re developing an “always on” culture that poses challenges to our wellbeing. I’m planning on writing more about this in a future post.

For now let me ask: Are you an Integrator or a Separator? Are you happier combining the work and non-work parts of your life? Or do you prefer to keep them separate? And how do your preferences resonate with the people around you?

Professor Ellen Ernst Kossek is a leading work life balance expert whose book ‘CEO of Me considers these preferences and their impact on wellbeing. She has identified a number of “flexstyles”; concedes that compromise is often part of the equation and concludes the important thing is to feel happy and in control rather than unhappy and out of control.

So: does your working style suit you or are you feeling you make too many compromises? If you’re looking for better flexible working strategies you’ll find lots in Ellen’s book.