Driven to Distraction
There’s a good reason that one of the perennial favorite New Year’s resolutions is to do a better job at time management -- to be better
organized at work, at home, in life. Nearly everyone these days is overbooked, overworked, and overcommitted. Our days are crowded with meetings, emails, phone calls, fire-fighting – and we are connected continuously through cell phones, pagers, laptops, and PDAs.
There is no longer any refuge from this endless busyness, as our work lives extend into evenings, weekends, even vacation time. Working on the
weekends is now the norm (one study found that 97% of its respondents work at least some weekends), and it is reported to be on the upswing. The boundaries between the different domains of life are now much more permeable, thanks to technology. It’s a trend that’s been going on ever since electric lighting became commonplace, and our work lives were no longer delimited by daylight and darkness.
What that means is that we, as individuals, now have the responsibility for making conscious choices about how we spend our time. We stay plugged in by choice, often because that feels like the only way to stay in control all the time. We’re aided and abetted in this choice by the management culture in most organizations that equates performance with action. Tom DeMarco, author of Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency, calls this “a dangerous corporate delusion: the idea that organizations are effective only to the extent that all their workers are totally and eternally busy.” In a knowledge economy, does that even make sense?
Research reported in an article last February in the Harvard Business Review (“Beware the Busy Manager”) turned up the astonishing finding that
90% of managers squander their time (on and off the job) in all sorts of ineffective activities, doing little more than looking and sounding busy. That means that only 10% of managers spend their time in purposeful ways. Researchers Heike Bruch and Sumantra Ghoshal identified two key traits that mark effective executives: focus (concentrated attention) and energy (intense personal commitment.) Using these two traits, they constructed this matrix:
The largest group of managers studied (40%) fell into the distracted category: “well-intentioned, highly energetic but unfocused people who confuse frenetic motion with constructive action.” These are the managers who frequently find themselves overcommitted, taking on more projects than
they can handle, constantly reacting to external stimuli, careening from crisis to crisis. They are also the executives with cell phones pressed to ears on a Caribbean beach or an alpine ski lift during a Christmas vacation with the family.
What distinguishes the purposeful from the distracted manager? Self-awareness, clarity about his intentions, deliberate decisionmaking, discipline and self-management. A purposeful executive manages time and
energy like the precious commodities they are, building plenty of time for reflection and renewal into his daily schedule. He focuses on only a handful of important projects, the ones that will make a difference to the fortunes of the organization.
The distracted manager feels constrained by outside forces, believes he has limited influence, and sees no alternative to his habitual busyness. It’s a way of surrendering responsibility, what the political theorist Erich Fromm
called the “flight from freedom.” By contrast, the purposeful executive decides what he must achieve and then manages the external environment. He is very aware of the choices he can make, and he uses that knowledge to extend his freedom of action.
From that perspective, time management and being organized become tools for enabling meaningful work, and not an end in themselves. So
maybe a more powerful New Year’s resolution would be to spend less time being “distracted”, and more being purposeful. Try it.
In 2002, according to the Gallup Organization, 18% of Americans reported that they had not read any books in the past year, while 31% read between 1 and 5 books, 15% read 6 to 10, 27% read 11-50 and 8% read more than
50. In 1978, 8% said they did not read any books that year, and 13% said they had read more than 50.
Elaine St. James, in her 2001 book Simplify Your Work Life, reports that the average American now spends the equivalent of five days a year opening and reading junk mail, nearly a year over a 40-year career.
According to Martin P. Wattenberg in his new book Where Have All the Voters Gone, the main reason registered nonvoters give for not voting is that they don't have time to get to the polls. Whereas 7.6% of respondents to a 1980 Census Bureau survey pled "Too busy; could not take time from work/school," 21% did so in 1996.
In their new book The Deviant’s Advantage, Ryan Mathews and Watts Wacker write about how “positive deviance” -- a measurable distance from
the norm – is responsible for all transformational change, whether in art and culture, scientific breakthroughs, technological advances, or physical evolution. They use the term “devox” to describe the voice, spirit or incarnation of deviant ideas, individuals, or products. The devox provides a basis for positive change in both organizations and individuals.
What Should I Do With My Life?, by Po Bronson, article in Fast Company magazine, January 2003. What I like about it: The author spent time with more than 900 people from all walks of life and discovered that “the most obvious and universal question on our plates as human beings is
the most urgent and pragmatic approach to sustainable success in our organizations.”
Executive Coach, Strategy Consultant
Principal, Bloomfield Associates
Free the Beagle: A Journey to Destiane, by Roy H. Williams. What I
like about it: This tale of a lawyer and a beagle traveling the long road to destiny visiting such places as the Forest of Confusion and the Sea of False Hope offers valuable insights on many levels. The book’s style is written in a way that each time you read it you’ll enjoy a different story and come away with another meaning. I particularly enjoy the 20-page roundtable discussion at the end involving the publisher, a literary critic, a
businesswoman, a motivational speaker, a chaplain, and a neurologist, included to deliberately open each reader up to an innumerable mix of interpretations.
Web Developer, Internet Guru
Principal, Breezy Hill Designs
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information, along with one sentence on what you like about it, and if we use it in A Different Optic we’ll not only quote you, we’ll provide a link to your website.
"The only things worth learning are the things you learn after you know it all."
— Harry Truman
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The workshop on Leadership Development for members and
guests of the Washington, DC chapter of the Institute of Management Consultants previously set and cancelled for November 16, 2002, will be rescheduled for a date in Spring 2003. Beth Bloomfield and two other Washington-area coaches, Randy Chittum and Alicia Rodriguez, will lead the workshop. We’ll publish an announcement in this newsletter and on the Bloomfield Associates website when more definitive information is available.
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