Legend has it that Abraham Lincoln once said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
In 2017, few of us are worried about how to chop down a tree, but that doesn't mean that we don't face challenges. What too many of us overlook is the fact that sometimes, preparation — what Abe would describe as "sharpening the axe" — is the most important part of executing a project.
As an executive coach, I work closely with some of the nation’s top executive teams. On a daily basis, I meet people who are at the top of their game — smart, energetic and visionary. Unfortunately, by the time I am invited in as a consultant, the people I meet are often already in crisis.
Time and time again, what I discover when I enter an organization is exceptional individuals running on empty, because like so many people today, they are spending more time reacting to emergencies than taking time out to prepare for the future. As one workshop participant recently confided, “When I wake up, I’m already at least a week behind, so honestly, there’s just no time for planning.”
If you can relate, you’re not alone.
Today, we have more demands on our attention than ever before. Whatever the sector, work continues to become more intense and competitive. We’re expected to be multitasking, often all day and all night long, and to have the capacity to process vast amounts of information simultaneously. We’re always on, always processing, and always reacting.
But there’s a cost. Too many of us are living overwired, distracted, exhausted and disengaged, and as a result, it is becoming more and more difficult to focus our precious energy and attention on what matters most — preparation.
Why We Need To Rewire
Rewired leaders, individuals committed to performing at their peak, know the power of preparation. They short-circuit the frenetic over-wired cycle (a cycle defined by constant doing) by focusing on preparation.
First, these leaders create more time every day and even twice daily. Second, they harness the power of preparation to reclaim bandwidth, tap into their energy, and optimize performance. How do they do this?
In Adaptive Leadership, Ron Heifetz describes the importance of stepping back from the fast pace of life in order to get perspective. His point is simple but critical: The busier we are, the more demands on our time, the more essential it is to step back.
Seven Steps To Create More Flow, Focus And Happiness
Creating flow hinges on the ability to have both the time and focus needed to spend less time feeling burnt out and more time feeling in control, energized and productive. Part of my expertise is helping overstretched individuals get back on track. I offer intensive workshops and retreats to help individuals achieve this goal. Creating more time, focus and bandwidth to get into flow, however, begins with the following strategies:
1. Sharpen your axe. Like Abe Lincoln, value the time spent sharpening your axe. After all, preparation is about planning proactively rather than responding reactively. This is even more essential in our always on, always connected, over-wired world. Choose what matters most, where to put your focus, and how to tackle challenges.
2. Look before you leap. Create space between specifying intentions and jumping into action for preparation. Remember that to be successful, you need to know exactly where you are going and why you want to get there. Take time out to clarify outcomes.
3. Optimize your energy. Different tasks use different parts of your brain. Planning uses one region and taking action uses another. Toggling between different parts of your brain takes more energy. Optimize your mental energy by doing your planning, and then shift into executing.
4. Prioritize impacts. Identify which actions will have the greatest impact on your priorities. Maximize impact while optimizing your investment of time, energy, and resources. The Pareto Principle says that we can achieve 80% of our impact with 20% of focused effort. What is your 20%?
5. Be clear on outcomes. Ensure your list of outcomes is composed of specific outcomes (not tasks). The more emotion you can harness, the more energy and focus you will be able to leverage. Know why you are doing what you are doing at all times.
6. Be flexible on approach. There are often multiple ways to achieve the same outcome. Take time out to brainstorm different approaches. Remember — one option isn’t really a choice, two options are a dilemma, and only when you have three or more options are you presented with a real choice.
7. Be sure to break outcomes down into subtasks or chunks. Break priorities into small tasks and, ideally, tasks that can be completed in 15-30 minutes. Schedule mini sprints of work (also schedule in time to recover and relax). Cross things off your list — it’s a way to give yourself ongoing positive feedback. Finally, throughout the process, ask yourself, which items on my list have the possibility to move the dial most for the associated costs? What will deliver the greatest impact on my priorities?
Once you are clear on your priorities, preparation is vital to optimize your likelihood for flow. The good news is that once you are in the habit of clarifying your goals in advance and preparing thoroughly, your work will feel more energizing and pleasurable. In fact, with clear outcomes and careful preparation, you'll even begin to crave work that once felt like pure struggle.