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Annual Round Up: Attentional Overwhelm

The second topic in this year’s roundup is “Attentional Overwhelm.” Like executive presence, almost everyone I work with has to wrestle, in some way, shape or form, with the completely overwhelming stream of requests  and information coming his or her way on a daily basis.

Much of this can be attributed to omnipresent technology wreaking havoc on our brains. (For excellent coverage on this phenomenon, see Ed Hallowell’s 2005 article on “Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform.”)

In addition to endemic technology overwhelm, there is also a stealthy transition point in a career hallmarked by success. This largely goes unnoticed until individuals are held captive by the very thing that made them successful—saying yes. (Or, “Yes, please,” in the words of Amy Poehler).  In other words, success comes when one has been willing to stretch—to say yes—early and often. Successful individuals typically leaned in early in their careers and leaned in strong. For this, they were amply rewarded.

And then things change. And the very trait that made them successful becomes their undoing. As a result of saying yes too much, either their work or leadership suffers; or, their life as a whole starts to drain and punish rather than fuel and fulfill. When this happens, it’s critical to master two skills that assist in creating a career that is both a professionally rewarding and personally sustainable: saying ‘no’ and creating rock-solid work processes.

Mastering the No

Determining what is worthy of one’s time (your yesses) and what is not (your noes) requires fine discernment. Many struggle with saying no simply because they have very high levels of interest and enthusiasm. Some others still fear the well-known boogeyman named FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) or his evil twin sister FOBFO (Fear of Being Found Out). From fear, they say “yes” reflexively.

There is no better resource to mastering one’s noes than William Ury’s Art of a Positive No (Note: Ury is co-founder of Harvard’s Negotiation project and author of the better-known book Getting to Yes).

I won’t tax your attention spans by rehashing his points. Get the book. I use Ury’s frameworks all the time with clients as they first define their “yes” (e.g. what they are seeking to protect or change by saying no) and then create concrete strategies for saying “no.”

My single favorite strategy of Ury’s: “I have a policy.” As he so well describes, this flavor of “no” frames the limits you’re setting in terms of a broader policy of which your “no” is just one instance. It lets the requestor know this is an ongoing practice that you’ve thought through carefully and that your “no” is nothing personal. Let me give you an example of how I use this one (to protect clients’ innocence):

“Thank you so much for asking, but I currently only do volunteer work that can also involve my family.”

See how that works? I’m not turning you down when you request my time, I’m simply affirming a commitment that I’ve made to volunteerism within the context of family.  It’s a “positive no.”

Mastering Process  

Once one practices (again and again) the art of saying no, personal work processes must be mastered. Life becomes increasingly complicated as we age—i.e. if we are lucky, not only do our careers and opportunities expand, but so do our interests and commitments outside of work (to a family, for example; or to a “virtual baby”—as one of my clients brilliantly calls it—which may be a deep passion and interest outside of work that should also be honored). Simply hoping that things will fall into place or fit together doesn’t work.

David Allen, of Getting Things Done fame, is the undisputed master of systems that support executives and knowledge workers. In his work, he spells these systems out well and offers a wide range of  supports, including online webinars and in-person seminars. Highly recommended.

A dramatically simplified version of David Allen’s work, which I recommend to most of my clients (given their patience levels for a full-length book or webinars) is a very short e-book called Zen-to-Done (ZTD). ZTD was created by Leo Babauta through his Zen Habits Blog. Get it. Read it. Then apply one principle at a time and practice that single principle for a month before moving to the next. This single intervention will significantly upgrade your work processes.

Learning to say “no” with grace and ease and developing work processes are worthy goals, essential even, for the reasons described above. But, they do not happen overnight. I routinely tell people to plan on at least a year before things feel smooth and habitual for them. Once mastered, however, the rewards are great.

Next up? Final chapter in 2014 Round Up: Emotional Agility.