Why it’s time you put the “push through” mindset away.
If you are one of those people who can get focused quickly and maintain concentration even while distractions are competing for your attention, this article may not be for you.
If you are great at proactively scheduling breaks into your calendar and taking those breaks throughout the day, keep doing what you’re doing.
If on the other hand, you find your legs going numb from sitting too long, your eyes crossing from staring at your screen and you’ve moved your coffee maker onto your desk to save getting up throughout the day, and still find yourself exhausted and somehow further behind on your most crucial work, then this article is definitely for you.
Before COVID-19, the research arm of my company, BrainAMPED, uncovered some interesting data. We found that leaders who proactively build breaks into their day (and took them), self-assessed themselves as being more focused throughout the day, less tired at the end of the workday, and in the case of having a partner at home, felt more present with them outside of work hours.
None of that was surprising. The data on working in 90-minutes cycles followed by a break is well documented. What was most surprising was that the difference between leaders who were scored as being “good” and those being “great” by their manager, direct reports, and their partners at home, wasn’t dependent on the quantity or length of breaks. Instead, it was much more connected to the quality of the breakstaken throughout the day.
Our research shows that high quality breaks consistently have five key elements. I’ve organized them into an easy to remember mnemonic, we call them P.O.W.E.R. breaks. These are short (typically 15 minutes at the low end and an hour at the high end), reset breaks taken throughout the workday.
Let’s look at the key elements of a P.O.W.E.R. break:
P: Proactive Pause
By far, the biggest difference between those that took breaks throughout the day and those who didn’t was if they proactively scheduled them and diligently worked to keep them free, even when a request came in that would overlap.
When asked why people don’t take breaks throughout the day, even when they knew they are helpful, the most consistent answer was, “because I was too busy.” This is all a matter of brain science. The longer you work, the less time it will feel like you have to take a break. This is because your Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC), the part of your brain that helps you keep things in perspective, fatigues when constantly engaged – and is less able to recognize when a break would be most beneficial.
The second key piece is that it is a “Pause.” This means you “pause” doing work. If you schedule a 15-minute break following two meetings and you fill that time checking email, you have proactively scheduled a work execution break – not a pause break. The goal is to give that hard-working PFC a break allowing it to function best and therefore serve you best.
This element is about consciously slowing and deepening your breath to oxygenate your brain and body. If you’ve worked with me before, you know that “Oxygenate” is a part of many strategies.
The reason for this is simple – it is necessary. For many of you, much of the day feels fast-paced, pressure-filled and demanding. This stress kicks in the ‘fight-flight’ system resulting in quick, shallow breathing.
Slowing down and deepening your breath activates your vagus nerve. This nerve bundle is critical to turning off the ‘flight-flight’ stress response system. It instead, activates the relaxation response, reducing your heart rate and blood pressure.
To build this into your reset break, take a minute or two and just focus on taking some slow breaths. When done throughout the day people report lower frequency of headaches, less muscle tension and more energy.
As counter-intuitive as this sounds, one of the biggest contributors to dehydration is immobility. When you are sitting most of the day away, water delivery to the cells is slowed which in turn decreases the flow of waste particles out of those cells – dehydrating the system and increasing the feeling of fatigue.
This is often further exacerbated by attempting to get that ‘second wind’ by replacing a glass of water with a cup of coffee. Unfortunately, this has a tendency to further dehydrate you.
But it’s not just that you feel tired. Because your brain functions via electrical impulses between synapses, the brain requires water to serve as the conduit. When you are dehydrated the connection between these synapses slows down impacting on your ability to concentrate and think in a nimble way.
Simply adding in more water throughout the day will have a huge impact on energy, focus and attention.
If your initial reaction is, “I don’t have time to exercise three times a day!” rest assured, I am not suggesting that. In the context of a P.O.W.E.R. break, think of exercise as simply standing up and extending your limbs.
However, if you want to amplify the impact of your breaks, add in some actual exercise that will increase your heart rate such as brisk walk. There is a reason people often say “I’m going for a walk to clear my head.” It is because the brain is optimized when we move our bodies. Focus on adding additional movement to your day, especially if you attend a lot of virtual meetings (because you don’t even need to walk to those ones!).
Now that you’ve taken some breaths, sipped some water, disengaged from your work and moved your body, now it’s time to get back to work. Before diving back in, use that now rested PFC to re-evaluate your approach, where you are putting your time, and how you are using your energy.
This can be done by asking some simple questions such as, is this a priority? Would a phone call be a better option? Who should I engage in this decision or communicate my decision to?
Who hasn’t finished a day and thought to themselves, where did the day go? What did I accomplish today?
When busy, most people become reactive. They end up prioritizing answer emails and focusing on low value, easy-to-complete tasks. This is inevitably at the cost of high-impact work. A rested brain will question your choices, a tired brain will not.
The P.O.W.E.R. break strategy is simple, executing on it may not be easy. Your day will fill up and it will feel like you don’t have time. Remember, these are exactly the times you need a break the most.
my computer, you’ll find a folder called “File of Funnies.”
is what the actual file is called. As you might expect, this is where I keep
videos, pictures, memes, stories, and basically anything that I find funny.
Some are just for me and others I share.
you have ever been in one of my audiences, you know that I love to use a funny
video, first to make people smile but also because I believe that when we
laugh, we let the learning in.
turns out the science would back this up. Laughter raises our overall
Increasing perspective and creativity.
Decreasing stress hormones such as cortisol.
Triggering the release of endorphins, our body’s natural feel-good chemicals.
In fact, my research on exceptional leaders and what differentiates the people that experience higher levels of Leadership Vitality versus Leadership Fatigue, (appropriate) humor and laughter are consistent contributors.
This makes sense as laughter inspires hope, it strengthens relationships, it is grounding in the midst of chaos, and it can lessen our burdens, even if only for a short time.
I’ve seen what a laugh can do. It can transform almost unbearable tears into something bearable, even hopeful. ~Bob Hope
I have been filling up my “File of Funnies” lately, not just because there is a lot of funny things being shared, but because with the accumulating impact of social isolating, I need to go into the file a little more often.
Every time I scroll through, I am reminded never to underestimate the power of humor.
With all of the uncertainty everyone is facing, there are three guarantees that you should expect :
1. Everything will take longer. Conferencing everyone in, trying to call into a customer service center, or waiting in line at the grocery store, expect everything to take longer.
2. Emotions will be running high. Everyone is facing uncertainty, but each person’s circumstances are different. It serves us to remember that as empathy is often the first causality in stressful situations. Even if you can’t see emotions, they are there and will influence people’s effectiveness and productivity, hence point number one.
3. Your colleagues, employees, and direct reports are TRUSTWORTHY. Please don’t make people earn your trust – start by giving it. Even if you can’t see them at their desk, even if they don’t respond immediately to your email, assume that points one and two are contributing to any delays, not that they are slacking off, untrustworthy, and lacking commitment.
It’s natural when dealing with sudden change and uncertainty for our brain to look for shortcuts via assumptions and expectations.
Shift these positively to strengthen relationships and help people be at their best.
Just because you are eager to unplug doesn’t mean others feel the same.
It’s vacation season! In anticipation you’ve blocked the time off in your calendar, met with colleagues to ensure your work is covered while away and set an informative out-of-office message. You are mentally prepared to put the phone down and leave work (and associated devices), behind for the week. A “digital detox” awaits you.
Fast forward a couple of days. Settling into vacation mode, you sip your morning coffee on the cottage dock when suddenly one of your vacation mates starts tapping away on their phone. Maybe it’s your spouse murmuring in frustration as they check their work email, a friend scrolling through Instagram insisting you check out someone’s latest post, a sibling asking you to take, and then retake, the perfectly framed “Zen mode” shot for a social media post.
Regardless of the distraction, it feels like your digital detox is contaminated before it even started, work anxiety is top of mind and relaxation-mode quickly evaporates. The response is typically to either give-up on your unplugged vacation or launch into the same arguments that only result in more arguments; neither being desirable or helpful.
First off, unless those device users are your kids (parents, you can lay down the law), you aren’t at work and you can’t ban people from using their phone or staying connected to work no matter how strong your preference or how good your intentions.
Outside of the legitimate reasons for people staying connected, such as being able to respond to emergencies, most phone use is largely optional. Here are some strategies to preserve your relaxation (and sanity) on vacation while also respecting others preferences.
1) Have a pre-vacation conversation to share your hopes and expectations.
Don’t expect people to read your mind or have the same expectations. You must communicate your vision, your hopes, and your requests with your vacation companions. Remember, a conversation is a two-way dialogue so ensure to ask for, and consider, their expectations also. Unless you are vacationing alone, compromise is required. Together you can set parameters and agreements. Examples could include:
Choosing one meal a day that is a phone-free zone.
Social media posting is done after vacation.
Work check-ins are done in the morning with laptops put away in a case throughout the day.
Most people tend to be very open to such requests and simply haven’t thought through how to loosen their grip on their devices or how their phone use impacts others. Those that don’t want to make such commitments have a right to say and, in my experience, the conversation still helps them to reflect on their relationship to their devices, work, vacations, and loved ones.
2) Stop aiming for the perfect vacation.
Some of us put such high expectations on vacations that we create a continuous cycle of stress. We work ourselves to the edge of burnout and then we want our vacation to be the perfect restorative antidote.
The biggest challenge with hoping for the perfect device-free, work-free vacation is that nothing ever goes perfectly! Adding this all-or-nothing thinking will inevitably leave you disappointed and overly focused on the negative (like when you stewed all morning about the person taking selfies while you attempted to enjoy the morning sunrise). The natural consequence of this preoccupation includes missing the many positive moments that followed that morning.
Remember, people aren’t using their devices to upset you, they are doing it for themselves; for their comfort, their enjoyment or out of habit. Let them imperfectly “do them” and you imperfectly “do you.” Drop the perfectionist thinking and instead tap into your feelings of gratitude and appreciation of the many beautiful experiences instead.
3) Reframe the frustration as an opportunity to practice letting go.
The reality is you will see people on their phones everywhere you go. Expect that you will feel triggered when others are on their devices. Know that you will feel the wave of worry as you think about the work piling up in your absence. The good news is that vacation time provides a little more headspace to use these moments of frustration as opportunities to practice letting go.
Our brain loves to control things and when things aren’t going the way we’d like we tend to default into blame-mode (everyone is ruining my vacation), getting us tangled up in factors outside of our control. In this case, other people’s actions. A simple approach to managing this stress includes slowing down and taking a deep breath when your vacation mate picks up their phone. Next, reflect on two simple perspectives-giving questions; what can you control? What is outside of your control?
What you can’t control: OTHER PEOPLE!
If they abide by the established parameters.
If they share your dedication to going device-free.
If they change their behavior.
What you can control: YOU!
You can have a conversation about device use before and during vacation.
You can practice setting realistic expectations for yourself and others and learn to focus on the positives as you go with the imperfect flow.
You can put a “letting go” plan in place to manage the frustration when you are triggered by other people’s device use.
Vacation is a wonderful opportunity to increase your Life and Leadership Vitality Quotient (LVQ). Enjoy it and all its imperfections while you practice focusing on the controllable and letting go of the rest. When you head back to work you can plug back in with a renewed sense of you and have a few additional strategies to extend vacation mode!
After a particularly exhausting Friday which consisted of back-to-back meetings, I resentfully looked at the following week only to realize a glaringly obvious problem—it was just as busy.
The most frustrating part of my predicament was that I was following the sage productivity advice. Looking at my calendar, you would see that it was beautifully color-coded with blocks for meetings, exercise, design/writing, email-checking, personal appointments, coaching calls, reflection, and reminders, all snuggly nestled around my travel and speaking schedule.
It was very pretty to look at, unfortunately, I still felt like I was chasing the carrot I could never catch as the fulfilling parts of life felt just out of reach.
What was clear was that although spots in my calendar were filled up with priorities, there was no space in my brain or energy in my body to effectively carry them all out. Instead I just felt perpetually overscheduled and fried by the end of the week.
At around the same time, my speaking schedule was getting busier, so I invested in an online scheduling platform to work with my calendar and automate my bookings and meetings. To begin using the platform, I had to set specific scheduling parameters such as when my workday began, how long meetings would run, or how many meetings a day.
Coming up with these guidelines was easy as I had been trying to follow these for the past year. The challenge was that I’d had little sustained success. I remember thinking, “This is exactly what I need: a system to make the decision for me!”
A few of my scheduling boundaries included:
· A pre-set maximum number of meetings a day
· 40-minutes blocked for lunch
· Meetings would default to 45-minutes versus the standard 60-minutes
· A 15-minute buffer between meetings
As a researcher, I monitored the changes, charting the day-by-day impact (yes, I love data and am a geek for trends). Immediately, I noticed an amazing difference throughout each day.
Adding a time buffer between meetings gave me the opportunity to shake off the emotions from the previous meeting and mentally reset for the next one. I found myself standing up and moving around more between appointments leaving me less exhausted at the end of the day.
At lunch, I started getting outside more, sitting, walking and just enjoying my lunch away from my desk.
The most notable change was that I now had the energy to start the day, and this energy was sustained until the end of the day. It wasn’t just physical energy, which was noticeable, but I also felt this high-quality mental energy that enabled me to carry out more focused work. I found myself more contemplative in how my “to-do’s” aligned with my business strategy. I was less distracted and more able to work on one thing at a time and finish it!
Within days, my family noticed the difference, too—I was more present and more disciplined at shutting off work. I was more patient, and I laughed more. The weekends stopped being a reprieve to catch up and became a time to actively recharge and recover by exploring new things such as learning to box and connecting with friends and family more.
And yet, with all these positive changes, about two months in, I found myself trying to override the system, attempting to squeeze in more meetings. People would request meetings and, even though I’d reached the maximum allotment for the day, I’d just squeeze them in, anyway!
Now, it may not be obvious, but I’m a logical and self-aware person. I realized that no one else would be checking my calendar and scolding me if I overrode it, so I had to ask myself, Why would I do this?
Upon reflection, I realized that there were a few areas this automated platform didn’t address. It didn’t manage my driving emotions not to disappoint. Nor did it manage my deeply ingrained belief that I should give 110% at work every day. Finally, it did not address my shear hubris that if I was feeling so good, I could or should do more.
Yet, as I started squeezing more in, my energy started leaking out and the benefits quickly dissipated. I had successfully found my tipping point, and it became clear that I needed more personal management before I could leverage the automated management. I practiced a ritual that I use when working with clients that forced me to slow down, shift out of “busy mode” and consider the impact of my choices.
When I feel I need to override the system here is the 1-minute habit I now practice:
1. I take a moment to fully stop.
Fingersoff the keyboard. If in a conversation, I stop myself from automatically accepting meetings and say I will check my schedule and get back to the person.
2. I refocus by checking-in with compassion for myself.
I ask myself, What am I feeling right now? I take a few deep breaths and tap into my self-compassion by acknowledging that things are difficult and that I feel pulled in many directions.
3. I then challenge my reality with curiosity.
Why would I choose to be less effective today? This question forces me to think instead of getting swept away in the feelings that contribute to short-sighted decisions.
4. Finally, I shift my thinking out to the world.
Iask myself, What is the value and consequence to saying “yes”? This question realigns me with my values and, just as important, the impact my choices will have on others, before moving outside my boundaries.
Yes, some days require me to go over my allotted number of meetings. Sometimes, I must book a lunch meeting due to a client’s schedule. However, the value of boundaries is that they give you the space to work within.
Now, whether automated or not, my schedule serves as a great reminder to not let the busyness of the moment override my vision of my future. But only my choices will ensure it!
When it comes to delegation most of us have heard the old saying “if you need something done, give it to a busy person.” It turns out if we believe this, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and burning out good people. So how should we approach delegation? Well the answer may be found in the following equation:
= Time Pressure x Task Switching
“Too much to do and not enough time” is one of the most often cited stressors in organizations today and the reason why understanding each variable in this equation is so important. This perception of extreme busyness has created valid challenges for managers when delegating work (where do you go when everyone is maxed out?), and for employees assessing reasonable workloads (how do you keep delivering when already feeling overwhelmed?).
However, in today’s organizations time pressure is often non-negotiable, and simultaneously executing on multiple competing priorities is not only a cultural norm, but it’s also the expectation. Let’s focus on how to use this Delegation Capacity equation best.
Starting with the first variable, Time Pressure. We’ve all been there, yet another urgent request lands on our desk. With the deadline imminent and the expectations high, we push late into the night to complete the request. After reviewing and rechecking we feel (deceivingly) confident that it is a job well done, so we submit, just making the deadline.
Days later we re-read, or worse, our boss knocks on our door to share that what seemed like great work only 48 hours ago, is unclear, filled with mistakes, and simply doesn’t live up to our real potential. Frustration reigns all around in this no-win situation.
This scenario does not surprise Dr. Teresa Amabile from Harvard Business School who has been studying the consequences of time pressure on performance for the past decade. Her discoveries should seriously influence how we think about delegation.
She has found that when people are busy and under challenging time constraints to deliver, they doget more work done. Hence the belief ‘if you need it done, give it to the busy person.’ However, contrary to popular belief, the quality of work goes down, so less significant work will is achieved under time pressure. Exactly the scenario described above.
Research out of the Netherlands sheds light on how time pressure impacts quality. First, as deadlines get closer, fewer alternatives and options get considered in the brainstorming phase. Second, the decision-making process relies on the “first come, first served” thinking bias. Although the first idea may not have been the best, most creative or strategic, we move forward with it because it was the most readily available and perhaps easiest to execute on. Third, our available working memory (or cognitive capacity), decreases as anxiety increases about meeting the deadline leaving us less able to critically and accurately review the material. We miss information and errors that are right in front of our eyes (in psychological circles this is called inattentional blindness).
If you have ever been late for an important off-site meeting and driven right past your exit (even if you have looked directly at the sign!), you will know exactly what I mean.
To be clear, some pressure does help us focus, but too much time pressure overrides our best abilities. Understanding this keeps us from making some common mistakes.
As the “delegator” we mistakenly think that applying pressure by reinforcing the urgency and our high expectations will help people work better under tight time constraints, but in reality, we are having exactly the opposite impact.
As the “delegatee” we may think we’ll do our best work in that “eleventh hour,” but this is also wrong. Time pressure has a deleterious impact on the quality of work. And yet, this is only part of the puzzle.
The second variable is Task switching, which is a cognitive function
that consists of shifting attention between one task and another. When it comes to
delegation capacity, yes, some people can handle more task switching and yes,
experience and expertise (and a great productivity App), may help people manage
competing priorities. However, it is
inarguable that at a cognitive level,
our brain has limits to how much task switching it can processes (and this
is further impacted and constrained by increasing time pressure). Investigating task switching helps us answer
the question – how busy is too busy?
To best understand if the next delegated task will be the tipping point between effective busyness and ineffective overwhelm, let me use a cooking example. As a novice cook (novice by choice as cooking is my least favorite thing to do), I have found success with recipes that have multiple steps that can be done in discrete succession. And yet, my latest attempt was a miserable failure as it required extreme multitasking with sauces to simmer, pastry to be rolled and fillings to be mixed nearly simultaneously (and add on that I was also trying to complete this article between simmering’s and it was simply a recipe for a disaster!).
There are three elements
that impact task switching performance in delegation decisions:
Task Volume. At some point, too many is too much!
Task Connection. Related tasks are
easier to switch between. For example, it is simpler to focus on making my
sauces and rolling my pastry because they are linked tasks compared to making
that same sauce while trying to finish this article as they are unrelated and
require different types of cognitive processing.
Task Completion. If the tasks can be
done in successive order to completion, we’ll have more cognitive capacity to
focus on the quality of work. Therefore, if I complete the recipe from start to
finish and then move to writing the article, I will have more cognitive capacity
for each. In theory, the quality of each should go up, though not the case for
my phyllo pastries!
The delegation capacity equation is both
applicable and informative when considering how much people can tolerate before
their performance suffers because even highest performers have limits. So if we
need to delegate to an already busy person (or say yes to a boss and still
deliver great work), then below are a few approaches that set everyone up for
success even in challenging, pressure filled situations.
If you are the Delegator
some ideas that create space for your people to do their best work:
Consolidate the tasks
that you delegate. Put like tasks with like.
The less “task switching” you create, the more processing capacity they
will have available. Keep process tasks,
creative tasks, reflective-based tasks together as much as possible.
Block distractions. Task switching isn’t just moving from one
required task to the next, but also managing the distractions that come with meetings,
answering email, knocks on the door, client visits, etc. If possible, under tight time pressure support
your people by blocking as many distractions as possible allowing them to
Chances are you are feeling the pressure also, and you now need to depend on others to meet your deadlines. This is challenging so you must remind
yourself that everyone has limits and under pressure, these are even narrower.
When you are providing support, having an expectation of “excellence” in their
delivery is both attainable and sustainable, but under pressure, it is unfair
and dangerous to expect “perfection.”
If you are the Delegatee
If you are the recipient of the
delegation, here are some things to consider to ensure you can do your best
Ask for help. Working under pressure and
working on multiple projects means you will miss things. Ask for “fresh eye” reviewers. Ask for people to let you focus. Asking for
help is not a weakness, it shows you are committed to doing great work.
Know your limits and clarify expectations. If you are asked to complete a project but don’t feel you are able
to give it the time it needs, be honest and
solution oriented. Lay out all of
your current deliverables for your manager as they may not know all that you
have on the go. By
striking the right balance, you appear eager and capable, while giving your manager
the opportunity to make an informed decision to give the project to someone
else, give you an extended deadline, or reassign your other work.
Manage your thinking and
When we have too much to do and not enough time we tend to go into
crisis mode. Take both a mental and emotional
pause. Breathe and ask yourself, how you
can approach this as a challenge to learn and grow, versus a crisis to try to
get through. You may not be able to
change the pressure, but you can control your thinking about the situation.
If you want things done, busy people will get them done. If you want busy people to do great work, help manage the pressure because even the busiest and best performers need this, along with other simple things (like, you know, sleep!).
Perhaps the delegation myth isn’t fully busted; however, understanding capacity and tools to create it will allow everyone to make more strategic delegation decisions.