By Pratap Nambiar for The Sunday Times

Leaders need an organised mind to overcome the pressures of time and information overload

“I wasted time and now doth time waste me” wrote Shakespeare in Richard II.

In the last 12 years that I have been helping leaders to transform themselves to take their organisations to the next level, I have found that their single biggest challenge has been the paucity of time. So much to do and so little time. Twenty-four hours in a day just does not seem enough.

So many of today’s corporate leaders are overstressed, sleep deprived and not able to make time for the things they would like to do.

Neuroscientists have discovered that unproductivity and loss of drive can result from decision overload. So many times I have myself observed that even the simplest act like deciding what to order for lunch can seem like a major task. In fact, the many such trivial decisions we have to make results in neural fatigue, depriving us of the energy required to make more critical decisions.

Dr Daniel Levitin, author of The Organized Mind, says it is as though our brains are configured to make a certain number of decisions per day and once we reach that limit, we cannot make any more, regardless of how critical they are.

One of the most useful findings in recent neuroscience, he says, could be summed up as: The decision-making network in our brain does not prioritise.

 

KNOWING WHAT’S CRITICAL

Prioritisation is in essence the connection between an organised mind and the capacity to overcome the challenge of managing time. The bane of any leader’s successful performance is the inability to overcome the challenge of distraction.

When this gets combined with the mechanical adherence to the completion of tasks, and the unprecedented amount of information we are confronted with, we get overwhelmed by our day and feel that we need more and more hours each day.

Usually this results in some important and urgent decision or task falling between the cracks, thereby derailing organisational effectiveness. Today we live in a world with 300 exabytes (18 zeroes) of human-made information. Dr.Levitin says that if each of these pieces of information were written on a 3×5 index card and then spread out side by side, just one person’s share of this information would cover every square inch of the states of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. That makes about 4.2 million ha or approximately over 50 times the size of
Singapore!

Our brain does have the ability to process all this information but at a cost: We cannot separate the trivial from the important and all this effort causes a great deal of mental fatigue and mismanagement of time.

In a recent McKinsey survey of leaders to understand how effectively they spent their time at work, the most satisfied and fulfilled leaders were found to have 24 per cent alone time. This does not mean that they were spending it all surfing the Internet, but rather they were able to seriously reflect about themselves, their business, their people and clients, which allowed them to make new and better choices in the best interest of their organisation.

These leaders understood that their state of being, which influenced how they spent their time, formed the platform of self-awareness and development on which the organisation could be taken to the next level of performance.

 

PAYING ATTENTION

Some months ago, I wrote an article titled “Leaders need to pay attention to paying attention“.

Attention is the most essential mental resource that helps us determine which aspects of a given context or situation we need to deal with and how – what to focus on and what not to.

According to Mr Tom Davenport, former director of the Accenture Institute for Strategic Change, “understanding and managing attention is now the single most important determinant of business success”.

We all have a built-in attention filter that helps us do this selection, but because of our current lifestyle this filter gets overwhelmed. Large consulting and accounting firms that bill on the basis of time well understand that when high-cost talent (like partners) do the job of managers, it is a definite recipe for disaster that ends up costing them a lot of money.

Lower-level staff actually need to act as attention filters to ensure that partners do not end up spending their precious time doing stuff that is neither important nor urgent.

The disorganised leader is invariably the one who is driven by activity bias and driven by fear of not having things to do. They actually have got into the habit of playing the victim (it’s never my fault, there is always someone else or something else to blame), looking for distractions as their identity, their sense of self-worth depends on how often they can keep repeating to themselves and others how busy they are.

This is an ego trip that is really driven by arrogance where my inability to attend to you or your needs is because I am terribly busy – read “I matter more than you”.

Succumbing to distractions is also based on a fear of missing out, as I am not willing to take a chance that I might get left out of discussions or meetings and hence lose my status or power in the organisation.

 

MINDFULNESS

Mr Rasmus Hougaard, author of One Second Ahead, refers to mindfulness as the way to enable people to master their attention, improve their awareness and sharpen their focus and clarity.

Multitasking, he says, is a myth because from a neurological perspective, we are not capable of focusing attention on two things at the same time. Computers can multitask as they have multiple processors, while we have only one brain and a singular attention capability. Harvard Business School researchers have also found that
multitasking even hinders creativity.

To be the best version of ourselves every day, we need to generate mental effectiveness so that we can realise our full professional and personal potential. This needs an organised mind that is balanced, relaxed, focused and clear. The central characteristics of mindfulness are sharp focus and open awareness.

The former is the ability to concentrate single-pointedly on any object of choice for a long time with minimal effort. It is the ability to perform without any distraction.

Open awareness is the ability to see clearly what is happening in your mind and make wise choices about where to focus your attention. It is the exact opposite of doing things on autopilot.

 

MANAGING TIME

One of my clients who was perceived by his peers and employees who report to him, as well as external vendors, as arrogant and self-obsessed had a huge problem being anywhere on time. He just did not respect other people’s time and had any number of reasons to justify his behaviour.

After several coaching conversations, he finally made the commitment to change and took ownership of his behaviour. He even changed his language and whenever he found himself not attending to someone he had committed to, he made it a point to say to himself: “I did not care for this person” (by not paying him attention).

This he did not like as he felt that was not true, so he went back and found the time to correct
the inattention.

In fact when he arrived for his internal leadership meeting on time for the first time, he found he was alone as none of his colleagues expected him to be on time. This was a big wake-up call for him and since then he has organised himself to focus on what mattered. This meant he had to find the courage to say no to several engagements that he would otherwise have accepted.

I have helped my clients plan their day, restricting them to just three sessions of an hour each to attend to e-mail – one at the start of the day, one at the end, and one just after lunch. No meetings would be set up during these sessions.

I also get them to do an audit of the day and the week gone by. They look at what they have achieved and what they mismanaged, getting sucked into unnecessary distractions. Many clients now take 10-minute breaks after every hour of work they put in. I have also tried with mixed success to get them to start early and leave work early.

But the best success I have had is helping CEOs measure how they are leaking dollars when they mismanage time. When this coin drops, you can be sure that change will happen in most instances.

Ultimately, managing time effectively is an art. But it does not hurt to set up processes that will help establish the discipline needed to stop the procrastination and distraction that overwhelm the mind.

In today’s technology-driven world, there are several time-management tools like Focus Booster for those who use the Pomodoro technique (referred to earlier by setting a fixed time and taking regular breaks), a bunch of Google-related tools, Brain.fm for productive music, When I Work for employee scheduling, Habit Minder, Daylio, MeisterTask and so on.

The real challenge though is to realise that for things to change, first I must change.

Pratap Nambiar, Chartered Business Coach (ChBC), is the founder and chairman of Thought Perfect, a Singapore-based organisation dedicated to coaching CEOs for leadership transformation.

This article was originally published in The Sunday Times on March 08, 2020.

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See Pratap Nambiar discuss the leadership transformation journey in this series of 6 videos.

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