How to make sure that your time is spent fixing the right things.

How often this week has someone told you about a problem that happens ‘all the the time’?
 
When did you last get dragged into an issue because someone ‘always does’ that thing that winds up everyone else?
 
As a leader an important part of your role is to remove the barriers which are stopping your team from being their best. It may be a recurring technical problem, the actions of a team member, or ‘constantly’ being held back by something in the system. If these issues can’t be resolved at a lower level, and they are impacting on the ability of your team to deliver excellence, then they are going to land on your desk.
 
But, are you spending your time trying to fix the right things?
 
Let’s be honest we can all be guilty of jumping to conclusions before we have all the information. We might listen to only one persons concerns. Or, accept the most commonly stated version of events. More often the problem is not as big as it first appears.
 
Without meaning to people exaggerate the extent of a problem. This isn’t because they aim to misinform, but simply that to them it seems like a huge problem.
 
For example, the office stapler – back in the day when we used to use such things – would ‘always’ run out of staples when I needed to use it.
 
And the photocopier ‘always’ ran out of paper when I came to copy something. Under my breath I would mutter something along the lines of ‘am I the only person who ever fills this up’!
 
Of course, it didn’t and I wasn’t!
 
In reality I just didn’t pay attention to all the times when I used them and they didn’t need filling up.
 
There is even a term for it.
 
The Texas sharpshooter fallacy is when differences in data are ignored, but similarities are overemphasized.
 
This can cause us to reach a false conclusion.
 
There is a tendency in humans to interpret patterns where none actually exist.
 
The name comes from a joke about a Texan who fires some gunshots at the side of a barn, then paints a target centered on the tightest cluster of hits and claims to be a sharpshooter.
 
It’s a very common source of unnecessary action in our work life, because we tend not to dig deep enough to understand what the real problem is. People circle the hits – or number of times a problem occurs – and ignore the number of times that it doesn’t happen.
 
Facts before action.
 
So, next time a member of your team reports a problem which ‘happens all the time’, or an issue comes up in your team meeting and everyone concurs ‘that it’s a problem for them too’. Start with some critical questions.
 
This is not because you doubt that your team are frustrated by the problem but because you need to understand how much of a problem it is. You need to know what is really going on before you can decide how best to act.
 
To mis-quote Thomas Jefferson ‘the truth has nothing to fear from enquiry’.
 
Statistics and data are important.
 
In my experience when I asked how often has this problem occurred, it would often be a lot less than ‘always’. Sometimes this question alone can cut off the need for any major action. When asked this question a team can often come to the real conclusion, that actually it is not a problem at all but a minor annoyance that they need to find a sensible approach to.
 
How often the problem has occurred over time and in relation to the number of times it hasn’t happened needs to be determined.
 
The impact of the problem needs to be understood.
 
The reason for the problem needs to be ascertained. What is actually happening the point that it occurs? What are the inter-dependent and or coincidental actions occurring around the problem.
 
These are all tasks that you can pass back to your team.
 
Only when you have some of this basic information can you start to determine what actions you need to take next.

Top tips for deciding whether something is worth your energy and ways to carve out extra time in your day

How many times today have you done something and then thought to yourself, what was even the point of that? It’s easy to get sucked into a continuous wheel of doing things that add no value. Whether you are working for yourself, or in a big corporate organisation, often these pointless energy sappers can be a form of self sabotage or procrastination.

Oh, I know – I used to do this all the time. There would be that report that really needed to be written, but I would spend a bit more time checking time sheets. Or, I knew that I could add most value by going and having a conversation with one of my team. Instead I’d read all those emails that I have been copied into, for no good reason!

Sound familiar?

Yeah, I know that some of the stuff we have to do doesn’t seem to add any value on the face of it – and we have to do it anyway! It’s the other stuff that I am talking about. The things that we have convinced ourselves are vital, take up our time, and yet we are not really sure why!

You can break this cycle of spending time doing things that you don’t need to do.

Firstly, you need to recognise the difference between the stuff that has to be done verses the stuff we have added in to our processes.

Even having recognised something as a ‘must do’, ask yourself a few questions.

Is it a corporate or legal requirement? If it is, then can you streamline the process in any way? Does it have to be YOU who does it?

For example, those timesheets I referred to earlier. It didn’t need ME to check them all. Yes, they had to be checked. Yes, as the team leader you need to know if something is amiss. But, checking them could be done by anyone other than the person submitting them. Peculiarities can be highlighted to you to act on.

“Ahh, but!” I hear you say. “What if the person checking them can’t be trusted to do that.” If this is the case then the problem you need to resolve is one of trust and accountability. Spot check occasionally if that makes you feel more comfortable.

Many, many years ago, when I was a junior clerk, I recall asking a senior officer why they were stood at the photocopier, waiting for copies to come off. That was my job! They told me that they were so busy they didn’t have time to pass the work to someone else (me) to do, and anyway they disliked passing down the mundane tasks.

That didn’t make sense to me then and it doesn’t now. We convince ourselves that it is quicker to do something ourself. Or that we should ‘muck in’ and do some of the so called ‘menial’ tasks ourselves.

Of course that doesn’t make sense.

It’s better to put a system, or some training, in place to ensure that work is being carried out at the appropriate level.

It’s not a case of being too grand to do certain tasks but thinking about the cost of your time.

I learnt a lot from the ‘menial’ tasks when I was in a more junior position. Not least, that there was a great deal of satisfaction from knowing that my role was a vital one. I knew that I was playing my part in ensuring the organisation ran efficiently.

Even today, whenever I carry out tasks, I always ask myself, ‘does this need to be me?’.

If the answer is yes, my next question is ‘How can I streamline or simplify the process’.

Systems make our lives easier. If you have a simple system for carrying out a process you can save countless minutes – and all those minutes add up. Alerts, reminders, calendar entries, tasks list all readily available on your computer can play a huge part. But, so often they are not used effectively. In addition there are a raft of work planning and tracking systems out there if you have the budget.

Avoid double handling of work. Cut out duplicate entries of data. Do you have 2 spreadsheets which do the same thing, or could be made to meet multiple needs?

This might all seem obvious but so often in my conversations with team leaders, the simple fixes have not been explored.
If the task is not a corporate or legal requirement, ask yourself why you do it.
Does it add value in some way? If you have a client base does it add value to your customer?
Or, is it something you have always done because you were told that it should be done? When we step back and look at what we are doing in this way we can find that we have tasks on our to do list that we don’t need to do at all. We have always done them, without thinking.

Again this seems too simplistic.
Why would we do things that we don’t really need to? We do though, all the time. Often these things are our security blanket. We feel comfortable doing them. It gives us the excuse we need to put off doing something more challenging.

But, if you are always under pressure, too busy, to stop and talk to your team members. Or drowning under the endless to do list. Then have a very good look at what is on that list.

Do YOU need to do it?

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10 ways to overcome overwhelm

Feeling overwhelmed?  You are not alone!

A common problems for leaders is that we become overwhelmed due to all the different demands on our time and energy. It’s very easy to allow it to get the better of us and this results in anxiety, stress, and fear. This 10 step guide will help you to overcome overwhelm and help you to be your best

Feeling overwhelmed?  You are not alone!

A common problems for leaders is that we become overwhelmed due to all the different demands on our time and energy. It’s very easy to allow it to get the better of us and this results in anxiety, stress, and fear. Often this leads to mental, emotional, spiritual and often, physical, pain.

As a leader the pressures are going to be great at times and we have to be super savvy to do everything required of us, as well has provide the support that others need from us.

There are steps that we can take towards keeping things in balance and avoid this overwhelm taking control. Often all it takes is a shift in focus. It involves changing and amending our mindset.  Why? Well, because we tend to get what we focus on. If we focus on feeling overwhelmed, we can become even more overwhelmed. The more time and energy we spend being anxious about everything we have to do, the less time and energy we have to start doing anything at all. It’s a vicious circle which gets tighter and tighter.

In my life this feeling of overwhelm has stopped me from achieving things that I now know I could have achieved.  Because of overwhelm I have limited my own possibilities, given up, or didn’t even try to do some things.

Does this resonate with you?

If so let me share what I have learnt.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed or even completely defeated right now, don’t beat yourself up over it. It’s OK to sometimes not be OK!  Being not OK today does not mean that you will feel like this forever – you may not even feel like it tomorrow! You can and you will bounce back. The trick is to use strategies which help you to overcome and then avoid the overwhelm.

The way out of the overwhelm trap is to change the thinking and actions that drive it. So, here are some strategies that you can use to avoid feeling like you’re at the end of your tether.

1 .       Breathe and let go of the past

The first and most important way that you can avoid feeling overwhelmed is to breathe. Breathing exercises, where you focus on your breath can help to do a number of things. Breathing in deeply and holding that breath helps to deliver more oxygen to your blood. Breathing exercise helps to calm the nerves while also detoxifying the body.

Breathing also releases carbon dioxide, which is essentially a toxin built up in the body. It rejuvenates the lymphatic system with the delivery of that oxygen. It helps to stimulate and create hormones such as serotonin and dopamine, literally making you happier. As you breathe in deeply, draw your breath for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4 and release for a count of 6. As you release, feel the negativity of the past leaving your mind and your body. (Trust me on this one and actually imagine it floating away from your body.)

Doing this doesn’t mean that you will be cured of your overwhelm but it will reduce the effects that overwhelm can have on you. Do the exercises for at least 5 minutes every time you feel the overwhelm come back and do it with intent.

Unless you believe it will work it won’t work – but it totally works for me. So much so that I finish every day with a few minutes mediation before I go to sleep. I sleep better for it.

2.       Change the narrative.

Very few people manage to keep a completely positive narrative in their mind. We are so much better at listening to the negative voice in our head than the positive one.  Past mistakes, other people’s comments, things we were told when we were growing up, all help to create the soundtrack that runs in our head. Here’s a shocker – not everything you think is true!  Ban language/thoughts such as, “I won’t be able to handle it,” “I can’t cope”. Tell yourself you can cope, you have coped, you will cope. Yes, you have 200 emails, but you can handle it. Yes, you made a mistake in the past, but you now know what not to do! Turn up the volume on the positive voice and tell that negative one to GET LOST! It takes practice but the more you do this the easier it gets. Never believe everything you think about yourself!

Believe me I still hear my negative voice  – she’s a real cow to me! But my positive one is so much louder these days.

3.       Release toxic energy

Exercise is a great way to help shift your focus when you’re feeling overwhelmed. I HATE exercising but try to do something anyway. A brisk walk is all you need to get the blood pumping and release more of those powerful happy hormones in your body and mind. Again, the mindset you have is vital. When you walk, go to the gym, swim – whatever floats your boat – focus on the exercise and how it feels in your body and mind. If you are walking focus your mind on how that feels – working up your body – in your feet, legs, hips, back, abdomen, arms and neck. Walk with intent and breathe to feed those muscles. Imagine the good energy flooding into your body.

Yoga is great for this and so is Tai Chi – which is much harder than it looks but fabulous for releasing toxic energy without even breaking into a sweat!

4.       Understand your values and your beliefs.

We often feel overwhelmed when what we’re doing on a daily basis doesn’t make us happy. This is because it is contrary to who we are, or what we believe in. When you feel this way, it’s time to reassess what you value and what you believe in. The easiest way to do this by writing it all down. What do you value? What are the most important things to you in life? What do you believe in? Then, take a look at your goals. Are you actively pursuing your long-term goals in your daily life? Are those goals in harmony with what you value and believe in? The truth is that we often do things for the wrong reasons, thinking that we have no other choice, when in fact we have a very powerful choice in the matter.

I really really wish I had been sat down 30 years ago to work out what was important to me. Now I know and I achieve so much more.

5.       Do one thing that you love

One way to avoid the feeling of overwhelm is to do one thing that you absolutely love to do. What haven’t you done for ages that you keep thinking you need to do? What’s stopping you? If you love to walk on the beach, plan a trip to the beach and do some walking. If you love going to park and reading a book, do that. you enjoy listening to a particular song? Whatever it is, do it.

For me this is painting. I hadn’t painted for years and I started colouring as a way of stilling my mind. Now I just paint, even if for only a few minutes. It doesn’t matter whether my paintings are any good. All that matters is that I enjoy doing it and it stops me thinking about everything else for a few minutes.

6.      Implement good self-management

People call this time management, but in reality we cannot manage time. We all have the same amount of time. No one has more than the next person. How well we use time is up to us though.

Are we wasting our time on things that don’t help us progress? So often we spend more time fretting about doing something than it would actually take to just do it. We have all done it, spent half an hour shuffling our work around, convincing ourselves that we don’t have time for something. Maybe spending some time having a little moan about it, if not to others at least in our heads? I’ll be honest – I do this exact thing all the time. My answer … JUST DO IT!

Seriously, just start doing whatever it is. Nothing is ever as difficult as we imagine it will be. Stop doing things that are neither urgent or important and get started.

A few tips for using the time you have as effectively as possible….

Start your day organised. A random approach will lead to overwhelm. You will start reacting rather acting and this can quickly spiral. So begin each day with a little plan for the day ahead. Know what you will focus on and you’ll feel more purposeful. Be clear about the ‘must do’s’. If you can, plan in some ‘if I do them now they are done and off the list’ tasks. This will create space another day. Write a ‘today’ list, as well as a ‘to do’ list and tick things off. Writing things down creates space in our heads. You will feel so good when you look back and see how much you ticked off.  But, don’t give yourself a hard time about what didn’t get done today. Re-evaluate and if they have now become ‘must do’s’ then put them at the top of tomorrow’s list.

Set your intention. Set an intention and timeline for each activity. By x time I will have done y. And reset this with each new task. If you can, take at least 30 seconds to bring full focus to whatever the next task is.If you are working on major pieces of work go on a short walk (it can just be to the kitchen) before switching to another activity. Use that time to refocus on the next task.

Qualify urgency.Time pressure is a huge factor in overwhelm. It drives a belief that everything is an emergency and must be done immediately. Nonstop motion makes everything appear urgent. We need to qualify the urgency of tasks, and take a breath to do so. What’s the urgency of doing it now? Busyness isn’t the same thing as being productive. Understand the timescales and plan.

7.       Set boundaries

In life we all try to do too much. We take on too many responsibilities often because we don’t know how to say no.

At work it should be clear what is expected of us but if you have too much going on in life generally it can be work that suffers. This becomes another vicious circle because then you start worrying about work as well as everything else in your life. If this is you you need to think about how you can set boundaries. Much as we like to think that we are super beings, we are really not. There is only so much that we can cope with.

If you have a lot on at work, you may need to rebalance life out of work and take more time for yourself to rejuvenate.

If your load feels completely overwhelming take responsibility for looking at what is possible and what is not. Is it that you have too many tasks, or that you don’t use your time as well as you could? Evaluate the problem and establish a plan for addressing the issues.

This is where a good deal of honesty is needed. Some times you are going to have to adjust how you spend your time to ensure that what matters gets done. It can be difficult to set boundaries in work of course so for me this is about changing my mindset about what is most important at any given time.

If I am required to do a piece of work which I hadn’t planned for then I have to decide what I can spend less time on than planned.

Often I find it is still possible to get everything done, but I may have had to take some shortcuts, or take a more simplistic approach, than I would have liked.

8.       Set the terms of engagement with devices.

Turn off devices and check them at set times. Shut off the attention seeking messaging and interruptions. You will feel more in control, not at the mercy of an avalanche of notifications, rings, pings, and pulses. Cut the volume of email, and use strategies to do so. Do you get a lot of unwanted irrelevant emails?  If so use the block, junk and unsubscribe options. Do you get a lot of personal messages? Turn off the notifications and don’t give in to the idea that you have to respond to them immediately.

When you are at work try to avoid being constantly interrupted by events outside of work. This is one of the biggest changes in the workplace over the last 15 years and one of the biggest devourers of time. In the past we weren’t even allowed personal calls without permission! Now we are expected to manage both our work world and our home life simultaneously. Not that I want to go back to having to ask to make a personal phone call, but putting our phones out of sight can massively reduce distractions

9.       Stop multitasking

Multitasking is a myth. Loads of studies have proven that you can’t do two cognitive tasks at one time. Each time you multitask you self-interrupt. This, in turn increases the time it takes. Sometimes by up to 50% longer, to complete tasks. The interruptions make your brain feel that tasks are harder than they really are. And, this fuels, those feelings of overwhelm.

I am a terror for trying to multi-task but have learnt that to do my best work I really must focus on one thing at a time.

10.     Reach out for support

When overwhelm is at a level that is causing serious health issues, say something—to a manager, supervisor, spouse, significant other. Reach out for support. Others can help us to examine our stories and bring fresh perspective. There are always other ways of arranging things.

So often I have felt completely overwhelmed but, when I have reached out, shared how I feel and then I am asked ‘what can I do’, I realise that I don’t actually need any help. I can suddenly see a way through.

Finally, and this is a good tip for life in general… WORRY LESS. We tend to worry about everything. Literall, if we don’t have something to worry about then we find something! JUST STOP IT!  I am going to start right now by not worrying about all the mistakes I have probably made in this blog!