Earlier this week, I found myself talking with the chief of staff to the chief executive at a large company. The two of them had been on the road together for four consecutive weeks. I asked how that felt. “It’s brutal,” he said. “But it’s typical. My boss essentially has no openings on his schedule for the next three months.”
Think about that for a moment:
This executive had no times at work when he could just breathe deep and relax for a half hour, nor could he step back after a key meeting and quietly metabolize what had just happened or look forward and muse about strategy. He could not simply wander through his office, talking to people about what they’re doing, in order to energize and enrich them, and himself.
It’s not possible to move from one activity to the next at blinding speed and be reflective at the same time. The more complex and demanding the work we do, the wider, deeper and longer the perspective we require to do it well. It’s almost impossible to do that when we create no white space in our lives.
By wider, I mean taking into account the practical effect an action is likely to have on the full range of people affected by it. By deeper, I mean considering the emotional impact the action is likely to have. And by longer, I mean thinking not just about its immediate consequences, but also its implications over time.
Consider this observation from President Obama, caught on an open mike during a stroll with Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain in 2008:
“The most important thing you need to do [in this job] is to have big chunks of time during the day when all you’re doing is thinking.”
Judgment is grounded in discernment, subtlety and nuance. “I don’t do nuance,” George W. Bush once famously said about his approach to foreign policy. But would that he had. We might have avoided a costly and unnecessary war.
Instead, we too often view the opposite of “doing” as “not doing,” and then demonize inaction. In fact, good judgment grows out of reflection, and reflection requires the sort of quiet time that gets crowded out by the next demand.
There are occasions when our first intuitive judgment is the best one – or at least moves the ball forward – but even then it makes sense to revisit decisions as new facts arise. To reflect literally means to throw light back.
The folks at Google have made a mantra out of “iterating.” They push new products out, even when they know they’re imperfect, and then constantly improve them over time. Rethinking, reconsidering, and even reimagining are built into the process.
Regular reflection also provides the space in which to decide what not to do. At the companies I visit, no topic comes up more frequently than prioritizing. It’s as though we’ve all finally recognized that there is no way to accomplish everything we’ve got on our plates – but we still haven’t figured out how to take anything off them. Time to reflect is what makes it possible to prioritize.
Instead, we keep adding new tasks, defaulting to whatever feels most urgent in the moment, while unfinished business piles up. I can’t help thinking of the classic “I Love Lucy” episode in which Lucy and Ethel are overwhelmed trying to wrap the chocolates that just keep coming at them on an assembly line.
One of the most important vehicles I use to ensure that I both reflect and prioritize is an old-fashioned handwritten to-do list, with a twist. I use it to download everything that’s on my mind – not just calls to make and emails to send, but also ideas I want to explore, conflicts I haven’t resolved, and longer-term projects I intend to pursue.
When I can’t decide whether something is worth my time, I try to stop and answer three reflective questions – a task that ends up saving rather than costing time.
Could someone else do this just as well or better than I can? If so, I try to turn it over.
Is the time and energy I invest going to produce anything I’ll still consider worth having done a month from now?
Will doing this make me feel that I’m living by my most important values, to add more value to others and do less harm?
We need less conventional wisdom and more genuine wisdom; less sheer output and more insights that add enduring value.