By Alice Waagen, PhD
President and Founder
When I visit my corporate clients these days, I am amazed at the levels of stress and burnout that I am seeing. So many professionals look haggard, rushing from one meeting to another, clutching bulging notebooks and beeping Blackberries.
When I ask why things are so out of control, I hear the same answer every time: the economic fears have tightened the purse strings. More work does not mean more resources. If anything, the “do more with less” mantra has folks at the end of their patience and sanity.
Being an inveterate problem-solver, I started to look for themes or trends that could explain overload and burnout beyond the obvious one of too much work with too little to work with.
Here is my diagnosis of what is contributing to all this mess: Although the workload may have changed in the past few years, people are still using the same, ingrained work habits they were using back when time was not such a precious commodity. Habits, by definition, are unconscious, repeated behaviors.
And here is the rub: Since habits are unconscious, I am not aware that I am using them. If I am not aware that the behavior I am using is time-wasteful, I can’t change it.
So let me throw a sharp spotlight on three bad habits that I believe we need to break — and the good habits we can embrace to replace them. I think you’ll be impressed with the payoffs.
Bad Habit #1: Meetings that are casually run with flexible start and end times, no agenda or agendas that are not followed, and no accountability for assignments or follow-up.
New Habit: Meetings start on time, adhere to a structured agenda, and end 5 minutes early for assignments, due dates, and follow-up.
Payoff: Meetings, as the word implies, involve two or more people. When organizations support poor meeting processes, the waste multiples by all in attendance, resulting in a huge drain on time and effort. Start now to insist on honoring time and assignment commitments. Depending on how poor your meeting management has been, you may gain hours of additional time in your week.
Bad Habit #2: Having “open door” policies that allow for continuous, ad hoc interruptions in your day.
New Habit: Schedule specific times when you are open to interruptions and drop -by visitors. The amount of this open time can vary depending on your various constituents. It might be 20 minutes per hour or one hour per morning. The rest of your day should be scheduled to produce the work you need to be successful and should include blocks of dedicated, uninterrupted time. Yes, I am calling for unplugged time, no interruptions, no drop-ins, no phones, no checking email.
Payoff: Use this unplugged time to concentrate and focus on critical issues that require your undivided attention. You will be amazed at how much you can accomplish not just in the volume of work but in its quality. Take control of your time and the result will be more time to really get things done.
Bad Habit #3: When you are asked to implement a solution, grabbing at ideas and running with them based on the passion of the person requesting them. Later we find out that not only did this grand solution not fix the problem, it created three new ones that we now need to tackle.
New Habit: Every time you are looking to implement a solution or new idea, slow down and ask the question, “What problem will this fix?” Then ask, “Will this solution have cross-impacts or repercussions that will create new problems for me?” Then add a day or two into the implementation plan to objectively assess whether or not it really is such a good idea after all.
Payoff: If you fix problems once with a single solution rather than multiple times with quick fixes or partial patches, imagine the time that will be added back into your days and weeks. Slow down. Ask the right questions. Question everything you do. Slowing down will look at first like it takes up more time, but the payoff in the end will be “action, solution, fixed” rather than “action, solution, problem, solution, problem …”
The Bottom Line
Bad habits can be replaced by productive behaviors, but only if we invest the time in consciously adopting new ways to look at what we do. I am convinced that the “work smarter not harder” adage applies now more than ever as we continue down the road of diminished resources.
About Alice Waagen
Alice Waagen, PhD, is president and founder of Workforce Learning LLC, a leadership development company she founded in 1997. In the past three years alone, more than 125 leaders from 24 organizations have graduated from Waagen’s unique leadership-development workshop series.
Learn more about Waagen’s work at www.workforcelearning.com.