A few years ago, my wife and I took a ride in a hot-air balloon over the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia. I was amazed by the experience. I expected it to feel blustery up there, a thousand feet up, looking down on the terrain from a little wicker basket. Instead, despite our rapid movement, it was perfectly serene. When you’re blown by the wind, you don’t feel the wind – because you are the wind.
Your to-do list for today likely has at least one urgent thing, or several. On days chock full of urgent tasks, it’s clear where you must devote your energies. In our complex work environments, urgency provides momentary clarity. Urgency liberates us: It absolves us from having to plan or decide.
Urgency is like riding in a balloon – it hypnotizes. You’re moving quickly, things are getting done. You’re keeping everyone more or less happy. The days fly by.
You have no direction in a balloon. The wind sends you here and the wind sends you there. You may have left from a predetermined Point A, but Point B might be anywhere.
Extended indefinitely, urgency leads us astray.
Unrelenting urgency is stressful, and who wants to be stressed out? And yet, we are addicted to urgent tasks. We will gladly check email for the one hundredth time on the off chance something’s exploding. And if there’s nothing exploding, we’ll just take the first task off the pile.
Your brain expends energy when it has to decide what’s most important. The brain is lazy. It’s easier to let someone else decide for us.
This is a special challenge for Operations staff or anyone in a support role. They are supposed to be responsive — but they are also professionals who enjoy a good deal of autonomy over how to structure their time and tasks. In a mature team, everyone knows what the goals are and is able to use discretion when prioritizing one thing over another. Advancement is complex work – pushing decision-making deeper into the organization works better than trying to manage order-takers ticking things off a list.
In a modern office, then, fewer people are handed a list of predefined tasks when they clock in. But what happens then? Too often, the absent assigned list is replaced by the inbox. I’m not immune, and neither are you. We all have days when we just want to be told what to do.
You can’t ignore the inbox. You must respond. But being ruled by the inbox is even worse than being told what to do, because it’s more random and disconnected from a sense of priority. It’s not responsive – it’s reactive.
In roles that call for judgment, there must be time for judgment.
It’s up to the individual employee to make time for judgment. This is especially true for leaders and managers, but not just for them. Turning a request around quickly will get you thanks today; the fundamental change or new approach you fashion during the quiet hour will get you promoted tomorrow.
Your destination, Point B, is defined by strategy and unit plans and performance plans. But an X on a map is of no use if you’re in a hot-air balloon. You need to feel a steering wheel in your hands. That steering wheel is any tool that helps you control where you direct your focus.
Time management is out; you can’t conserve time. Time is what marches on while you answer emails. Energy and attention are your true resources. Harness those.