A Coaching Power Tool Created by Catherine Evans Joines
(Executive Coach, UNITED KINGDOM)
In today’s fast moving society, it seems that being busy is seen as a badge of honour, something we can be proud to claim. If you are busy, you must be doing something worthwhile, have people dependent on you – you are important. For some of us the need to be busy is like a compulsion; driving us forward to achieve, to do more, to create more. Often we are the go-to people when something needs to be done urgently, because as the well-known adage states “If you need something doing quickly, give it to a busy person”. We thrive on the endless to-do lists; take great pride in ticking those action items off. We can multi-task. We have it covered. You can depend on us.
But what if being busy is actually distracting us, masking what really needs to be done in order to reach our long-term goals? What if being busy is actually detrimental to us and is the thing that is preventing us from really reaching our true potential and achieving what we want?
Sometimes we need to take a step back from the mayhem and the hustle and bustle of our daily/working lives to examine what is really important. What are the key things we want to achieve? Once this is clear, we can then devise plans to reach those goals. But we must hold ourselves accountable to these plans. We must revisit them regularly, check in to see that we are on track. If we are not, we need to make adjustments. In short, we must be “focused” on what we want to achieve.
Of course, there are always two sides to every story, so let’s examine these two states, the state of busyness and the state of focus, in more detail.
So what is busyness?
Busyness can be defined as “a state of having a lot of activity, or of not being idle” (1). When you have a lot of tasks to do all at once, this is an example of busyness.
In today’s workplaces there are so many things to keep us busy: from the countless emails that need answering; to the sales calls that need making; to the presentations that need creating; to the briefs, papers and documentation that need writing and last but by no means least, to the meetings or webex calls that need attending. There is just so much that needs to be done, so many obligations to fulfil; and that is just in the working environment. When you add on top your personal commitments, from managing the home, to making your childcare arrangements, to grocery shopping, to fitting in exercise, to ensuring there is a meal (home-cooked or otherwise!) on the table each night, you can see how it really can become a juggling act, with your head flitting from one thought to another and you achieving one task after another. A constant cycle of do, achieve, tick-off, do, achieve, tick-off. It is no wonder that our standard response to the question “How are you doing?” is “I am SO busy”. Because we are!
What is driving this constant busyness?
According to Oliver Burkeman in his article for the Guardian (2) it is our socioeconomic system that relentlessly instrumentalises everyone, forcing us to become productivity machines valued by output alone. How many can of us can relate to that? In our performance reviews we are measured against achieving specific outcomes and reaching certain targets or Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). So in our best efforts to attain these goals we do all that we can to make them happen. We want our managers to see that we are taking action, that we are making progress, that we deserve the good appraisal, the promotion, the praise, the payrise. We are, after all, ambitious and want to achieve. We are determined to make it happen.
Busy. It’s about showing status. That if you are busy, you are important. You’re leading a full and worthy life. Ann Burnett, who studies how the language we use creates our reality, is noted as commenting in Brigid Schulte’s book “Overwhelmed: work, love and play when no-one has the time”. (3)
Being busy can be almost competitive. But is it more than just a competition or driving ambition that keeps us constantly on the go, like the hamster in his wheel? For some there is an underlying fear propelling us forward, keeping us busy – a compulsion. As Tim Kreider wrote in his article “The Busy Trap”(4), busyness is seen as a virtue and people are terrified of hearing that they may have empty time. According to Kreider, busyness serves as an existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness. Because if people have spare time, they are afraid that they will be redundant, surplus to requirements, obsolete. So we use the ever-filling inbox or needless webex meetings to enable us to feel like we are doing something worthwhile, that we are moving things forward. We are determined to fill every moment of our day. We need to be seen to be useful; to be adding value.
Benefits of being busy
As we have already seen, being busy can give us a sense of purpose and a structure to work within. Unfortunately, there are times in our lives when we just need to be busy. When we need to distract ourselves or separate ourselves from a difficult or troubling situation, for example, the death of a loved one, a relationship breakdown or a tricky work situation. Being busy and concentrating on the mundane, on the tasks at hand can be useful. It keeps us moving forward and enables us to feel that we have achieved something useful at the end of the day.
The Busyness Epidemic
However, being constantly busy is not necessarily a good thing. There is a price to be paid.
In his recent article John Brubaker reported that a recent Harris poll in the US found that the vast majority (86%) of Americans believe that the nation is suffering from a “busyness epidemic” (5). And alarmingly, 37% of us feel burdened by “busyness” during our holidays (5), a time when we should be resting and recharging our batteries so that we can continue to be effective in our work.
Unsurprisingly, much has been written on the increase in “busyness” in the western world and its impact on us. It can be very disempowering, leaving us feeling overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of what we perceive needs to be done. In some cases, it can actually be so overwhelming that it effectively paralyses us from taking action. Alternatively, it can stop us from seeing which is the correct path of action to take. We are just caught up in what “has to be done” that we forget to stop and assess what really “needs to be done”.
Not surprisingly, too much busyness can make us anxious and stressed. We can become snappy, short-tempered and irritable. Our internal negative self-talk often increases and we start to put more and more pressure on ourselves to make it work “If I can only get x done, then y will be better”. All of this can impact on our relationships with others, leading to an increase in miscommunication, which in turn adds to the stress and sense of frustration that we are feeling.
SEAt TIME ≠ PRODUCTIVITY
Fortunately, according to Kreider in his article “The Busy Trap” (4), much of our “busyness” is self-imposed and comprises of work and other obligations we have taken on voluntarily. It is worth noting the findings from Ray William’s article in Psychology Today on “Why ‘busyness’ is not productivity – doing more doesn’t result in better results” (6). Williams commented that “seat time” does not equate to productive work, especially for those in knowledge jobs. This means that some of the tasks that are keeping us busy and filling our working day don’t actually result in anything tangible, which would align with our overall goals and targets. One such example is the ever-filling inbox used as our to-do list. This is often used as a source of procrastination, to enable us to feel like we are doing something worthwhile, that we are moving things forward, when in fact all we are doing is putting something off and avoiding a certain task or action. We are busy but not achieving something that actually propels us toward our goals.
But what about the other side of the coin – focus. Let’s look at that now.
What is focus?
When we work with focus, we work with clarity. We know what is important and why we are doing specific tasks. When we focus we actually conserve energy, as distractions/deviations are minimised. Our energy is not dissipated onto other activities or irrelevant thoughts (7). Our attention and energies are fully directed to the task at hand and we are fully present in the here and now.
Through being focused and attentive we can achieve a state of flow. According to psychologist Mikaly Csikszentmikalyi’s (8) this idea of flow is an important concept in achieving increased productivity. It is also reported that working “in flow” enables you to perform effortlessly extremely well (9). So sustained focus helps us get more done, more easily and with less effort.
Sustained focus helps us get more done, more easily and with less effort.”My God, people are competing about being”
What does focus look like?
In order to be focused we need to have set clear boundaries, so that we truly can be fully present and engaged with the task at hand. For example,
- Several Companies now instigate a “no devices” rule for business meetings, so that external distractions are minimised. The focus is then fully on the discussions in that meeting
- Utilising “Out of Office” responses when on holiday so that you can focus on rest and rejuvenation, in order that you are effective upon your return to work.
- Blocking out time in schedules to perform certain tasks, so that that time is protected and without other distractions.
- Only reading emails 3 times per day so that you avoid the inbox-procrastination trick – remember your inbox is not your to-do list. Are you busy keeping busy? Or Busy and focussed on what you need to achieve to move yourself forward?
- No working on the weekend as this is dedicated family time – freeing up your mind to be fully present at home and providing a much needed break from work, so that you can return refreshed on Monday morning.
- No answering emails or work calls past 7pm as this is time to get dinner ready and spend time with your partner.
- 15-30 min dedicated play time with the kids without the TV or mobile phone nearby – your attention is fully on them (guilt-free) as you know the rest of the day has been devoted to work, so now this is your time with your kids.
- Having only 1 calendar (for both work and personal) this can help us dedicated set times to set activities without fear of a clash with the “other” calendar.
What is the impact of being focused?
When we work in a state of focus on a specific goal or outcome, it can move us forward quickly and purposefully. However, it can also blind us to opportunities. Michael Schein in his article “How being focused is keeping you from becoming insanely successful” (10) noted that distractions often lead to profitable cross-pollination and that we should be aware of possible opportunities at the edge of our area of focus. To overcome this “blinkers on” scenario, our new-found ability to be fully present in the here and now, actually enables us to approach situations with a curiosity that will serve us well in becoming aware of the opportunities and possibilities that could arise.
So in addition to be being fully present in the moment and the curiosity about and enhanced awareness of possibilities that are out there, focus enables us to achieve more of the things that matter to us. Our productivity at work increases. We can see the progress we are making toward our bigger goals or dreams. Because of this we feel a greater sense of accomplishment and we become motivated to keep going. We have clear work/life boundaries, which enable us to be fully present and engaged either at work or at home, without feeling guilty that we should be doing something in the other domain. We can see the path ahead of us and our decision-making abilities improve as does our ability to articulate what we want and need. Our overall communication with others improves. We are calmer and more present in the moment. We become less stressed and our self-respect and self-confidence increase.
Armed with this knowledge, We have a choice. We can choose to continue to work from a state of busyness or look at the alternative and choose to work from a state of focus.
Coaching Application and Tools
As Coaches we know that focus propels our clients forward to achieve and reach their ultimate potential and goals. However, many clients struggle with maintaining focus and following through on the commitment to achieve certain tasks. Let’s look first at what can cause resistance and prevent our clients from achieving focus and then look at how focus can be achieved. Finally, we can explore some coaching tools that we could use to help our clients become more focused.
What can prevent our clients from embracing focus?
The good news is that being focused is a skill, and as such can be learnt. As with learning any new skill sometimes there is resistance to learning how to focus. Distractions can be easy to come by and often are a form of procrastination highlighting a resistance to getting focused and moving forward. So let’s examine where this resistance could come from.
- An Underlying Fear
Whenever we attempt something new, fear appears. But to move forward we need to move through the fear. As Coaches we have to help our clients examine the underlying fears and help them find an empowering perspective, which can help them overcome the fear and move forward.
- A Limiting Belief/Judgment
Is there an Underlying Belief or judgment that is sabotaging their efforts to be focused? Is the client concerned that by being focussed, it could cause problems elsewhere? Are they judging or feeling judged? Beliefs that don’t support the client in maintaining focus need to be discussed.
- Limiting Perspective
Help the client to create a new and different way of looking at a situation – help them shift perspective. You can do this by asking a questions, providing direct communication, providing an alternative point of view or co-creating a new vision of the future. It is important to remind our clients that by being focused they are creating the space to grow and achieve more. They can view focus as skill in being committed to their goals.
- Lack of Clear Vision and Goal Setting
Is there a lack of clear vision around what your client wants to achieve and what this will look like? Without the motivation of the bigger picture, it will be difficult for your client to align their tasks with their overall plan. You can help your clients visualise the end game and the steps needed to get there. Once the vision is clear we can help our clients break down the steps required to get there into SMART tasks (Specific, Measurable, Achievable tasks with the Resources described and a Time frame for completion).
- Trouble Prioritising
In today’s modern world it is easy for our clients to get distracted and to focus on tasks which may not be important in the grand scheme. We need to help them prioritise the tasks according to their importance as determined by the client. We can help the client see and feel the impact of achieving x rather than y or z rather b, through visualisation exercises and powerful questions. This will also empower our clients to say “no” to any tasks which do not align with their chosen path.
How is focus achieved?
Knowing what can cause resistance and prevent our clients from being focussed, helps us to define what is required for achieving focus. In general, there are 4 main steps, which are outlined below.
- Define a vision
In order to work with focus, we first need to know what we want to focus on. We need to know our priorities and what is important to us. To do this we have to have a clear vision of how we want things to be, what we want to do, what our short and long-term goals are and how we are going to achieve them. When we have this vision in our mind, it is much easier to see which tasks align with that vision and can be actioned, versus those that don’t and should be dropped/delegate/out-sourced.
- Define Boundaries
Next we need to define our boundaries. As we have seen above, having clear boundaries helps us to avoid contaminated time i.e. times when our tasks/priorities merge together. For example, when you are desperately trying to write that work email on your mobile while your toddler is tugging at your leg wanting to play football. It is a lose-lose situation. There is guilt for having to work when you “should” be playing with your toddler and guilt for playing with your toddler because you “need” to work.
If our boundaries are clear, we know that we work purposefully during certain times and we play wholeheartedly during others. We find a work/life mix that works for us and our families. We need to, as Brigid Schulte suggests in her book (3), look at what we have been asked to do and ask ourselves how does this tie in with our goals, values, beliefs, so that my obligations can be reduced and my tasks align with my goals. And most importantly of all, we need to learn to say no to the rest of what is asked of us. This is true of both our personal and professional goals and aspirations.
- Plan and Organise
The third stage, links back to stage 1 and is planning and organisation. Cari Williams Yost, CEO and founder of the Flex+Strategy Group and Work+Life Fit inc has stated “Careful planning and better organisation can go a long way toward improving parents’ stressful lives”. It is not just about simple prioritisation of the tasks in front of you. It is important that the items in our to-do list and schedule really do reflect our vision. The key is not to prioritise what is in the schedule but to schedule our priorities (11).
Don’t Prioritise Your To Do List, Rather Schedule Your Priorities. (Adapter from Stephen Covey’s book.“7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful lessons in personal change” (11)
- Be fully present
One of the key aspects of being focused is being present in the here and now – fully engaged with the task at hand. We need to minimise distractions. To aid us here we can make use of mindfulness strategies, which have been shown to lower stress hormones, increasing the body’s immune response, enabling us to have better memories and focus, which in turn frees up space for creativity and increase productivity. Mindfulness is a skill in and of itself and can be readily combined with some simple strategies including:
- Minimising distractions and give yourself no excuses
- turn off the email and check only 3 times per day
- find a quiet place to work
- put your mobile or other devices not relevant to your task out of arm’s reach
- make sure you have everything you need to hand e.g. coffee, biscuits, pens, paper etc
- work in a tidy environment
- Dedicate specific time slots to specific tasks
- Inform your colleagues that you are uncontactable for a period of time
- Force yourself to focus by taking your laptop to a coffee shop to work without the battery pack
- Use mindfulness apps like “focus@will” or “HeadSpace” to help calm you during or before working
- Use affirmations such as “I am not busy - I am focused on achieving my goal”
- Allow yourself time to rest and take regular breaks - get up and stretch your legs
- Do one task at a time – achieve it and then move onto the next one.
There are several tools that a coach can utilise to help a client move from a state of busyness to a state of focus. These include
- to gain clarity on what is important to the client now and in the longer-term
g. promotion, family time, health, living situation/conditions, travel, etc
- to help the client uncover values and also understand the impact of busyness and how operating in a state of focus could be beneficial to them (see also the attached worksheet)
- What is the impact on you by always being busy?
- What would focus look like to you?
- What would being focused bring you?
- What is important to you in this situation?
- When you look back in 10 years’ time, what do you want to remember most about this time?
- To paint a picture of the overall goal and where the client wants to be in the future.
- Visualisation is also good for examining the impact of alternative futures if one course of action rather than another is pursued.
g. Imagine a more focused you, one who knows what it is truly important to them and is committed to concentrating fully on the task in hand, who isn’t rushing here, there and everywhere and who isn’t compelled to cram as much into the day as possible. What would that look like?
Task Setting and Prioritisation
- Ensure that tasks are SMART and that any possible obstacles to achieving them are explored
- Help the client prioritise their goals/tasks. Make suggestions of resources and approaches and ask for their thoughts and other approaches they have heard of. Some examples could be
- Most Important Actions (Top 3 approach)
- Eisenhower importance/urgency matrix
- Encourage the client to explore ways to be mindful and fully present on the task at hand e.g. by minimising distractions
- Suggest possible resources and ask what they think of these. E.g. Focus@will,
Affirmations and Metaphors
- Throughout the coaching conversation listen to their words and repeat any stand-out phrases – these can become your client’s own personal affirmation
- Also listen out for metaphors which describe how the client would feel about moving into focus. Help the client explore this idea and embellish it. These often become powerful tools in focussing our attention on what is important to us.
- In your own life where would you like more focus?
- What does it feel like when you are constantly busy and seemingly without focus?
- Think of a time when you were focussed. What behaviours and steps were you exhibiting? How did it make you feel?
- In your coaching practice how can you reduce distractions so that you can focus more on your client?
- As a coach what are some questions you could ask to move your client toward focus?
- What tools could you use to support your client around gaining focus?
Definition of Busyness from Yourdictionary.com (http://www.yourdictionary.com/busyness) 11.06.2016
Oliver Burkeman, Guardian, (24.3.14) “This ‘busy-bragging’ epidemic must be stopped. If only we could find the time”
Brigid Schulte, “Overwhelmed: work, love and play when no-one has the time” published by Picador (reprint March 2015)
Tim Kreider “The ‘Busy’ Trap” published on the Opinion Pages “Opinionator” of the New York Times 30.6.12.
John Brubaker “Are You Losing Your Humanity to the Scourge of Busyness?” published in Entrepreneur 25.11.15
Ray Williams “Why ‘busyness’ is not productivity – doing more doesn’t result in better results” published in Psychology Today on 22.7.12.
Remez Sasson “The power of concentration” published on SuccessConsciousness.com
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi from an article on “Flow Theory & Works” published on study.com
From an article published on briim.fi entitled “Being Focused and Attentive” (24.8.2014)
Michael Schein “How being focussed is keeping you from becoming insanely successful” published 13.11.14 on inc.com
Stephen Covey, “7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change” published by Simon & Schuster, November 2013.
Achieving Focus Worksheet
Once we become clear about our vision and our goals we can easily align our tasks and actions toward these goals and utilise the power of FOCUS.
Below are some questions and ideas to help a client move into focus.
- Assess the impact of busyness on your life
- What impact is being constantly busy having on you?
- What are you spending your time doing?
- Perform a time-audit to bring awareness
- Who would you become if you were less consumed by “busyness”?
- What impact would being more focused have on you? Who would you become?
- Define your vision
- What are your short/medium and long-term goals?
- What is important to you in your life?
- What do you want more/less of?
- Describe your ideal day, what does it look like? How would you like to spend your time?
- How would it feel to live out your ideal day? What one word or phrase would best describe this feeling?
- Define your boundaries
- Looking at how you are spending your time, are there any tasks/activities that do not align with your vision?
Can these be removed/delegate/out-sourced?
- What can you say “no” to?
- What times of the day/week do you want to protect?
- Plan and Organise
- What do you want to accomplish this week/this month?
- How could you organise your day/week?
- What are your 3 Most Important Actions (MIAs)?
- How could using the Eisenhower Matrix benefit you?
- What do you want to commit to?
- What resources or help do you need in order to achieve these tasks/actions?
- Be Fully Present
- What obstacles or distractions could prevent you from achieving your goals?
- How can you keep focused? What do you need?
- What techniques/ideas could you use to help you maintain focus?