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Focusing on What Matters (and Ignoring What Does Not)

Focusing on What Matters (and Ignoring What Does Not)

As I look back at this week’s postings on Slow Leadership, I notice that most of them were concerned with helping people stop wasting their time and energy on fruitless endeavors.

Take the first post, entitled: To Succeed, First Forget About Leadership Technique. In it, I argued that belief that success—in just about any business or leadership —comes from one simple source (applying the correct “leadership technique), is both self-serving and erroneous. It is self-serving because it is mostly spread by those who sell training in such techniques, or write about them; and erroneous because it is usually based on a false understanding of causality. Besides, because it does not work. Technique is a very minor part of leadership, as this posting seeks to show.

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Of course, most of what people believe, whether about work or anything else, is simply what they were encouraged to believe at an early age—augmented by what people around them believe (or say they do). The fear of being seen as “different,” of not “fitting in,” encourages a great many mistakes and considerable heartache. Now I am retired, it is far easier for me to maintain an independent position. When I was employed in various large organizations, I was almost as willing as everyone else to suppress my own thinking in favor of appearing suitably orthodox. I say “almost as willing,” because I always had a reputation for being awkward and not quite fitting in, which doubtless held my career back at some points. That is why I warmed to the idea that The Wonder of Letting Go might help people lessen much of the stress and turmoil in their lives. As I wrote:

The first step in making life and work fun again is the —and the —for may people. It is to let go of whatever you have today and move into the future. And what you will most likely find is that many of the things you were clinging to so desperately turn out to be no loss; and some of the best of them bob along with you anyway. You don’t need to cling to them. They are part of who you are.

Encouraging employees to use their intelligence is still an unusual idea, but it too can help people focus on what matters and ignore what does not. In Why Not Let People Use Their Intelligence?, I suggested that companies who recruit smart people, then deny them the chance to use their intelligence, for whatever reason, are purposely throwing away large amounts of shareholders’ money and should be treated appropriately. Not a very radical idea, it seems to me, but certainly an unfamiliar one.

One or two people had difficulties in grasping the difference I suggested between business problems and business predicaments in my article: Problems, Predicaments and Sleight of Hand. I can best sum it up like this.

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  • Problems have solutions, even if you don’t presently know what they are. For example, asking how to get a certain level of shipments to a customer in a given time period at the lowest possible price is a problem.
  • Predicaments have no solutions, and never will have. An example of a predicament (with no solution that is either possible or that will remain useful for very long) would be how to maintain a consistent level of market share at or above 12%. It’s a predicament because whatever action you take to make it happen will prompt counter action from others to thwart you; and the market circumstances are constantly changing anyway.

I suggested, therefore, that all the most important issues in business are actually predicaments. To treat them as problems and apply supposed solutions is to be doomed to consistent failure and frustration.

Many of our difficulties in the workplace are self-inflicted, and arise primarily because we do not devote either the time or the energy required to think about them clearly enough. Hamburger Management, with its emphasis on quick action, simple answers, and continual cost-cutting merely magnifies that human tendency. Only by slowing down and using our minds can we finally sort out what matters from everything else. And once we do that, we will, I believe, be surprised at how much time we previously devoted to nonsensical activities.

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Focusing only on what matters is the first, most essential step in creating enough space in your working day to allow you to create a civilized way of working. And it goes far beyond removing minor distractions. To focus on what matters, you must first decide what that is. That is why maintaining an open, independent mind is so important. Don’t be taken in by what most people do, unless you have first verified for yourself that it is sensible and necessary. After all, most people follow the crowd— and that is often a poor choice for having a life that is better than most.

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Last Updated on July 10, 2020

The Power of Ritual: Conquer Procrastination, Time Wasters and Laziness

The Power of Ritual: Conquer Procrastination, Time Wasters and Laziness

Life is wasted in the in-between times. The time between when your alarm first rings and when you finally decide to get out of bed. The time between when you sit at your desk and when productive work begins. The time between making a decision and doing something about it.

Slowly, your day is whittled away from all the unused in-between moments. Eventually, time wasters, laziness, and procrastination get the better of you.

The solution to reclaim these lost middle moments is by creating rituals. Every culture on earth uses rituals to transfer information and encode behaviors that are deemed important. Personal rituals can help you build a better pattern for handling everything from how you wake up to how you work.

Unfortunately, when most people see rituals, they see pointless superstitions. Indeed, many rituals are based on a primitive understanding of the world. But by building personal rituals, you get to encode the behaviors you feel are important and cut out the wasted middle moments.

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Program Your Own Algorithms

Another way of viewing rituals is by seeing them as computer algorithms. An algorithm is a set of instructions that is repeated to get a result.

Some algorithms are highly efficient, sorting or searching millions of pieces of data in a few seconds. Other algorithms are bulky and awkward, taking hours to do the same task.

By forming rituals, you are building algorithms for your behavior. Take the delayed and painful pattern of waking up, debating whether to sleep in for another two minutes, hitting the snooze button, repeat until almost late for work. This could be reprogrammed to get out of bed immediately, without debating your decision.

How to Form a Ritual

I’ve set up personal rituals for myself for handling e-mail, waking up each morning, writing articles, and reading books. Far from making me inflexible, these rituals give me a useful default pattern that works best 99% of the time. Whenever my current ritual won’t work, I’m always free to stop using it.

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Forming a ritual isn’t too difficult, and the same principles for changing habits apply:

  1. Write out your sequence of behavior. I suggest starting with a simple ritual of only 3-4 steps maximum. Wait until you’ve established a ritual before you try to add new steps.
  2. Commit to following your ritual for thirty days. This step will take the idea and condition it into your nervous system as a habit.
  3. Define a clear trigger. When does your ritual start? A ritual to wake up is easy—the sound of your alarm clock will work. As for what triggers you to go to the gym, read a book or answer e-mail—you’ll have to decide.
  4. Tweak the Pattern. Your algorithm probably won’t be perfectly efficient the first time. Making a few tweaks after the first 30-day trial can make your ritual more useful.

Ways to Use a Ritual

Based on the above ideas, here are some ways you could implement your own rituals:

1. Waking Up

Set up a morning ritual for when you wake up and the next few things you do immediately afterward. To combat the grogginess after immediately waking up, my solution is to do a few pushups right after getting out of bed. After that, I sneak in ninety minutes of reading before getting ready for morning classes.

2. Web Usage

How often do you answer e-mail, look at Google Reader, or check Facebook each day? I found by taking all my daily internet needs and compressing them into one, highly-efficient ritual, I was able to cut off 75% of my web time without losing any communication.

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3. Reading

How much time do you get to read books? If your library isn’t as large as you’d like, you might want to consider the rituals you use for reading. Programming a few steps to trigger yourself to read instead of watching television or during a break in your day can chew through dozens of books each year.

4. Friendliness

Rituals can also help with communication. Set up a ritual of starting a conversation when you have opportunities to meet people.

5. Working

One of the hardest barriers when overcoming procrastination is building up a concentrated flow. Building those steps into a ritual can allow you to quickly start working or continue working after an interruption.

6. Going to the gym

If exercising is a struggle, encoding a ritual can remove a lot of the difficulty. Set up a quick ritual for going to exercise right after work or when you wake up.

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7. Exercise

Even within your workouts, you can have rituals. Spacing the time between runs or reps with a certain number of breaths can remove the guesswork. Forming a ritual of doing certain exercises in a particular order can save time.

8. Sleeping

Form a calming ritual in the last 30-60 minutes of your day before you go to bed. This will help slow yourself down and make falling asleep much easier. Especially if you plan to get up full of energy in the morning, it will help if you remove insomnia.

8. Weekly Reviews

The weekly review is a big part of the GTD system. By making a simple ritual checklist for my weekly review, I can get the most out of this exercise in less time. Originally, I did holistic reviews where I wrote my thoughts on the week and progress as a whole. Now, I narrow my focus toward specific plans, ideas, and measurements.

Final Thoughts

We all want to be productive. But time wasters, procrastination, and laziness sometimes get the better of us. If you’re facing such difficulties, don’t be afraid to make use of these rituals to help you conquer them.

More Tips to Conquer Time Wasters and Procrastination

 

Featured photo credit: RODOLFO BARRETO via unsplash.com

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