Most leadership training and advice is focused on developing new skills or learning and deploying new behaviors. This seemingly irrefutable law of the universe has been particularly acute during the last year, when technology leaders have had to learn new skills ranging from managing remote teams, coping with emotional distress and mitigating the effects of everything from racism to mental health.
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What’s often lost in this seemingly ever-growing list of talents and skills that we need to acquire and develop is the fact that abandoning an activity or skill can be just as powerful as gaining a new one. We’ve all admonished our teams to manage their time and delegate or focus on what’s most essential and deprioritize what’s not, yet we frequently fail to do this for ourselves.
Start with activities
I’ve always been amazed with time and how it’s generally taken for granted. In a world focused on imbalances of wealth and power, time is the ultimate equalizer with every human allocated the same 24 hours each day. These hours can be applied to everything from saving the world to mindless web browsing, and I have yet to meet the leader that doesn’t wish he or she had more time. Since no quantity of riches can create more time, the only way to achieve that goal is to abandon some activities.
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Just as you monitor your bank account balances and spending, so too should you monitor your time expenditures. A small notepad and some diligence is an easy way to start tracking your time. Take ten seconds to log when you start and stop an activity, whether it’s a status meeting or some end-of-day Netflix time. I try to do this activity at least once each year, and am constantly surprised how what felt like a few minutes of mindless web browsing was actually a half-hour. If you want to get more sophisticated, most modern smartphones will track and report on app usage, and the Family functions built into Windows will also detail the time you spend in each app. I setup our home automation system to log TV time each day and am constantly surprised how quickly “just one more episode” turns into 10% of the day.
Just as you might decide to stop spending money on a fancy coffee or drop one restaurant meal each month, thoughtfully and consciously abandon an activity in which you’re investing your time. I’d suggest stopping or reducing one personal activity, and one work activity. I gave up Facebook several years ago after being surprised how much time I spent on the site, and recently gave up a series of interesting meetings at work. In both cases I did so willingly and from the same perspective you’d take on financial management: I was willingly and happily reallocating a scarce resource to something that was more valuable.
Then abandon focus
Perhaps a bit more nuanced than stopping your participation in certain activities is ending the focus you expend on specific areas. On the professional front, I’d participated in a technical forum around what might be described as a technically controversial topic, attending a series of regular meetings and expending a good deal of mental energy on developing my talking points and arguments for my position. After some reflection, I determined this mental energy was better spent elsewhere, and I made the conscious decision to stop worrying about this particular topic. In my personal life, I love a good political discussion but found I was expending too much mental energy on politics, mental energy that could be better invested elsewhere.
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As you stop performing certain activities and stop expending mental focus on certain topics, you might feel a bit of guilt that you’ve left something important undone. However, as a leader you’re like someone who just won the lottery and has a line of friends and acquaintances with their hands out asking for money. There are endless demands for your time and focus, and if you try to meet all of them, you’ll quickly end up broke.
We spend a lot of time celebrating the doing of things: Take a few days each year and consider what you’ll stop doing and celebrate your successes in undoing in addition to all the things you still do.