Quiet Reflection: Far More Productive Than It Appears

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Most jobs are measured by output: packages delivered, sales closed, calls taken, cases processed, reports completed, to name several from my own past. All of these have in common (some more than others) the generally unrecognized need to take time to break down a problem before attempting to solve it. I say it’s unrecognized because this time can frequently look extremely unproductive. I can make substantial progress toward the solution of a problem while doing something that looks a lot like spacing out. There are two destructive forces at work here discouraging me from this important task. One is from my childhood and the other from more recent (but not current) work history.

First, there’s a part of me that feels guilty when I’m doing it. I can hear my teachers and parents in my head. They’re admonishing me for daydreaming. “Focus on your work not on what’s happening out the window.” In fairness to those people, I will concede that I had frequent issues with completing tasks, projects, and homework. It’s also fair to say that I wasn’t spending a whole lot of time on the problem at hand when my eyes would drift to more interesting things outside. That’s why it’s so difficult for me to have the discipline to take that time now. It’s a defense mechanism to always be busy. If I’m busy, I can’t be accused of being lazy. Unfortunately, being busy can be destructive to productivity. Moreover, studies show that it is destructive if, for you, being busy includes multi-tasking.

The second is that being busy is frequently rewarded in the workplace. I’ve witnessed this in numerous professional environments. I’ve even seen some people who take this behavior to the next level by constantly complaining about how busy they are. In some environments, these people get “extra credit” by looking busy. Meanwhile, I just constantly look like I don’t have enough to do (here comes the guilt again). I know what you’re thinking . . . “In the opening, you took the time to point out that most jobs are measured by output.” You’re right. Guess what, when being busy is rewarded, this theater is now a part of the output.

Now we have a behavior that’s destructive to productivity, rooted in education, and reinforced by experience . . .

I can’t solve all of these problems. In summary, leadership is critical to stopping the reinforcing behaviors described above. Here, I’ll avoid a lengthy discussion on the difference between management and leadership and why the combination is (in my experience) extraordinarily rare. I just want to be clear that when I say leadership, I mean the qualities, not a group of people. Besides that, this blog isn’t for the managers and VPs and directors of this or that. (Though, you are welcomed to continue reading. After all, you’ve made it this far.) This is for the grunts. My advice is to be bold and dare to sit quietly at your desk (or a quieter, less distracting place) thinking about the problem at hand.

Mark McKelvey wrote a great blog a few months ago about the importance of design. He’s right. You need to meet and ask and question and design and draft and meet and question some more before you eventually analyze. The critical point there was to avoid trying to analyze before you’ve organized the tools and framework for analysis. It takes discipline to take the proper amount of time for design. That was the inspiration for this post because lurking in there (hidden between the words that describe the design process) is the requirement of quiet, mindful reflection.

But it was never stated. You never see it in a course syllabus. In all of the classrooms I’ve sat in and the many amazing teachers who’ve taught me, it was only mentioned once. I’ve never had a manager or mentor give this advice. It’s not a part of any timeline I’ve put together for a project. Set time aside for quiet reflection. Remember to think! Budget time for it and bill it. Most importantly, be mindful while doing it. Don’t stop to check emails. Don’t talk to anybody. Take at least 20 minutes and really focus on the problem. If you really want to up your productivity (and your health), take another 20 minutes to focus on nothing.

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