We are all experiencing the miracle that technology has created in our businesses. Whether it’s the unparalleled efficiency gains, access to information, or velocity of innovation. While these are the gifts, the acceleration created by exponential technology is outstripping leader’s abilities to adapt. In fact, the “always on” access to information and notifications is contributing to more dis-coherence as leaders struggle to make sense in a world with too many inputs. This lack of coherence severely impacts leaders and organization’s abilities to routinely make effective choices in service to their larger purpose.
The most damaging consequence of hyper-connectivity is arguably the unparalleled distraction. When you combine people’s increasing fear of missing out with too many inputs, the competition for leaders’ attention comes under attack. Depleted attention means less cognitive resources available to distinguish what’s truly important, resulting in smaller agendas, less effective actions, and diminished impact. The degree of leader and organizational distraction can be measured by the gap between their stated priorities and their actual day-to-day activities and decisions. In reflecting on their weeks, leaders tell me they observe too many places where the winds of distraction blew, and resulted in losing sight of their most strategic work.
Leaders need to wake up and take responsibility for their unproductive patterns at work. When time is managed as an endless series of to-dos and meetings, it becomes impossible to surface new possibilities. Leaders are so busy productively “doing” that have little time for the quality reflection that can support them making the best choices among the items competing for their attention.
Here are five steps for cutting cognitive load:
Step 1: Make an honest assessment of your healthy and unhealthy patterns.
The first step in making a positive change is recognizing the problem. Which routine choices are creating the results and feelings you want and which are not? In what areas of your work life are you deeply fulfilled and what areas do you feel like you are running on a treadmill?
Step 2: Determine which unhealthy patterns you are most inspired to take on first.
Identify a current behavior that doesn’t serve you as well; a place in your work life where you want to experiment with a new way of working. Where can you cut back on unproductive demands like busywork that pull your attention away from more meaningful work? What is a worthwhile alternative?
Resist the urge to take on more than one change at once. The biggest mistake I see is people taking on too much too quickly. Leaders underestimate what is required to make changes that stick. Changing our lives means changing our choices day-to-day and moment-to-moment. It’s not easy work. Our ingrained patterns are ingrained for a reason.
Step 3: Structure a healthy ritual to act as a countermeasure to your unhealthy pattern.
Create a ritual to break free from your blind habit. One of the most important habits of high performers is blocking their time. By setting aside time every day for the new behavior, and ensuring the time is as important as any other commitment, you are creating space for the new choice to take hold.
Step 4: Keep score until the new ritual has taken hold.
Making a behavior change requires paying attention in a new way. Do you show up every day and on time for your new time block? Are you practicing single-minded focus on the defined task during the time set aside? Is your self-control improving?
Allow plenty of time to assimilate your new choice. You need a sufficient amount of practice in order to ingrain the habits of paying attention, organizing yourself and escaping your own self-sabotage to make your new behaviors become your new way of working.
Step 5: Take on the next unhealthy pattern.
Once the new behavior no longer requires conscious effort, you are ready to layer in the next positive change to support attending the work that matters most. Repeat the steps above.
One of the most powerful changes I encourage leaders I work with to make is to eliminate starting their day looking at email. Starting in their inbox immediately triggers the very unproductive, reactive patterns they are trying to escape. Instead, I recommend starting their day with a block of time devoted to thinking and journaling about the most important question facing their business. This daily practice results in personal breakthroughs in thinking. For example:
- One leader realized that instead of pressuring HR and his teams to hire faster, they needed to understand why they were losing a hundred employees a month.
- Another leader realized they were asking their team to work on 14 projects that would contribute $80K in margin rather than focusing energy on three projects that promised $1M in margin expansion.
- And yet another leader realized they were operating from the idea that a magical introduction to a dream client would solve all of their problems, versus building a system that competed for the attention of their ideal prospects.
Steven Pressfield once said, “The truly free individual is free only to the extent of his own self-mastery.”
While there will never be fewer things competing for our attention, leaders must take responsibility for their patterns. Since we live in an exponential world where things continue to speed up, you must improve your ability to slow things down; to cut your cognitive load. Each moment is an opportunity to make a new choice that puts you on the journey to freedom. As I observe my clients take back control, I can tell you the rewards of their newfound freedom are priceless.
What will you choose?