It happens to almost all leaders. When your job gets bigger than you and the pace becomes unsustainable, the first sign is often a feeling of burnout. As you try to stay on top of bigger and more sophisticated challenges, especially during organizational growth or change, it’s easy to fall into a “Focus Stall,” when allocating your time and energy to the wrong things makes you feel drained and overwhelmed with diminishing returns to show for your efforts. You continue to dedicate the same hours and effort to your organization, but you find yourself thinking, “I’m working like a maniac but not getting anywhere!”
Time and energy are finite resources, no matter how vigorous your passion for work. Giving an hour of focused attention to X means you’re not giving that time and energy to Y.
When we work closely with leaders, managers, and executives, we often take the time to walk through their weekly routine. We assess with them where they are spending their hours and minutes. These leaders often come to see a disconnect between their biggest priorities and their biggest time and energy expenditures. Almost everyone makes this error, and even smart and committed leaders can fall into it often. As your organization grows and becomes more complex and sophisticated, you’ll likely see this pitfall repeatedly, in others if not yourself.
How do you know you’ve hit the Focus Stall?
The biggest clue is that you’re getting diminishing returns on your efforts and you’re exhausted. While you’re keeping the pedal to the floor, nothing you do seems to drive the organization forward like it once did. The backlog of urgent matters keeps growing. It’s not just that you are running like a marathoner all the time—but you find you’re losing your energy and enthusiasm for the job. You tell yourself that you’re making headway, but in your heart, you feel like you feel overworked and exhausted, getting less return for more effort.
The ultimate warning sign is that your lack of focus spills over into your personal life. It’s easy to rationalize work-life imbalance, and many do choose to make tradeoffs at certain points. But are you making these tradeoffs consciously? Or are you deluding yourself? We regularly hear senior executives admit to deferring their investment in family today as a means of bettering family life tomorrow. Have you done the long-term math on such tradeoffs? If not, you may just be developing bad habits that won’t make anyone happy at any juncture in your work or life.
Ask yourself the following questions:
– Are you exhausted and overwhelmed? Less energetic and passionate about what you’re doing and its impact?
– Are your meetings time-wasters, often without clear objectives?
– Does it feel like your work/life balance is so out of whack that you can’t seem to please anyone: peers, employees, or family?
– Are taking on more responsibilities rather than fewer, more important ones?
Here are three ways to determine if you’ve hit a Focus Stall, and how to overcome it and find greater balance in your work and life:
Do, Manage, or Lead?
Assess how you divide your time between acting as a doer, a manager, and a leader.
As a simple exercise, draw three columns on a tablet of paper, one each for “Do,” “Manage,” and “Lead.” List all your activities and actions for this quarter, allocating each, in specific and measurable terms, to one of these three columns. Estimate your time devoted to each and calculate each column’s relative percentage. Then ask yourself: Given my role and what I want to accomplish, am I investing my time and energy commensurate with the best returns? If you hold yourself accountable for keeping a Do-Manage-Lead inventory, and check yourself against it regularly, you will see whether you’re falling into the Focus Stall.
Check your calendar
Take an honest look at your calendar and calculate where you actually spend your time. The only way to know if your estimates are right is to tally the hours. Assessing your calendar in this way is a useful but humbling sanity check.
Break questions about your time commitments into five parts:
1. Do you attend to vision: Where the organization is going, why, what success will look like, and who will care?
2. Do you attend to goals: What your people specifically need to accomplish in order to realize that vision?
3. Do you attend to alignment around strategy: How exactly your organization will accomplish those goals, what might get in the way, and how you can overcome obstacles to success?
4. Do you attend to the present: Where your organization is today, as well as an honest assessment of what’s working well, what’s not, and what everyone needs to do about it?
5. Do you attend to relationships: Who on your stakeholder map most needs your time and attention, from your directs to the broader organization to your external stakeholders?
Once you’ve finished examining your calendar, you should see clearly where your time is really going. How much of your time and energy is being devoted to the work that truly matters?
Take Time to Reflect
Take stock of how much time you spend in undisturbed reflection or contemplative thought. Do you set aside real and meaningful time to let your brain slow down? To pull back and develop situational awareness? To see your longer-term goals and responsibilities as well as how your industry and the world are changing from a more detached and strategic perspective?
If you value your intellect and creativity as a leader—if you feel your smarts are a strategic and differentiating asset—give your brain a runway of its own. Let it take off with your best ideas. If you do the calendar test and find you’re booked twelve to fourteen hours a day, you may be focused on some of the right things at the expense of one of the most important ones: distilling your insights and experiences into new value and ways to have impact.
John Hillen is a leadership and strategy professor in the School of Business at George Mason University, a former public company CEO and a former U.S. assistant secretary of state. Mark Nevins, president of Nevins Consulting, advises, coaches, and consults to CEOs and leadership teams. They are the co-authors of “What Happens Now: Reinvent Yourself as a Leader Before Your Business Outruns You.”