The best way to achieve balance in your work – and to be more productive – is to develop your ability to be present and spend time reflecting on past performance.
By Roderic Yapp, Leadership Consultant
Ambitious, successful business leaders tend to be future-focused. They spend a lot of their time thinking about what they have to prepare for later this week or how much they have to do to hit this month’s target.
Being future-focused is important but spending too much time thinking about tomorrow means you don’t spend enough time focused on the task at hand (present moment) or enough time reflecting on what worked and what needs to be improved (past moments). So how do you get the balance right?
When I set up my consulting business, my first accountant drove me round the bend. All he would do was take the information I gave him, do my tax return, and tell me how much I owed.
Frustrated at the lack of service, I found another accountant. This one was totally different. He talked to me about my business, gave advice on how to restructure it, and then worked with me on tax planning for the year ahead.
The difference was huge. No longer was I overspending or being hit with a larger tax bill than expected. Now I was able to project my income, plan my expenses, and even allow for extra costs – all while knowing what that would mean for my tax bill at the end of the year.
Focusing on the future will help you succeed
This is an example of how focusing on the future is essential to our success. Human beings are the only creatures on the planet able to project ourselves into the future, imagine a desired state, and then amend our actions accordingly to help us reach it.
This ability is powerful. It has enabled us as a species to go into space, devise life-saving vaccines and – for you and me – to build successful businesses and careers.
“Focusing too much on the future can impede our performance.”
However, focusing too much on the future can impede our performance. Take the example of a search firm. Recruiters have sales targets to hit and spend the majority of their time planning or taking action to hit those targets.
The search firm is focused on finding a person to fill a role for their client. They get the brief from the client, search for candidates who match the criteria, take them through a selection process, and viola the role is filled. It’s a lot of work with a lot of moving parts.
Once the role is filled, the search executive moves on, usually preoccupied with the next role they have to fill – or how many roles they still need to fill to hit their monthly target.
What’s wrong with this picture?
What I’ve observed with many – perhaps most – search executives is that they’re so focused on hitting targets that they neglect to review how their most recent search went. The same is true for most sales leaders in most organisations.
They don’t take the time to look at what went well, what didn’t go well, and what to change for next time. Instead, the go straight on to the next time – getting the next client, selling the next transformation project, filling the next C-suite executive role.
“Unless you take the time to reflect, you’ll keep coming up against the same problems again and again.”
But say your most recent client was demanding and wanted more regular status updates than most of your clients. What would you do next time to help you spot that type of client? How would you manage their expectations to come up with a schedule of updates that works for both of you?
Unless you take the time to answer these questions, you’ll keep coming up against the same problems again and again and have to devise new solutions each time – or rather, keep coming up with the same solution over and over again. This could eventually stop you from reaching your goals. Even if it doesn’t, you’re still likely making it harder for yourself by not going through a process of continuous feedback and improvement.
Say you get a new client. Do you go straight on to working with them? Or do you take the time to find out how they heard about you and what made them decide to reach out? Knowing this will help you perfect your marketing or networking skills to build a pipeline of future potential business. Or you could not do this, work with the client, and then find yourself scrabbling around for the next client once the project is done.
Learning from the aviation industry
For a gold standard example of a feedback loop, look no further than aviation. They encourage pilots, engineers, air traffic controllers, and others to report not just on accidents, but near misses. Say two planes fly within half a kilometre of each other above an airport. That’s a near miss. It gets reported and investigated in light of past information.
Has this near miss happened before? If so, how frequently? It could be a problem with the flight path. Say there’s a set of stairs in an airport that customers regularly slip on – that gets reported too. And investigated.
“The aviation industry makes a habit of reporting anything that could go wrong, so they can search for patterns and look for problems.”
The aviation industry makes a habit of reporting anything that could go wrong, so they can search for patterns and look for problems. It’s a permanent feedback loop that leads to a process of continuous improvement, and it’s the reason why serious plan crashes are so rare, statistically.
They might not have specific future targets they need to hit, but by always reporting on issues in the present and benchmarking against past data, they’re able to create a safer future.
Leaning to be present
So, we’ve seen how reviewing past performance is pretty much essential to achieve your future goals. But the single biggest challenge for most driven, ambitious business leaders in almost any role and any sector is learning how to be present.
It’s a problem I had for a long time. The first time somebody said to me, “you need to be more present”, I didn’t know what they meant. I was ‘present’ in the room with them – surely that was enough?!
“In the majority of the work we do, if we’re not focused on what we’re doing right now to the best of our ability, it will show.”
What they meant was that whilst I was physically there, it was evident to them that the majority of my time was spent thinking about the next thing I had to be doing. I was too future-focused so I wasn’t adequately listening to the people I was in the room with at the time.
In the majority of the work we do, if we’re not focused on what we’re doing right now to the best of our ability, it will show. And not just in meetings or video calls. In your work itself. If you’re writing a report but thinking about the next task on your list for the day, you’re not concentrating on the report.
You can’t get into your flow state which is when you are entirely immersed on the task at hand. Instead, writing feels like a grind, and it takes you three hours instead of an hour and a half. You’ve produced something that’s not your best, and it’s taken you twice as long to do it.
The one question you must ask yourself every single day
The best way to achieve balance in your work – and to be more productive – is to develop your ability to be present. To do that, every day you should ask yourself this one vital question:
What’s the one thing I must do today that’s going to get me closer to my vision?
If you’re future-focused, you have a vision, a clear picture of the future you are trying to create. Every task or activity you do should contribute towards the delivery of that vision. If it doesn’t, then you need to think very carefully about whether or not you should be doing it.
The answer to this question will change each day according to circumstances. It will also vary depending on your job role, your seniority, and your type of business.
Maybe you need to train one of your key people that day, so you can delegate more day-to-day responsibility. Maybe you need to work on a big presentation that’s going to land you a great client, or get the extra resources you need from your finance department. Maybe you just need to make a certain number of calls to your clients.
Whatever it is, make sure to ask yourself the question. When you have the answer, make sure you don’t allow yourself to get sidetracked. If a team member needs some personal career advice, don’t lose an hour talking to them during work time. Could you take them out to lunch instead? If someone asks for an hour of your time, don’t just say yes. If it’s just a distraction, say no. If it’s important but not a priority, schedule it for another time.
Be ruthless. Stick to your goals, and make sure to be present – in the moment and concentrating – on everything you do.
Make the effort, and you’ll find yourself becoming more productive, hitting more targets, and getting closer to that future vision.