Sinking or Swimming in ‘Stuff’ - Next Action Associates

(Note: In honour of the upcoming Olympics here in London, today’s post involves a swimming metaphor. You don’t have to be an Olympic swimmer to read it, but familiarity with the basics of locomotion in an aquatic environment will be useful.)

In our coaching and training we advise our clients that they need something like 45-75 minutes per day to think through and stay on top of the new things that come into their lives on a daily basis. This is often a bit of a newsflash, and we get some pretty strong reactions to it, but in fact it is not ‘new’ time that we are trying to force into an already full agenda.

As a knowledge worker (if you are reading this, that’s you) you need to think about your work roughly that much each day in order to be able to work effectively anyway. All we are suggesting is that it will be better to be conscious of the need for that time.

We can pretend that we don’t need it, and book meetings from 8am – 6pm, but if you’ve ever caught yourself playing catch up with your inbox at 11pm or on the weekend, you already know where that will get you.

All we are suggesting is that you become conscious of the need for that time, and – perhaps – start to try to protect it at some point in the day. What we are proposing is to create time to think about things in a relaxed state, because there is time, rather than try to think about them when stressed out because they are starting to get out of control. You will do the thinking, it is just a question of how well your brain will be working when you get to it.

The amount of time needed will depend on volume, but the experience of overwhelm that comes with allowing no time for thinking things through – or processing – is available to anyone, independent of volume. You can be overwhelmed by 15 mails a day if you don’t leave time to process and make sense of what they mean for you.

From experience, I can see three phases of development here:

1. I don’t know that I need the time to think and decide, and I’m not protecting it
2. I do know that I need the time to think and decide, but I’m not protecting it

(Now for our swimming metaphor: both of these are the swimming equivalent of drowning. NB, as an experience, 1. Is probably preferable to 2., as it comes without the side order of guilt that comes with not doing something we think we should)

3. I do know that I need the time, and I am protecting it.

It doesn’t really matter how you do it; some people block out a full hour and create an undisturbed place to do it, others do it on the fly, but try to leave a fair amount of slack in their day to be sure to have time for it. When I’m not in front of clients, it is happening for me about 3 times per day, first thing in the morning, before or after lunch, and at the end of the day. Again, it doesn’t matter how you handle it, but it does matter that you handle it.

(Swimming metaphor part 2: just to be clear, point 3., above, is treading water; glad I’m not drowning, maybe enjoying the view, but I’m working pretty hard to not really go anywhere)

The swimmers among you will have noticed that we haven’t yet spoken about actual forward motion in the water. Here we go:

After 8 years of practicing this approach to personal organization, I see two more stages:

4. I see that I need time to actually do the things I thought and decided about, but I’m not protecting it

(still treading water, somewhat guiltily)

5. I see that I need time to do the things I thought and decided about, and I am protecting it.

(pick a stroke – front-crawl, back-stroke, butterfly – and off you go…)

What does all of this mean? In practical terms, if you are not creating something like an hour a day (on average; some days it won’t be possible of course) to think through new stuff, you are sinking – which is unpleasant at best, unless you have gills. Once you find that time, life improves a lot. You get to breathe, and bob along in the flow of life.

If you are hoping to win any races, you’ll probably want to try to find another hour or so per day – on average – that you are not in a meeting/doing something else in order to really move the things you’ve thought through forward.

If you are working in the 21st century, you are already in the water up to your chin. So, sink, tread water or swim? Your choice.

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