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the art of procrastination

It’s been sitting on the corner of your desk for the past two weeks. It’s a decision waiting to be made, a project waiting to be started, a feedback session waiting to be scheduled. You stare at it. Then leave for another meeting.

All of us procrastinate. Every human being does. In a society obsessed with speed, efficiency, and productivity, we always have more to do than we can possibly accomplish. The question is, “Are we procrastinating well?”

Procrastinating poorly is finally cleaning out the basement, but paying a late fee on the bill that was due today. Worse, procrastinating passively is numbing experience by surfing the web or watching television all while lying on the couch. These types of procrastinating are unquestionably problematic.

On the other hand, active procrastination – the art of delay – is an important skill. Procrastinating well is putting off shoveling the driveway or cleaning your file drawer by doing something that is more valuable. Active procrastination can improve our decision-making and better inform our actions.

What makes active procrastination beneficial? First, it stops the clock. What is the actual deadline? Understanding the timeframe allows for assessment: Am I asking the right questions? Do I have all of the data and information required? What have I experienced in the past that may be influencing my thoughts, beliefs, and feelings? How do my needs for certainty, approval, and belonging effect this?

Active procrastination allows us time and space to check our reality and intuitions. Our tendency to passively procrastinate may be unhealthy avoidance. Our need to constantly race quickly forward with decisions and projects may be supporting our need for control and certainty. Brené Brown states that slowing down allows us to trust ourselves and use intuition well, to “hold space for uncertainty and our willingness to trust the many ways we’ve developed knowledge and insight, including instinct, experience, faith, and reason.”1

Secondly, it allows for a delay in making the decision or taking action until the last possible moment. If there is one minute to the deadline, you have 59 seconds to make the choice, a month  – 29 days, a year – 364 days. The best athletes know to the millisecond how long to wait before hitting the ball. The best managers know how precisely how long to wait before offering feedback in order to have the maximum effect. The key is using the delay, the gap, to the best advantage.

For example, actively procrastinating until the last moment to offer feedback allows you and those you are interacting with to fully consider how the experience has affected you. It creates a space to understand the gap between where you are and where you want to be. The gap allows time for preparation: for insuring that our values and actions line up, listing contributions that are being made, identifying problems and growth areas, seeking options to support development.2

The psychologist Robert Sternberg says, “The essence of intelligence would seem to be in knowing when to think and act quickly, and knowing when to think and act slowly.”

Are you actively procrastinating: first stopping, then engaging the gap?

Notes and further reading:

1Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection. (p. 89). Penguin Group US.
2Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (p. 203). Penguin Group US..
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Macmillan.

Idea for reflection – 39

You cannot be really first-rate at your work if your work is all you are.
– Anna Quindalen, from A Short Guide to a Happy Life

Idea for reflection – 38

driving with the brakes on

I pulled out into traffic, accelerated, and then – instinctively braked the car. The brake lights on the vehicle ahead had me reacting before my brain had fully processed the situation. Scanning the road and beyond, I realized there was no reason to be braking. And, in fact, the vehicle was traveling at normal highway speeds. They were, unaccountably, driving with their foot on the brakes.

I know leaders who drive with one foot on the brake and one on the accelerator. They sense the need for change, but find five ways a day to avoid it. And, the truth is, we all prefer the known to the unknown.

We are comfortable with our mediocre status quo. We deny what we see in front of us. We escape, getting far enough away from the issue that it doesn’t touch us directly. We distract ourselves with busyness and the tyranny of the immediate.

Oh how we hate change. Oh how we dislike endings. The messiness, frustration, anger, denial, disenchantment – the loss, all disturb our equilibrium. Yet, as Henry Cloud says, “Knowing the names of the streets is not a good reason to keep living in hell.” 1

If I said, “The building is on fire! Get out!” Change would happen quickly. If I told you that the store a mile from here is selling your favorite electronic device two-for-one this afternoon. Change would happen quickly. To create an ending requires fear of the negative consequences and the allure of the positive possibilities. How do we create necessary endings?

Start by playing the movie. This is the movie that shows what happens tomorrow, the month after that, and the following year. “Do you want to be having the same conversation with the same incompetent employee next month and the month after that?” Or, “Do you want to be unable to purchase the new equipment you need now a year from now because you haven’t fired the person who can’t get the billing done before the deadline?”

List your frustrations: someone who is performing poorly, someone who won’t listen; ineffective operation management that is producing financial problems, an ongoing pattern (yours or someone else’s) that doesn’t change, a strategy that doesn’t work. Stop the distractions. Tell yourself the truth. Play the movie. Smell the smoke. Make the change.

Enlist allies. Surround yourself with people who share your urgency. This creates heat from the requirement to be visibly responsible and accountable. It creates peer pressure from people and team members who are supporting and contributing energy. Heat plus pressure create energy to get unstuck and create forward motion. Turn up the heat. Make the change.

Make the vision visible. This line has begun to fall on deaf ears. And yet, our brains are designed to create what we imagine. It’s why basketball players envision the ball going through the hoop before they release it in the act of shooting. Make sure your actions support your imagined vision. You can’t make the shot if you don’t have the ball. You can’t make the shot if you don’t release the ball. Talk about it. Write it down. Post photos of the new reality. Make it real. Make the change.

Set a deadline. Deadlines force endings and change. Is April 15 near? The closer it is, the more likely your income taxes are complete. Deadlines create structure, organize energy, and direct focus. Be specific about your expectations. State the consequences. State the deadline. It works for the underperformer, the project, or initiating a process change. Light the fire. Make the change.

Be trustworthy. Endings and beginnings are not invisible. Living the change is a daily activity. Actions must match words. Intentions must be clear. Competence must be displayed. Results must be seen. And in the mist of change, intentionally connect with people in a meaningful way. Seek to understand their concerns and challenge them to consider what is possible if time and energy are properly invested. Act with integrity. Make the change.

Time and energy are our primary resources. Leaders use these resources to act and, sometimes, go where others are not so that others can follow. Leaders create necessary endings so that new beginnings are possible. “The truth is that there is no ending or better time coming unless we do something.” 2

Is it time to stop driving with the brakes on?

Further reading:

1Cloud, H. (2011). Necessary Endings. Harper Business: New York, NY.
2Kotter, J. (2008).  A Sense of Urgency. Harvard Business Press: Boston, MA.

I’m busier than you are!

Game on! “I’m busier than you are; I just worked five 24’s in a row; my budget is due on Monday; and I’m in training all day Saturday.”

We’re all “busy,” “buried,” “slammed,” … “tired.” We start our conversations by competing to see who has the most items on their calendar. Family engagement, work responsibilities, community activities – they all contribute to our experience of being overwhelmed.

The question: When is the last time you said, “No.”?

When I ask this question, people usually laugh – first in disbelief and again with a sigh. We all have the impulse to squeeze just one more thing into the day. Just one phone call. Just a last text. Just stopping by the store on the way home. Oh, it’s in the opposite direction? No problem.

We all have the impulse to agree to one more request. Just one meeting a quarter. Just a teleconference. Just a month-long project. Oh, it’s due at the end of this month? No problem.

And yet, at the end of the day, I ask myself, “What happened today?” And, I can often recall only two or three things, including, hopefully – what I ate for lunch! Life can seem like organized chaos and complexity.

There is a choice. It is the practice of saying, “No.” It is a difficult practice, perhaps harder than running a marathon for some of us. It is a voluntary practice where we each choose our level of participation. But it is an available choice.

“No” should be used carefully. I start by asking myself why I am saying it. Does the request fit in with my personal calling in the world? Do I have the energy and time to invest in making this successful? What impact will the request have on my time with my family and other commitments? Answers to these questions allow me to say an unqualified “yes” or a carefully considered “no.”

There is nothing passive about saying, “No.” The willingness to say, “No,” makes our choice to say, “Yes,” more meaningful and valuable. The practice is a part of managing ourselves first. It allows us to:

  • act from our guiding principles, keeping perspective on what matters most.
  • stay connected to family, friends, and co-workers, keeping important relationships close at hand rather than at the end of a cell phone text or call.
  • function with the most impact, neither under-functioning when we’ve added one-too-many things to the schedule nor over-functioning when we believe we have to do it all to be valued.
  • communicate our values, thinking, and decision making process, building capacity in those around us.

In the end, as leaders and managers, we don’t get to control everything in our schedules. But choosing our “yes” and “no” responses wisely, offers great freedom and the opportunity to discover that less may be more.

How would choosing “yes” and “no” more wisely create freedom and opportunity for you and your organization?

Originally published in the KEMSA Chronicle.

appreciation of horizons

Margins. Margins of screens. Margins of books. Margins of the sky.

How often have you looked up from the small screens that surround you? How often have you stopped looking at your calendar as you move from one meeting to the next? How often have you stepped away from the hundreds of details and small pieces of data that seem to make your world run?

Do you see the margins?

Do you see the horizon?

Remember the way you are all possibilities
you can see and how you live best
as an appreciator of horizons,
whether you reach them or not.
— David Whyte, Mameen

dictionaries and encyclopedias

Every organization develops its own language and stories over time. It’s “the way we do things around here.” Some have long lists of acronyms.

Scott Berkun observes about his year at WordPress.com, “Every corporation has the same platitudes for the importance of clear communication yet utterly failed to practice it. There was little jargon at Automattic. No “deprioritized action items” or “catalyzing of cross functional objectives.” People wrote plainly, without pretense and with great charm.”

We all want clear communication. Jargon and acronyms are only two of the things that cause miscommunication. Distractions, choice of words, and different cross cultural experiences do too.  Unless the person I’m communicating with can accurately translate what I have said, little or no communication takes place.

Notice the words, jargon, and acronyms you use today. Which could be replaced with a simple, clear phrase?

Meeting of the minds

Berkun, S. (2013). The year without pants: wordpress.com and the future of work. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.

Idea for reflection – 38

How many times do you get a blinding insight out of your own head? You get to blinding insight when you listen to somebody and take that little snippet of logic or data or whatever, merge it with something that is in your head and—whammo— out comes a new interesting thought. That is where the out-of-the-box ideas come from, and you systematically prevent yourself from getting there by being dismissive of users, dismissive of clients, dismissive of colleagues who don’t agree with you.

The kernel of somebody who doesn’t agree with you is either different data, or different logic; I think you get out-of-the-boxness by getting outside your own head and understanding this different data or logic, not by digging deeper in your own head for something that just isn’t there.

Roger Martin, from Design Thinking and How It Will Change Management Education

Idea for reflection – 37

Idea for reflection – 37

When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer – say, traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep: it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly. Whence and how they come, I know not; nor can I force them.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Idea for reflection – 36

designing powerful questions

As a facilitator, questions are one of the tools of my trade. Using the same questions every time creates boredom, dullness, and decreases creativity. I work to create effective questions in the moment. And, one of the questions I am asked in return is, “How do you create good questions?” The World Cafe process suggests that there are three dimensions to creating effective questions:

  1. Scope or scale of the questions
  2. Assumptions in the questions
  3. Construction of the questions

Scope starts with clarity of purpose and intention. Begin by asking yourself what is the purpose and intention of the interaction. Scope should set a context, create a boundary (scale), and be relevant. Without scope, people are overwhelmed, shutting down the opportunity for conversation. For example: How can we cut our budget? or How can we create world peace? are questions with a broad context and no boundaries. Rephrase with scope in mind: What are the opportunities we have in the next week, month, and year stop doing things that no longer serve our clients and start doing something new? How do you create peaceful time for reflection for yourself and your work group within your meeting process?

Assumption starts with understanding of objective and audience. Since people respond to the assumptions made in the question, ask yourself what outcomes are desired and who will be part of the conversation. Assumptions should provoke inspiration and forward movement toward the purpose and intention. Notice the different assumptions in these questions: “What did you learn from our project planning experience?” compared to “What are you learning now from our project planning experience that relates to the current project?” The assumption is that learning is continually happening and has current application.

Construction uses language and shaping. The word chosen to open the question exists on a continuum from less to more powerful.  The less powerful questions can be answered with a “yes” or “no.”  The next level questions begin with “when” or “who,” the next with “how” or “what. ” “Why” questions stand at the top of the continuum. They are special because “why” questions can either provoke defensiveness and reenforce beliefs or they can evoke curiosity and imagination.

Once the opening word is chosen, use active language to shape the direction. The example above applies where past tense “did you learn” is replaced with “are you learning now.” Active language can invite change, innovation, or imagination: Based on our conversation, what change will you make this week in how you structure meeting processes? What are you thinking or feeling now based on our conversation? What are your current concerns about this subject?

Powerful, effective questions increase the value of our conversations through focus on purpose, intent, relevance, and action. Participants engage and connect. Powerful questions can change the thought patterns of individuals and teams, moving beyond business as usual.

What strategies do you use to create effective questions? Do you have a “root” word or words that you use when building effective questions?

Provocative Leadership: Beyond “Best Practices” to “Next Practices”

Here is an excerpt from a longer article:

Have you thrown out your strategic plan yet? If you made one several months ago, I’m willing to guess that you have. The landscape of reality has already changed … . So now what? Here’s a story-poem, “Brief Thoughts on Maps,” to consider:

Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, who knew a lot about maps
according to which life is on its way somewhere or other,
told us this story from the war
due to which history is on its way somewhere or other:

The young lieutenant of a small Hungarian detachment in the Alps
sent a reconnaissance unit out into the icy wasteland.
It began to snow
immediately, snowed for two days and the unit
did not return. The lieutenant suffered: he had dispatched
his own people to death.

But the third day the unit came back.
Where had they been? How had they made their way?
Yes, they said, we considered ourselves
lost and waited for the end. And then one of us
found a map in his pocket. That calmed us down.
We pitched camp, lasted out the snowstorm and then with the map
we discovered our bearings.
And here we are.

The lieutenant borrowed this remarkable map
and had a good look at it. It was not a map of the Alps
but of the Pyrenees.

Goodbye now. 1

When faced with an unfamiliar situation, the soldiers discovered that “any map” can be useful. Why? A map leads to confidence and action. You take steps forward, re-check the map, learn, make adjustments, and take more steps. As you re-check the map, you look around, surveying the environment. You re-orient to the reality that is. You learn, assess, and consider options. You make decisions about what to try next. You embrace error and uncertainty; yet you still chose to take the next step.

Provocative leadership is not about authority. Provocative leadership is about …

Click here to read more about Provocative Leadership

What are your ideas about “best practices” vs. “next practices?”

Imagining New Maps

1Holub, M. (1977) ‘Brief Thoughts on Maps’, Times Literary Supplement, 4 February 4, p. 118.

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