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Carolina Fonseca: “Consciously taking a set time to handle a given interruption”

Understand your circles. This is one of my favorites and I’ve recently used it with someone I coached on how to handle colleagues’ frustrations. This person took their frustrations to heart and felt bad when there was nothing he could do about them. I explained to him the concept of your circles of control, your […]

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Understand your circles. This is one of my favorites and I’ve recently used it with someone I coached on how to handle colleagues’ frustrations. This person took their frustrations to heart and felt bad when there was nothing he could do about them. I explained to him the concept of your circles of control, your circles of influence and your circle of concern.

There will be things in our life that we control. Others we can influence and others we can’t.

Now, if you’ve done all you could (within your control and influence) then that’s all you can do — at least for the time being. Most people feel rushed because there are a lot of things in their circle of concerns — things they cannot do anything about at the moment. As my cousin told me once, if there’s a solution it’s not a problem and if there’s not a solution, it’s not a problem.


As a part of my series about “How to Slow Down To Do More” I had the pleasure of interviewing Carolina Fonseca. Carolina is a results-driven leadership coach for management teams and individuals and founder of Subtle Leadership. She started working on leadership development in 2009 after having been appointed to lead a team with no training and having failed miserably.

Afterward, she spent 3 years learning about people and leadership and experimenting with the theories and advice she learned until she understood what works when.

She’s developed the Contextual Leadership Framework and has been spent the last years consulting management boards and leaders of growing companies in Europe.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?

Thank you for having me! Of course. It all started back in 2009 when I was assigned to lead my first team and project. I had studied psychology and wasn’t terrible with people, but I wasn’t the most naturally social person either.

At the time one of the most common best practices was democratic leadership. So I decided to be a democratic leader with my team. I learned about it and followed the practices.

The project lost money, there were a lot of delivery issues and our team was broken. How could following a best practice lead to such disappointing results?

That was the moment I decided there was more to leadership than it meets the eye and embarked on a journey to learn, experiment and discover what I had missed.

According to a 2006 Pew Research Report report, 26% of women and 21% of men feel that they are “always rushed”. Has it always been this way? Can you give a few reasons regarding what you think causes this prevalent feeling of being rushed?

I don’t think it has always been this way.

There are two aspects to consider regarding the research you mention: a) the difference between women and men and b) the general feeling of being rushed regardless of gender.

Regarding the first aspect, the difference between men and women’s results, it is still expected that women take on more responsibilities in the domestic life in comparison to men — and women feel the pressure of those expectations regardless of how open and helpful their partner is — even though we’ve come to a great extent in society’s expectations towards women. There are still a few years to go until those expectations dissipate from society and the minds of working women. Until then, women have (or feel they have) more to do. And so feel more rushed.

As for the second aspect, of us, all humans, feeling rushed, there have been some historical changes which have impacted our performance and how we feel at work.

Since the Industrial Revolution our concept of the acceptable output a human person should deliver has changed over time. If before objects were crafted by hand and at a human pace, suddenly the output of factories increased it. Since then, business people have focused on increasing productivity as a way to increase revenue (think of Ford line assembly, Toyota production system and the relatively recent Lean Manufacturing and Lean Management) leading to employees carrying more responsibilities and having to work faster than we had to until roughly 250 years ago.

At the same time, our technology has evolved rather quickly.

We are more interconnected, which means there are more opportunities, more choice, more things of which to keep track.

In our professional context, that means not only do we have to, for example, post a sign saying what we sell outside of our store, but we also need to be on all social media, create content, partner with influencers and much more.

In our personal context, it means even in our “off-time”, the time we’re supposed to relax and regain energy from the hard working day, we still get notifications, messages, emails and new posts on social media.

Being on a phone, tablet or such device before going to bed considerably arouses our brains and therefore decreases the quality of our sleep. So not only are we overwhelmed with work, our attention is scattered amongst the distractions at the reach of a thumb swipe. So we worry more and become restless.

Fortunately, the movement to bring mindfulness back to our lives is getting stronger and there are more and more people looking to have a more balanced life.

Based on your experience or research can you explain why being rushed can harm our productivity, health, and happiness?

The main harm to productivity and happiness I’ve seen is that we lose focus.

Warren Buffet famously spends most of his week reading. Why do you think that is?

Most people spend most of their weeks doing small tasks and putting out fires in the workplace. Like a cockroach speeding, they get blind.

If we’re always running around, we lose focus of what matters, what we should really be focusing on. And we might spend our time doing things that add little or no value instead of the ones that would make a massive difference. Both in our professional and personal lives.

Healthwise, the main harm is, in my opinion, towards our mental health. Sure, there are many physical aspects: lack of sleep, stress-related diseases, bad diets and consequently related diseases, etc. The most harmful one, if you ask me, is our mental health. It’s the most harmful because it is the least talked about and contributes to all physical symptoms, impacting all aspects of our life. Unaddressed, it continues its undercover work of perpetuating fatigue and a sense of being rushed.

On the flip side, can you give examples of how we can do more, and how our lives would improve if we could slow down?

Sure. When we slow down, we see clearly what needs to be done. Not all the one hundred little tasks on our to-do list, but the things that really make a difference.

If you narrow down your goals for the week to 2–3 and the things you’ll do today to 2–3, you will find that all the unnecessary noise will drop.

It’s the Paretto rule: 20% of what you do accounts for 80% of your results.

Why would you spend your time, mental and emotional power worrying about doing the 80% that will get you the least results when you could simply focus on the 20% that yield the most results, improve your quality of life by being less stressed or rushed and achieve more results than if you did all the other stuff?

As a parent, do you need to have a spotless house, food on the table on time, help your children with homework and spend quality time with them? Maybe the house can be a little messy once in a while and the food can be a few minutes late if the other aspects matter most.

As a manager, do you really need to check so often on what your employees are doing? As a CEO do you need to revise department tactics every few months?

Most likely there are aspects that will have a longer-lasting and bigger impact.

For example, if you as a manager create a culture of autonomy, ownership and full stacking in your team you’ll need to check in less and have more time for what really matters. If you as CEO decide not to revise tactics every few months you’ll have more time to focus on the longer-term strategy of the company.

We all live in a world with many deadlines and incessant demands for our time and attention. That inevitably makes us feel rushed. Can you share with our readers 6 strategies that you use to “slow down to do more”? Can you please give a story or example for each?

Of course.

Strategy #1 — Make time for what you can’t plan

This is something I always share with my clients and I’ve used myself. A CEO I coached said he really needed to check and respond to social media every day, but his day was fully booked with important meetings. So we created time for it: 30 minutes before lunch. He immediately saw the mental pressure of replying and constantly checking them vanish (which was a constant interruption and decreased his productivity throughout the day).

Strategy #2 — Create working blocks

Especially for those of us who are constantly in meetings, or get constantly interrupted by colleagues or external entities, it might be stressful to get everything done when our working time is eaten up by other people’s agenda.

One of the managers I coached was struggling with this as he and his team were constantly interrupted by employees with questions for them. So he created a specific time block every morning and told everyone to only interrupt in case of emergency. He even put a sign on the door and closed it!

Did they never get interrupted? Of course not, they still had the occasional call or knock on the door. The goal was not to avoid interruptions, it was to allow them to slow down so they could do more. The number of interruptions decreased so dramatically they were able to do all the administrative work they were struggling with before.

Strategy #3 — When interrupted keep control of your time

When I was working in a company, I shared an office with three other wonderful people. This made it easier for us to simply call each other and ask questions.

Great for getting things going when we needed answers, terrible when we were laser-focused on the task at hand. One small habit we all got into was to acknowledge the interruption and say “Give me two minutes”. We knew we would get back to each other yet we did not break the flow our colleague was in. This slowed down our instinctive reply to attend the question which would cost us in productivity (see: cost of context switching) and over time the cumulative effect of this small habit amounted to less overwhelm.

Strategy #4 — Take time to read

This is a lesson from Warren Buffet.

As I’ve mentioned before, he’s known for spending most of his time reading and reflecting. Malcom Gladwell beautifully explained on his book Blink: experts often make snap judgments, intuitive judgments, where they cannot list a few reasons, yet they “just know it”.

This happens because in our unconscious mind all the knowledge gathered over years processes that input and judges it rather quickly, without us even gaining consciousness about it.

Warren Buffet is an example of mastering investments by reading on the topic most of his time.

Reading allows you to know which 20% of your work to focus on to get the most results: you acquire more data points for your brain’s database, helping you make more and more informed decisions with less effort and gives you the time to reflect on which are the right things on which to focus.

Strategy #5 — The One Deep Breath Technique

Often times we feel rushed more because of what’s going on in our mind than because of the work we’re doing. One of the managers I coached used this technique a lot to handle personal situations with employees. Instead of jumping to say what was on his mind, he would take a deep breath and give time for the person to continue or for him to gather his thoughts before speaking.

It is often used in the speaking industry — to take a moment before answering a question from the audience. There is a famous video of Steve Jobs answering a question and you can see how he takes his time to gather his thoughts before answering.

If you were to stop for a second when you’re overwhelmed, take a deep breath and re-evaluate what’s going on in your mind, what would happen? Would you realize that maybe everything is doable and you don’t need to worry so much? Or maybe you’d realize that doing X is more important than doing Y and consciously decide that Y will be left for later?

This technique works because it moves your brain from the flight or fight response mode and allows your thoughts and emotions to settle.

Strategy #6 — Understand your circles

This is one of my favourites and I’ve recently used it with someone I coached on how to handle colleagues’ frustrations. This person took their frustrations to heart and felt bad when there was nothing he could do about them. I explained to him the concept of your circles of control, your circles of influence and your circle of concern.

There will be things in our life that we control. Others we can influence and others we can’t.

Now, if you’ve done all you could (within your control and influence) then that’s all you can do — at least for the time being. Most people feel rushed because there are a lot of things in their circle of concerns — things they cannot do anything about at the moment. As my cousin told me once, if there’s a solution it’s not a problem and if there’s not a solution, it’s not a problem.

Bonus Strategy #7 — Use the Paretto Rule

As we discussed before, using the Paretto Rule (doing the 20% that yield the 80% of results) is the foundation of slowing down to do more.

In my coaching practice, I’ve often found that most leaders are focused on goals that aren’t right. Isn’t that curious? Most of them burden themselves with so many small responsibilities they end up missing the most important part of their work.

Apply the previous strategies and you will create the mindset and habits not only to feel less rushed but also to clearly see what are the main things on which to focus.

How do you define “mindfulness”? Can you give an example or story?

Mindfulness, in my definition, is the simple practice of being where you are.

If you’re eating, you are savouring the food and aware of your hand bringing it to your mouth. If you’re in a meeting, you are focused on the topic at hand. If a colleague is confiding in you, you are giving them your full attention.

Can you give examples of how people can integrate mindfulness into their everyday lives?

There are plenty! When I first encountered the practice, I was teaching at a school in a small town in India and my daily practice was on the bus ride to the school. As you can imagine it wasn’t the smoothest ride and I needed some distraction. As I started to notice my back muscles contracted, how my legs pressed against the seat, how the air was going into my lungs, my awareness of my body and surroundings increased. With it, my posture got better and I discovered that sitting mindfully, having my back straight, actually improved my posture and my ride.

So you can pick anything — to start I’d suggest something you need to do every day and that doesn’t require mental energy: brushing your teeth, showering, putting your clothes on, etc.

From there you can grow into bigger things in your professional and personal life. For now, start with something small you don’t usually think about.

Do you have any mindfulness tools that you find most helpful at work?

The most helpful tools I’ve found don’t require any external app:

  1. The one deep breath technique explained above to reset your mind
  2. Box breathing technique which reduces stress through the way you breathe
  3. Consciously taking a set time to handle a given interruption
  4. Meditative practices

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to use mindfulness tools or practices

Chandresh Bhardwaj is an amazing human being who introduced me to meditation and I stand by his work any day of the week.

My journey into mindfulness began by reading Osho, which I recommend.

Recently I’ve been intrigued by the Wim Hof method and the therapeutic work of Marisa Peer ( her work focuses on the mind and what we say to ourselves so mindfulness of our thoughts). I don’t have much experience with either as just got to know them, but I believe they are worth taking a look at.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Assumptions are the mother of all f*ckups”

It is a quote I share with everyone I work with and it’s been the greatest lesson for me. Assuming that someone thinks, expects or wants something is in our head and possibly untrue.

Challenging our assumptions through the means of open dialogue is a lesson I’ll take for life.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The reason why I started my leadership work: teach every human being how to understand, empathize, appreciate and empower people for a world where everyone enjoys their workplace.

So maybe a #humansareawesome movement 🙂

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

Thank you! Thank you for asking such relevant questions and for having me.

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