Do you know the feeling of being constantly distracted by thoughts of things you’ve got to do? Thoughts of what you need to remember to tell someone tomorrow, or what you need to do when you get to the office, or what you think you forgot to do today before you left the office?
It can be a constant 24/7 spin in fact that goes on in your brain and, from my own dealings with people, I see it everywhere I go. I see it in the people in my company and I see it in people I meet from outside the company. I’ve also seen it often in myself, people want a part of me but I’m just not able to give it. I’m caught up in that internal spin and, try as hard as I can, I’m just not there, in the moment, completely open in my mind to their discussion.
But have you ever paused to think of how this might feel to the people around you and what impact it is having?
There is a well accepted term for this, we talk of how ‘present’ we feel or how ‘present’ we appear to others. And it’s a nice term, it talks of the present as in ‘right now’ but it also talks of whether there is a ‘presence’ that we have in our interactions. And nothing is more frustrating than an interaction where we feel that the other person just isn’t present.
You can read about the importance of being present in a situation and you can also read articles of how wonderful it feels when it truly happens. Anyone who has met the former US President Bill Clinton will stress how he makes you feel, he just seems to pay a super level of attention to you and it can be quite overwhelming to experience.
So, how are you with the people in your life? And is there perhaps room for improvement?
As a strategy to improve your own state of mind around your commitments as well as your inter-personal interactions, striving for more presence is one of those big time leverage points. But as much I may have read about it over the years, the actual existence of that free space in my mind to accommodate what was happening in the moment was often quite elusive. It was as though I knew I would have the time for the person once everything on my mind had been dealt with but, until then, I’m busy!
The same could be said to be true when I was on my own though and needing to concentrate on something, no matter how hard I tried to focus on the task at hand, my mind seemed to want to be somewhere else. Or when I’ve been in a meeting with a group of colleagues and realised my mind is somewhere else, definitely not on topic.
But there’s a deeper reason for asking the question. If you are in a leadership position of any type, you need to have the time and mental space to give to others. Without it, you are caught up entirely in your own world and you are not able to (i) properly connect to the issues in their life, (ii) process these to gain insights or (ii) provide the high quality inputs that they need from you.
In other words, you cannot truly lead others when you yourself are caught up in a 24/7 mental spin. You may be doing a half decent job but you are unlikely to be properly focusing on the right things. And the people around you will know this. They will sense it. And their faith in you as their leader can take a serious knock. And any attempt to lead your team will always seem to them like it’s coming from a messy brain.
In essence, until your mental spin is under control, you cannot truly be the team leader that they need. And any efforts to bring teams to a higher level of cooperation will fall somewhat flat.
Working with people in this state can be draining because they are usually the people you have to chase for their promises. They are constantly juggling things in a way that isn’t working for them and you know it isn’t working for you either.
And it is in this context that I have found David Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’ (GTD) methodology so wonderfully useful. (You will perhaps know that I wax lyrical about it on this site, see under the menu item for ‘Personal Productivity‘). Having a method to process the constant flow of inputs into your life, in such a way that gets them off your mind, means that you are indeed able to have that mental space you need in order to be and appear present. As long as the new inputs in your life have not had their meaning and associated next actions clarified, your mind is going to keep on wondering what to do about them. And it will do this with all the unprocessed inputs you received today. And so it’s really no surprise that when you get home from work and your kids or partner start to explain their day to you, that you kind of appear to be only half interested. Or you only half get it, missing some or other important fact whilst conveying to them a sense of not really being interested. Not the way I like to start my evening at home but one that I know has played out many a time in my life.
So, as much as we are able to physically leave emails that we’ve opened in an inbox, doesn’t mean that we are able to park those issues in our minds and expect them to only get brought back to conscious thought as we enter the office in the morning. No, our minds will try and process them 24/7, whether we want them to or not. It’s what our minds do. Things may slip out of the conscious mind into the sub-conscious giving us the impression that we are not thinking about them but, in all honesty, we are thinking about them and they will pop up into our conscious minds when we least expect it and when we can least do anything about it. And this happens especially when we are trying to focus on just one task or have a clear conversation with someone.
How does GTD handle this?
- A key GTD principle is to get everything off your mind. So you need some sort of system, whether paper based or electronic, into which you can dump all those I “should do”, “ought to do”, “might do” thoughts that come at you throughout the day. Capture them at least in a form that you can later turn into an Outcome / Next Action and park them in your system, not your brain.
- And another key principle is that if you are going to open your email inbox (or any other potential can of worms of new inputs in your life) you need to process each email one by one so that you have clarified exactly what each input means, i.e. don’t keep opening new emails, grunting and moving on to the next one. Ask yourself, there and then, as you first read it, is there an outcome associated with it? What is the single Next Action that you need to carry out? Think this through, capture the output of your thinking in your system and, voila, it will be off your mind and no longer part of that 24/7 spin. David Allen’s phrase for this is to ‘deal with it when it shows up, not when it blows up’.
The ‘Process & Organize’ stages of GTD are described in a bit more detail here if you’re interested.
So, if you can relate to the feeling of not always being truly present with people, or rarely being able to completely focus on the task you are busy with, or you find yourself often thinking other thoughts in those all important team meetings, take a shot at GTD’s method of processing new inputs so as to clarify exactly what they mean in your world. Without this, you are perpetuating, at a subliminal level, a lack of clarity that will continue to niggle your mind … give it a go and see if you can switch off the 24/7 spin of your messy brain and come back to the present moment. The world will be waiting for you when you come!
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P.S. If you are unfamiliar with the GTD approach, please check the menu links above under ‘Personal Productivity’ to learn more!
Note: ‘Getting Things Done’ and ‘GTD’ are trademarks of the David Allen Company.