Reclaiming Control Over Your Priorities With a Mindful Approach

Business professionals meditating
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Shadow most senior managers and organizational leaders for a day as they traverse a seemingly endless string of obstacles, interruptions, and minor and major crises, and you will be justified in wondering how they do it. 

Conspicuously absent from the daily firefighting is the quiet time for contemplation of the larger issues and big decisions. That's a shame because it is our ability to deliberately focus on those issues and contemplate and cultivate creative solutions that allow our organizations to flourish.

However, with the investment of only 20 minutes of quiet time during your day, you might just be able to regain control of your priorities and creativity and enhance your effectiveness as a manager. 

The Daily Reality for Most Managers: 

The daily demands our world of work require us to draw more upon our survival skills and the fast-thinking, automatic response center of our brain. From team members looking to us for input or decisions to being called in to navigate the emerging crisis with a customer or the supplier problem in a place we might struggle to find on a map, every day seems to take on the tone of the nightly news. 

If the emergent issues weren’t time and energy consuming enough, too many of us allow our time allocation to be dictated by others via control of our calendars. I regularly audit the calendars of coaching clients and typically find that more than half of the time in a typical week is spoken for by recurring meetings scheduled by others.

Most of these meetings are status updates that can easily be eliminated with a little discipline.  

Beware When the Fire Drill Becomes Addicting: 

For some of us, the daily drill becomes a comfortable pattern that keeps us engaged and involved. Unfortunately, we are engaged and involved at a transactional level and once again, those larger decisions and looming issues are pushed to the back of the line, awaiting a convenient time for focused processing.

Consider the case of one senior sales manager. 

After a series of increasingly poor 360-degree reviews, I was brought in to provide coaching help for this sales manager. He had a long history of success as a sales representative and had been promoted into the current role as a reward for his past achievements. The primary complaint with this sales manager was his apparent inability to make decisions on the main strategies and structural issues facing the sales team. Personnel decisions lingered and overall sales strategy seemed to vary by the day depending on who had his ear most recently.

After shadowing the sales manager for a few days, I observed someone who reveled in the daily fire-drill of helping representatives negotiate and close deals. I asked him when he had time to think strategically and to process on the big decisions in front of him. His response said it all. “I don’t. I like the thrill of the hunt. Those other issues often take care of themselves.” Needless to say, this individual was in the wrong role. We returned him to the field where he continues to excel as an outstanding representative many years later. 

For those who prefer or become addicted to the daily sprint, time spent in contemplation of the larger issues almost seems like cheating.

Chance are, like our sales representative above, a managerial or leadership role is an improper use of their skills and interests. 

For conscientious leaders who understand they must find time to deal with those topics, the lack of time to deal with them is frustrating. It’s time to seize control of yourself, your priorities and your daily activities. 

Retrain Your Brain By Carving Out 20 Minutes to Focus: 

Increasingly, top leaders and rising managers in organizations large and small describe the benefit of carving out a dedicated time in their daily lives for quiet contemplation and introspection. From the practice of mediation or its more contemporary name, mindfulness, your ability to silence your mind and focus carefully on either something positive or nothing at all, sets the tone for a more controlled day with the emphasis on the right issues.

While you might discount this practice as some fad intended to sell books and training, it turns out there’s plenty of science supporting the benefits of focused time or meditation. 

At a basic level, the brain has a number of different control centers that support our survival. One system manages the many routine tasks of living, and we don’t spend much time at all conscious of this system’s activities. Another portion of the brain owns our response to danger and triggers the appropriate chemical and physiological reactions necessary when faced with an issue. When stimulated, this portion of the brain seizes control suppressing the more deliberate, executive center where higher order thinking takes place. 

The executive center of our brain is responsible for slow, deliberate thinking. It's where we generate ideas, solve problems and deal with the big issues. Unfortunately, it has limited capacity and is quickly shut down by distractions. It takes effort and focus on engaging this part of the brain to reap its amazing capabilities. 

The work of focusing on breathing for example or simply clearing our minds allows this executive center to emerge, pushing that important but obnoxious automatic system into the background and suppressing the negative emotions that trigger fight, flight or freeze. The process of focusing and drawing upon this center supports a positive rewiring to emphasize higher order thinking. 

4 Ideas to Help You Focus for 20 Minutes:

There are some great resources available on dealing with the overworked phenomenon that many managers and leaders struggle with in their daily lives. A search on the "term" mindfulness will uncover a variety of resources applicable for business professionals. However, in the interest of helping you right now, here are four ideas to help you get started in seizing control of your day and improving your effectiveness as a manager or leader. 

  1. First, build a short block of time into your daily routine. If necessary, set your alarm for one-half hour earlier and after you are awake, find a quiet location and deliberately eliminate distractions. My advice is to avoid your smartphone or e-mail until well after your brief period of contemplation or meditation. 
  2. Try clearing your mind and focusing on your breathing. If stray thoughts trickle in, push them away and resume your concentration on your breathing. Do this for twenty minutes. This deliberate focus fires the neurons in your executive center and strengthens the connections for your use of the center in your daily life. 
  3. Invoke your “Wise Advisor” to consider your recent actions and outcomes. Think about someone you are struggling to deal with and ask yourself: “What motivates this person?” Or, focus on one problem and ask yourself, “How might someone else view this problem?” Be careful to focus on just one issue per session. 
  4. Another variation involves replacing your negative thoughts with more positive perspectives. One coaching client tended to view her colleagues as adversaries out to get her. By investing a few minutes of focused time every day and concentrating on viewing these same people as allies, she was able to alter her approach to them for the better.  

The Bottom Line:

Regardless of what you do to press the pause button on the chaos and noise around you, the fact that you do it will pay dividends in terms of improved mood and attitude and an increased ability to focus on priorities. Additionally, many leaders report doing a better job engaging with and guiding team members. Develop the discipline to turn off the noise and focus internally, and you will be better prepared to not only survive but thrive the balance of the day.