Want the ‘Right’ Focus: Let Yourself Steep

tea-steepingTwice a year I feel an instinctive tug toward unbridled optimism.  It’s almost as if a switch is flipped and I wake up feeling that anything is possible.

In this energized, optimistic frame of mind I look forward to January (extending well into the New Year) and to September (after Labour Day).  No doubt this second energy burst is a nod to starting back to school; a memory filled with the promise of new friends, experiences and learning!

I think big. Make plans. Write lists. (multiple lists if I’m honest)  And then I stop.  At least, that’s what it looks like on the outside.

On the inside things are steeping.  This pause in my ‘busyness’ allows me to sort my priorities; and to focus on what is worth doing, rather than what’s first on the list or even seemingly most urgent.

It turns out that by delaying a decision we can improve the quality of our lives.  This counter-intuitive premise is at the heart of ‘WAIT: The Art and Science of Delay’ (Frank Partnoy, 2012).  Drawing on behavioral, neuroscience and even elite sports, it’s a fascinating study of decision-making, and what contributes to it being effective.

Bottom line: slowing down our responses generates better results in almost every area of life, even when time seems to be of the essence.

“There’s no time to think”

It’s something I hear from executives and managers I coach; that they don’t have enough time.  That they’re too busy to scratch themselves—in back-to-back meetings, pressed for answers before they have time to ask the right questions—let alone able to pause or focus on what’s important to the bigger picture.

Most often, what starts as a request for time-management tools or advice on setting priorities, becomes a deeper conversation about what inspires them to be an effective leader.  How they can become more mindful of who they are ‘being’ while they are busy ‘doing’; in essence what’s within their individual control.

But when an organization measures success by how busy you are, it can feel like a career limiting move to slow down and ask, “What do I have to say no to, in order to say yes to what is strategic here?”

“The true essence of strategy is choosing what not to do”[1]

This is where Daniel Goleman’s recent writing on ‘three kinds of leadership focus’ reconciles our natural drive toward action and being busy (looking as if we are ‘doing something’), with our equal human instinct for looking inward and being mindful (looking as if we are ‘doing nothing’).

In order to redirect organizational energy where it’s most effective, he says leaders first have to learn how to direct their own attention to where it is most needed.  He calls these three focal points: ‘inner focus’, ‘other focus’ and ‘outward focus’.  Not surprisingly, there’s a strong link to cultivating emotional intelligence in addition to improving a leader’s ability to devise strategy, innovate and manage organizations.

Bottom line: if you want to harness the energy and instinctive optimism (unbridled or otherwise) within your team or organization, create time and space for ideas to steep before tackling the next new thing.

Image credit: Sharada Prasad via Flickr

[1] Michael E. Porter, author, strategist, Harvard professor

Donna Howes


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