I’m a runner. Not a fast runner. But a runner nonetheless.
After years of marathons, I’ve figured out that if I run at a 9-minute mile pace, I can do any distance without bonking or getting hurt.
We should have the same mindset when it comes to finding the right work pace. Your mind and body are a system. Just like in running, if you go too fast for too long, you’ll burnout. But at the same time, you don’t want to go too slow, because then you’re not reaching your full potential.
In many cases, the moment-to-moment work pace is out of our control. When a crisis hits or an urgent request comes in we must do our best to keep up. But across time, our work pace is still up to us.
When we do have autonomy, we should be filtering work in ways that align with our work pace. When we don’t have autonomy, and the work pace is overbearing, you have two choices: you can either hang on for the ride and inevitably crash sooner or later, or you can proactively look for a job that has a different pace.
Find your pace and the job and work environment that supports that pace, and stick with it.
Sometimes we’re “just not feeling it.” We know there’s work to be done, but we can’t seem to get into the right mindset and get started.
We tend to be self-critical and assume that we’re not motivated enough. But motivation is an outcome, not a defining personal characteristic.
Interestingly, our emotions - which come and go - are strongly associated with our in-the-moment capacity to get started on something. So if you’re stuck, the best course of action is to do something that gets you into a better state of mind.
As an example, sleep research suggests that if you can’t get to sleep, the best thing you can do is get out of bed and do something else. Walk around the house, meditate, get a drink of water, etc.
The same goes for motivation. Staring at a blank computer screen waiting for inspiration won’t help. Get up, mix it up, and come back after you’re in an improved state of mind.
Organizations spend a great deal of time, effort, and money evaluating applicants. Assuming the applicants have the requisite knowledge and skills necessary to perform their job, the conversation then turns to alternative questions.
Will they work hard? Will they work well in teams? Do they have leadership potential?
We assess all types of psychographics in order to figure out the answers to these questions. But research clearly illustrates that there is one psychographic that is consistently associated with employee performance: conscientiousness.
Although not as sexy as being adaptive, creative, or emotionally intelligent, meta-analytic evidence clearly illustrates that individuals that are disciplined, organized, and reliable are the strongest performers.
If we really want to cut to the chase, we should be asking applicants and their references for examples of conscientiousness. Everything else is a distant second.
There are four primary states of consciousness. Understanding their differences is a key step in maximizing productivity.
Mind wandering is when our attention jumps from topic to topic. This is our default. Although sometimes we have an “ah-ha” moment while mind wandering, it’s not inherently productive.
Ruminating and fantasizing entail a narrow focus on the past or the future, respectively. Not only are these states unproductive, but they can also perpetuate stress. Replaying your mistakes or thinking through unlikely worst-case scenarios is unhelpful.
The first productive state, mindfulness, entails present moment attention and being fully in tune with what is going on within your own mind as well as being aware of what is going on around you.
The second productive state, flow, also entails present moment attention. It’s akin to being “in the zone,” where time flies by, and our abilities are in perfect alignment with the demands of the task.
Given that mind wandering and ruminating/fantasizing are unproductive, the goal should be to continually come back to one of the present moment states - mindfulness or flow. But which is better?
If there is a specific task at hand that needs to be accomplished, especially a deep thinking task, getting into flow is the ideal. But in all other scenarios, being mindful is the way to go.
Extremely challenging situations reveal our weaknesses and challenge our capacity to keep it together. On its surface, this doesn’t sound like fun.
But when the dust settles, we commonly self-reflect and realize that we’ve matured or learned something new.
Taking it a step further, dealing with the impossible makes us more marketable. For example, when screening potential new hires or deciding who to promote, organizations are drawn to the individuals with a story to tell - the ones who can breakdown how they grappled with uncertainty and change.
Ironically, there are also beneficial performance implications of diving into the impossible. The bar for performance is low because no one actually expects you to succeed. Even if you simply survive, not thrive, it’s considered a win.
Arguably, given these benefits, we should be running towards the potentially insurmountable obstacles. But why don’t we?
Our default is to strive for security. We want the sure thing.
Interestingly, if you stay somewhere long enough, a big challenge will eventually hit, and likely when you least expect it. Instead, then, perhaps it’s better to pick the challenge yourself and dive in with eyes wide open.
My favorite time management framework is a two-by-two with urgency and importance as the two dimensions.
Tasks that are non-urgent and not important should be removed from your task list. Be honest with yourself. Time is finite.
You should think twice before doing anything urgent but not important. We waste a great deal of time doing things that feel good because they are easy and we can cross them off our list. Just because you crossed it off your list doesn’t make it productive.
Tasks that are urgent and important inevitably deserve your immediate attention. These are the unforeseen fires that need to be put out as soon as possible. It happens. That’s life.
Tasks that are non-urgent and important is where you need to increase your time spend. If the tasks are important they deserve your attention now, before it’s too late. This is where setting aside time for deep thinking is much needed.
Freeing up time to focus on the non-urgent and important also has the potential to *prevent* the urgent and important. It’s a double-win.
Don’t just create a task list. Cultivate your task list through the urgent-important framework.
You’ve heard of the 80/20 rule, right? 80% of the value is created by 20% of your employees.
What if I told you that research suggests that it’s more like 5%, not 20%? Yes, 5 out of 100 people are clearly your “star performers,” producing far more value than the remaining 95%.
What are the implications for human capital strategy?
We should be spending more time finding our stars and cultivating those relationships. What would ensure that they stay at your organization, continuing to add value for years to come?
We should also stop encouraging stars to take on positions that aren’t a fit for them. The classic example is promoting the top sales performer into a sales manager position. Salespeople sell. Managing might not be their thing.
We consider all sorts of psychographics when managing human capital - personality, values, strengths, and the like. If we ignore what are arguably the more important factors - employee needs, drives, and preferences - we’re missing the boat.
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