Focusing … and Dealing with Competing Needs
advice for the overwhelmed

Welcome to the world of 24/7/365 – where the average leader and professional are constantly available via their smart phones, the piles of work are higher than ever before, and everyone is judged on how well they accomplish it on a timely basis.

As I write this, I am behind on deadlines for my audiobook, which I had agreed to finish recording by the end of the month (but had underestimated how long it would take!)  In the meantime, my calendar filled up with meetings and new things are coming up daily that need my time and attention.  I am feeling stressed and panicky wondering if I will be able to get everything done well and on time!

These feelings of stress and panic are normal.  They also make it hard to decide where to focus your attention, because everything seems to need your time and attention, right now!  So how do you handle it, if crawling into a box is not the answer?

Here are six practices that have worked for me:

  1. Breathe!
    Take time to calm yourself.  If you can give yourself at least 10 minutes to breath and calm down, you will think more clearly.   Sometimes I have felt so panicked that I must force myself to do this by putting a timer on for 10 minutes, which seems to give me permission to take a break to calm down.  (Weird, I know.)
  2. Evaluate the importance and urgency of your tasks.
    Stephen Covey in his book The 7 Habits of Effective Leaders talked about clearly evaluating a task by identifying how important it is, and then how urgent it is.   He then suggested a course of action, which I have used over and over to help me focus.  Using his model, I can sort out what is important and urgent (like client issues that must be addressed quickly) and set aside sacred time for the important but not urgent (like my audiobook).  In addition, I have learned to let go of things that are not important or urgent (by putting off “nice-to-do’s”) and/or looping in someone else to handle what is urgent but not important to me.
  3. Reschedule or cancel meetings.
    Meetings are an incredible drain on time – not only do you need to show up for them, but often you need to prepare for them and follow-up afterward.   Take a look at the meetings you have committed to and see if you can free up some time to deal with the more important work on which you need to focus.  Here are some ideas:
    • Is it a meeting that you can temporarily post-pone? — i.e. important but not urgent.
    • Is it a face-to-face meeting that you can make into a conference call or virtual meeting? I’ve found that I can often cover the same content in a virtual meeting and save myself 1-2 hours – in both transit time and social time, since we get down to business faster in a virtual meeting.
    • Is it a meeting that one of your staff could attend instead of you? This might be a great way to offer development opportunities for junior staff.
    • Is it a routine meeting that you can possibly skip this week, or get out of altogether?
  4. Determine the leadership style you need.
    Be careful about what leadership style you slip into when you are stressed and panicked.  Most leaders I have seen (and I often have this knee-jerk reaction myself) believe that they need to take control of the situation immediately!  Not so, especially if you have done the evaluative work above.

    If you move too quickly into a tell/control-oriented style much of the time, you will foster dependency and lack of accountability within the organization.   And if you constantly usurp your staff’s work with “this needs to get done today” demands, you will create an organization that reels from crisis to crisis and causes “burn out” and disengagement with staff.

    So, it behooves you to think carefully about what kind of leadership style you need to use to address an urgent and important situation without always taking control.  Who can assist with this issue?  Take the time to fully brief and discuss the situation with your associate or direct report, get some opinions, and clearly identify roles, responsibilities, and a plan to move forward.  Yes, this may take a little more time than just directing someone to do something.  And it may be one of the wisest investments of time and effort that you make.

  5. Say “no” when you need to, and mean it.
    We all hate to disappoint others and go back on our commitments, but sometimes we may need to do so.   I recently told my audiobook producer that I wasn’t going to make my month-end deadline, and needed to negotiate a new one.   It is more realistic and honest than promising something that I cannot deliver.

    When it is clear that something is no longer workable, you need to find a way to extract yourself from it.  Talk to the other person and see if there is another way for the work to be accomplished without you.   Do take responsibility for your part, but do not take on guilt for doing this.  Almost everyone understands that life happens and most of the time we are not in control of it.

  6. Schedule like a doctor.
    Although this is my last piece of advice, it perhaps should have come first.   Even if you are a busy executive, you need to carve out unscheduled time in your calendar to deal with the unexpected.  Much like a doctor who schedules routine exams months out but leaves time to deal with urgent needs and emergencies, you need to block out some unscheduled time in your calendar each week.

    If you have an administrative assistant, give that person instructions about how much to fill your calendar each week.  If you calendar your own time, set up calendar blocks that no one else can fill without your permission.

    Then stick to it!  If for some reason you have some free time to yourself, you can work on your “important but not urgent” tasks.

In summary, to be personally effective, maintaining your focus is important.   To do so, you will need to monitor and adjust your own tendencies in the moment, and put structures in place that assist your effort.
I hope these ideas are helpful – let me know what works for you!

Cathy Perme is the co-owner of Perme & Peterson Associates, LLC.

Fizz by Cathy Perme

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Fizz! How to Succeed as an Independent Consultant author Cathy Perme also wrote Confucius in My Cubicle: Practical Wisdom for the Leader in All of Us, released by Wisdom Editions in 2017.

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