I was having a beer with a friend yesterday, discussing how I’ve crammed my life close to the breaking point with a toddler, a new baby, an MBA program, a job search, some mentoring and networking, and he asked me what pearls of wisdom I could bestow on him for when he finds himself in a similarly hectic spot. And I came up blank. It’s not that I haven’t found shortcuts and processes that let me handle this without losing my head, it’s that I haven’t stepped out of the flow, gone to a 10,000 foot view and checked out what’s going on. This reminded me of something one of our profs said when discussing innovation and creativity: there can be no innovation without organizational slack. If you (I) don’t stop fighting fires or attacking your task list, you’ll (I’ll) never improve our abilities/capacity to deal with the situation. No matter how busy you are, if you don’t stop to breathe and evaluate your activities and formulate some strategy, you’re going to get demolished by something you didn’t see coming. Keep your head up!
So today’s advice / resolution is to create time for slack. Even with my schedule being crammed to 30-second intervals (I’m working out, doing dishes and debating preschool with my wife while I write this – partially kidding) I figure I can make the time to sit alone at a coffee shop or my front stoop for an hour every week and let myself think about bigger pictures than my todo list. In fact, if you’re busy like me, I think it’s required that you put it in the schedule. That’s what they tell us about workouts and it applies here – put it in the calendar, make an appointment to do it.
Sometimes though there just isn’t time. And I think when that happens, in a lot of cases, you can move towards it incrementally. If you’re fighting fires 18 hours a day, and your organization or family is always in crisis mode, there’s probably something wrong. You might not be able to go ponder what that is without seeing something else blow up, so just ask five questions when you fix the problem. Address the immediate fire, sure, but also use this technique to tease out the root causes and commit to making a corrective action at each level of the analysis. This way you slowly, incrementally improve your processes and behaviors, instead of just dousing a single flame. Over a few iterations you will start to see the number of fires decreasing, and you can pop up to 10,000 feet for a few seconds for a clear view.