A few weeks ago, I had one of those stretch of days where Monday ended up blurring into Friday. This wasn’t because of something specific from that particular week, but more a result of an escalation in busyness that had started building up over the previous weeks. Naturally, this frantic pace was beginning to take its toll, and I knew that I should be making more time to relax and catch my breath to assess the situation. Ironically, in trying to manage this growing pile on my To-do list, the first thing I started cutting back on were those very things that I needed the most.
One night, after spending the last couple of days working at this accelerated pace, I was preparing my kids’ lunch for the next school day. While making their sandwiches, I realized that I had accidentally buttered both sides of the same slice of bread. It was a silly mistake, one that gave my wife a good laugh at my expense. And yet, it also ended up being the very thing I needed – a wake-up call to recognize that I’d been so busy simply reacting to what I was facing that I was neglecting the importance of reflecting on what tasks were the ones that most needed my attention in order for me to reach whatever goals I had for that week.
I realized that part of the problem is our tendency to associate completing numerous tasks with being productive; in other words, the more tasks you aim to complete, the more productive you supposedly are. While this may have been the case 20-30 years ago, thanks to today’s technological advances giving us emails, instant messaging, social media sites, and so forth, we’re basically being inundated with a continual stream of information which shifts our attention to sorting these streams instead of focusing on filtering and processing only the key information we need for work.
On an individual level, it can be a challenge at times to keep track of what we should be working on to achieve our goals. In a team setting, this issue is even more critical to a team’s ability to reach their shared goal, as having one team member losing their focus will impact not just their own efficacy, but potentially that of the whole team. This can also cause a weakening of team morale if other team members feel they need to pick up the slack in order to keep the team’s momentum going.
So how can leaders help their team maintain their focus when facing this ever-present, and at times growing, tide of information drawing your team’s attention? Here are four questions that leaders can ask to assess whether your team is on track to reaching your objectives.
1. How does it contribute to your shared goal?
This is probably the most obvious question, and yet for some reason, it’s the first thing that we tend to lose perspective on as we grapple with these increasing demands on our time and attention. As such, a good place to start evaluating the work being done by your team members is to determine how critical it is to your organization’s ability to reach their objectives.
Obviously, it’s important that a leader helps their team to move toward implementing ideas instead of simply spending time discussing them or making numerous plans. However, it’s also vital that a leader makes sure that the tasks being executed by their team are the ones that will help them the most in obtaining their goals, as opposed to simply trying to keep the tide waters back.
2. How is it impacting your team’s performance?
These days, it’s a given that people will check their emails and other communication outlets to see if there is anything important that requires their attention. And now, thanks to advances in mobile technology and the growth of social media usage, people now have a greater ability than ever before to communicate, share and participate in group efforts. While these developments have clearly brought about many advantages, they have also caused their own share of problems.
Although it’s important to make sure your team is kept informed about any information or discussions that might impact their work and ability to function, this doesn’t mean that they need to be involved in every conversation. As the leader of your team, it’s important that you evaluate not only how these communications might benefit your team, but also how it might be detrimental to their performance, by taking their focus off of what they need to be working on in order for your team to achieve their goals.
3. How much time do they need to allocate to this task?
When you look at most recipes, in addition to listing all the necessary ingredients, they often include a rough estimate of how long it will take to prepare that particular dish. By providing the “preparation” and “cook” times, we’re able to figure out if we’d have enough time to prepare this meal or if we should consider making something else.
In business settings, though, we tend to focus on only one time measurement and that is the deadline. While this is an important time factor that your team needs to pay attention to, it’s also critical that you encourage them to determine how long a given task will take them to do. This will allow your team members to not only better plan what tasks they have the time for on any given day, it will also help them to make more realistic expectations of how much they can get done when working on a given assignment. Just like with recipes, it’s important that you make your team aware of how much prep time they’ll need before the dish will be ready to go in the oven.
4. Are you making time to pause, review and adjust your strategy based on what your team has accomplished so far?
Most times when we make goals, it’s not simply for the week or the month. Instead, it’s often a long-term goal that we realize will take months, even at times years for us to be able to reach. Having a goal so far in the distance, it’s very easy to start losing track of how the unanticipated events or issues that happen every day can suddenly make what seemed to be a straight road become one full of curves and steep slopes. That’s why it’s important that we make regular time to stop and assess our progress, of reviewing the work we’re currently doing and extrapolating out to see how it impacts our ability to reach that target in the distance.
With the explosive growth in communication technologies, it’s never been easier for people to connect, share information and collaborate on projects. The flip side of this coin, though, is that we’re also increasingly at risk of diverting our efforts and resources to simply managing these interactions and information flow as opposed to focusing on those tasks that will help our organization press ahead.
As Benjamin Franklin said – Never confuse motion for action.
In today’s wired world, it’s critical that leaders remain above this onslaught to make sure that they can help their employees ride the information waves toward their shared objective and not simply paddling along to try to stay afloat.