What’s on your resolution list? Be more creative, become a better leader, focus more, ENJOY work more…?
I find most leaders are eager and hungry for ways to expand their skills and capacity, and not just at the time of traditional New Year’s resolutions.
The best time to start any self-improvement effort is immediately. Equally important is what kind of change you are resolving to make. Is it a change that will really make a difference?
Too many people go about self-improvement simply by making a list of a couple of items they wish they could do better - often things that are outside of their natural talents or interests, but are perceived as weaknesses. Even if accomplished, doing the items on the list may not be of lasting value.
So what kind of personal change really has impact? One size does not fit all, so following you will find seven different types of change to consider, spanning from specific types of action to changing how you think about the world. If you diligently apply any one or more of these to your specific circumstances, you might be astonished at the impact in your work and in your life.
Develop your system to keep routine work from interfering with important work
I believe this is the fundamental concept applied by all those people you admire who seem to get so much done. They have a system that gets the routine part of their work done, freeing time and energy for important efforts – the Quadrant II work as discussed by Stephen Covey (e.g. tasks that are important but not necessarily urgent). This is where you create time for leadership, relationship building, innovation, learning, and self-improvement. Hint: this is more than simply prioritizing your to-do list.
If you don’t have a system, start working on one now. (I have found David Allen’s Getting Things Done particularly helpful.) Once you have a system, by all means keep improving it, but guard against constantly tinkering with it. You need a system that works, not one that is perfectly efficient. The value of a working system increases the less time you spend on it.
For those want to accomplish big things, regularly assess what you could drop from your routine. Somewhere on your desk, in your PDA, or at least in your head you have a to-do list. Do you have a to-don't list?
Focus on your strengths
I continue to find many people have a predisposition to ‘fix’ weaknesses often at the expense of building on strengths, a predisposition that becomes institutionalized in the performance management systems of their organizations.
Clearly if there is a ‘weakness’ that is derailing work and life goals, by all means address it. For most circumstances, however, I coach people to think of putting at least 80% of their effort into building up their strengths.
An obvious but often overlooked first step is to understand what your strengths are. Do you have a clear understanding of where you are most successful and why? With a good understanding of one’s strengths, systematically polishing, honing, improving what one does well almost always yields results far beyond those achieved by moving forward on relative weaknesses. Better to seek world-class excellence in what you do well, than functional mediocrity by doing all things reasonably OK.
Think cultivate, not operate
Important changes are rarely of the all-or-nothing sort, but are matters of relative quality. What’s the difference? Resolving to eliminate soft drinks from your diet is an all-or-nothing proposition. Living a healthy lifestyle, however, is about a quality.
Too much of our thinking is shaped by machine metaphors. People think about change as levers to pull or buttons to push that makes a change turn on or off. Qualities simply do not work that way. A more useful metaphor is that of a garden, where outcomes are cultivated by gentle yet relentless attention to care and conditions that foster desired changes.
What are qualities to cultivate? In addition to health, how about listening, presence, decisiveness, enjoyment, thoughtfulness, creativity, and leadership? Cultivated over days, weeks, or years, these become powerful contributors to success with deep roots.
Productivity: manage energy rather than time
Obviously it is important to manage your time. Ultimately, however, the time you have to work with is fixed at 24 hours a day. No amount of time management will change this fact.
On the other hand, what you are able to accomplish with your time is likely as related to your personal level of energy as much as the minutes and hours you allot to a task. Moreover, personal energy is something that can continuously improve. That exercise program may create a net loss of time you can apply to projects - but it may create a net gain in energy, and therefore a gain in productivity.
Consider thinking about projects, agendas, etc. in terms of how much of your energy do you want to apply, rather than how many minutes you want to use. Then manage how you use and renew your energy.
Competence: increase presence rather than skill
There is nothing wrong with increasing skill. However if the goal is increased competence, consider what the impact of being more present in what you do might have over simply trying to be “better” at it. What would happen with your important relationships (business and personal) if you focused on being more present and authentic rather than using “better” communication skills?
Systematically spend time and attention outside of your field
Neuroscience in the last decade has confirmed that the brain is quite capable of renewing itself well into old age. This capacity is dependent on a regular flow of new experiences beyond staying active with what you already know.
In a world where the value we produce is increasingly a product of our brains, it pays to invest in keeping your own capable of new learning. Seek learning outside of your discipline, and do so regularly. According to a recent Fast Company article, at least one west coast company, Posit Science Corporation, has built a “fifth-day” learning strategy into their company structure, where workers spend one day a week in an area outside of their normal discipline.
Adopt an inquiry that moves you in the right direction
What might be most useful for you is not a resolution at all, but a guiding question.
Questions are powerful because they give focus and direction to our thinking. Questions compel our brain to go into action, roping off a particular mental space with a big sign that says “get ideas here”.
Great guiding questions provoke us into thinking in new ways. The value of such questions is in having both a coherent personal answer for the question, and recognizing that the answer is always open, a work in progress.
Some sample guiding questions: What makes you excited to get up in the morning? If you were guaranteed success, what would you do? What would you do if you had no restraints? How do you want to be remembered? How would the world be different if you (or your company) didn’t exist?
Gandhi called upon us to “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Changes you make in how you work and live will have incredible impact if it builds on your strengths and frees your time and energy for effort that matters. Sustained presence give you an edge, and continually pursing new endeavors keeps your brain in top shape. Cultivating an attitude of open inquiry will bring perspective to your efforts.
So, ready to change the world? Make a personal change that adds real value to your endeavors.
by Tom Stevens (c)2008
Tom Stevens helps individuals and organizations create and sustain exceptional organizations. To contact Tom, visit www.ThinkLeadershipIdeas.com
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