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building the circle of influence

My work with people often involves conversations about individuals feeling out of control. Competing demands for their time, bulging inboxes, and the balance between professional and personal commitments are common drivers for this.

This can lead to feelings of overwhelm, frustration and dare I say it, for some, living a life as a victim of circumstances.

In the spirit of openness, I think I can personally identify with each of these situations – more often than I’d probably want to admit. So, what have I observed as a route to help this situation?

Before I get into my observations, I’d like to offer a few suggestions of things we might need to accept.

Things to accept
  1. There is no magic solution. There can be a tendency for people to seek the next hack, app, or book that will provide the answers to their challenges. I’ve witnessed others and done plenty of my own reading, experimenting, and using many of the so-called hacks to improve productivity. These can definitely help but I don’t think there’s a magic solution that will simply change things. At least that I’ve found yet.

  2. The volume of ‘stuff’ will outstrip our capacity. Chances are in 21st-century life we will have more things pulling at our available 168 hours than we have the capacity for each week. Even over the last year which has curtailed many of our choices, it’s still common that people have a range of things in their lives that are not as they’d want because they lack the capacity and or motivation to take them forward. It’s less about finishing everything on the todo list. That means working on our own expectations of success.

  3. It’s easier to create productivity support systems than they are to use. There is a range of options to help us manage the things we want and need to achieve. It’s common that people set these up when things get too tricky to manage without them. They do this set up with great intent and enthusiasm ‘this time it’s going to be different’. Only rather like the dieter who decides they will never eat chocolate or so much as look at a biscuit, the productivity seeker finds the system they have created takes too much effort to maintain so they end up resisting it or as is often the case resenting it. Accepting that we need something that is sustainable rather than some idealised version is key.

Observations about ways to help
  1. Types of control – One of the challenges I hear when people talk about their workload management is that they ‘feel out of control’ or alternatively ‘I don’t want to feel controlled by my diary or a todo list – I need the freedom to be creative. Control is a relative word and very specific to an individual’s perception. One person’s freedom to work on what they want is another person’s todo list prison. Have you objectively thought about what control means to you? And do you really understand what it is you are looking to control? We can control a car when driving we can’t control the weather. As obvious as that sounds, the distinction when it comes to our productivity is less obvious but, in my view, just as important. [If the word control is something that jars with you, then try replacing it with ‘manage’ and see if that feels better.]

  2. Don’t rely on your brain to manage your stuff. David Allen, author of the book Getting Things Done talks about our brains being brilliant places for having ideas and awful places to manage them. Varying studies have shown our inability to hold information reliably in our conscious minds. Four to seven is a common number. This reduces when we are under pressure. Most people are comfortable that they will use some form of calendar to manage their date-specific appointments from meetings to birthdays. And yet many choose to manage the volume of other activity in their heads or use incomplete systems. We can often find our beautiful brains remind us of that stuff at the most inopportune moment.

  3. Big and small matter. This next point links to the one above. Until things are clarified our brains find it hard to distinguish between the big and small. It’s common that our brains remind us of things like ‘you need to buy stamps to post Kelly’s birthday card’ in a team meeting or a flash of inspiration about a strategic choice you have been debating with your team whilst unloading the dishwasher. We kid ourselves in both cases that we will remember these points and take action. Only to find another equally ‘important’ thought quickly pops into our heads to replace the last one. For some of us, we have recurring thoughts that ping around like a ball in a pinball machine. Our brains won’t let go until we have taken action or put the thought into a trusted place that we will see when we can actually do something about it. So having an approach that you can capture the big and the small commitments and then consistently engage with them, will free up more of your mental capacity to do things of meaning.

  4. Weekly plan & review – With all this stuff captured how do you ensure you are on top of what needs to be done and ultimately can see the wood from the trees? Sitting down once a week for a dedicated session to objectively assess what’s been going on in your world and what you’d like to have happen in the future is a game changer for many people. Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of this, it takes a fair bit of discipline to achieve this consistently. I know I’m guilty of deprioritising the weekly plan and review when things get particularly hectic. And then I definitely regret it. The more consistently you are able to complete the weekly review the less time it takes. Most people I’ve worked with find the Weekly Review takes approximately 60 minutes.

I hope this has provided some food for thought. As always, I’m interested in any questions or observations you may have.

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