Over the years I have come across many decisions that have proven after the event to have been unwise of misguided. There is no single reason for this, but a common theme has been people making decisions without having the information they need. Often what happens is that there is pressure to make a decision quickly and this can lead people into moving forward with their plans too soon because key elements of information were not available at the time the decision was made. So, in making any decision we have to be clear about which is wiser: deciding now without that information and risking getting it wrong, or take the time to find out – thereby making a much sounder decision – but risking causing problems associated with the delay involved. Unless there are reasons why we need to make the decision very soon, it is generally wiser to get the information we need before deciding on our course of action.
There are some things that each one of us is responsible for – that is, they are individual responsibilities. I have to do what I have to do and you have to do what you have to do. Some things are shared responsibilities – that is, we have to do them together. Teamwork is a good example of this. Developing effective teamwork is the responsibility of every team member, not just the leader. Then there are also responsibilities that belong to other people – they are not mine, they are not yours, they are not ours. It is important to be aware of these boundaries as it can be quite problematic and potentially stressful if: (i) we do not fulfil our individual responsibilities; (ii) we do not contribute to our shared responsibilities; or (iii) we overload ourselves by taking on responsibilities that are not ours, that belong elsewhere. The detrimental consequences of losing sight of these boundaries can be quite significant.
My Time and Workload Management e-learning course emphasizes that too much work is too much work – that is, everyone has a limit to how much they can get done in a given timeframe. However, some people get themselves into difficulties by taking on everything that comes their way. They feel obliged to say yes to everything even if this means they may become overloaded to the point that they risk becoming stressed and possibly practising dangerously because of that. A key skill, then, is being able to successfully negotiate our workload. If we take on more than we can reasonably cope with then we are likely to achieve far less than if we had kept our workload within manageable limits, and we also risk things going tragically wrong. Some people find it very difficult to be assertive about their workload limits, but allowing ourselves to get into that dangerous overload zone is very unwise.
‘More haste less speed’ is a well-known saying and it has more than a grain of truth to it. So many people tend to respond to pressure by rushing, and this is a dangerously counterproductive strategy. When we rush our error rate goes up significantly and our sense of control goes down significantly – and, of course, losing our sense of control is a major step in the direction of stress. What is also significant is that, when we start rushing, we start giving people the message that they are not important, that we have more pressing things to do than to listen to them and take in an interest in them. Working slightly faster than usual is one thing, rushing is quite another. If we find ourselves in a position where we feel the need to rush, that is the time to start reordering our priorities – taking our thinking up a gear, rather than letting it go down a gear by rushing.
Our muscles need time to recover form exertion before we exert ourselves further if we are not to strain them. The same applies to our mental and emotional ‘muscles’. If we keep stretching ourselves in our work efforts (and in our lives more broadly) without giving ourselves time to recover, we run the risk of doing ourselves harm, potentially significant harm. Exertion plus recovery plus more exertion can produce growth and development (of muscles in the direct physical sense or of learning in our more metaphorical sense). Exertion followed by more exertion without recovery time in between can produce muscle strain and/or psychological stress. Time for recovery is therefore not an optional extra of we are to take our physical and mental health seriously.
Some people are morning people and some people are definitely not morning people. We all have our rhythms and routines that mean that we are at our best at certain times of day and far from our best at others. So, do you know when your best time of day is? If so, are you making sure that you are doing your most important work at that time of day in order to produce the best results? If not, why not try and work out when that is so that you can capitalize on it? Similarly, are you clear about when your least effective time is? If so, are you making sure that you are not making important decisions or carrying out vitally important tasks at those times? Understanding your best and worst times is an important part of self-awareness.
The idea of the value of learning from our mistakes is well established, but unfortunately many people don’t manage to get the benefit of this. That is because they adopt a defensive approach to mistakes; they see them as things to cover up or deflect attention from. Nobody is perfect and so mistakes are inevitable, so there is little point in trying to give the impression that we never make mistakes. Some mistakes can be embarrassing, but most are not unless we are trying to come across as ‘mistake proof’. Some mistakes are quite serious, but the more serious they are, the greater the scope for learning. However, that’s not to say that even small mistakes cannot produce significant learning. But, of course, no mistake will produce learning unless we are prepared to be open to learning by admitting that we are not perfect.
In any project or task we undertake, it can be very easy to get engrossed and lose focus on why we are doing it. If, however, we can make sure we don’t lose sight of the why (the purpose), we will be in a stronger position to decide on the how (the method) and put it into practice. Sadly, though, it is not uncommon for people to become so busy doing something that they forget why they are doing it. They then lose sight of how best to move forward. Clarity about why we are doing something will make us more motivated to achieve our goals and give us a more helpful picture of the possible ways of achieving them. If other people involved in the situation are clear about why we are doing something, then they will be in a stronger position to play their part in making the project a success.
Physical contact is a very powerful form of communication. It can be powerfully negative – for example, touch used in a threatening or aggressive way or as an invasion of privacy – or powerfully positive as a means of conveying support, concern, affirmation and validation. Provided that we have the sensitivity to know where the boundary is between supportive and intrusive touch, we can use touch to express empathy and concern, build trust and make an important contribution to helping people who are facing considerable challenges or who would benefit from human connection at a time of difficulty. Do you know of anyone who uses touch very sensitively and effectively? Watch them closely when you can and see what you can learn from how they use it.
How to manage a range of pressures is a challenge that we all face. A very worrying (but sadly not uncommon) scenario is when we allow home and work pressures to combine to overwhelm our coping resources. An alternative strategy is that of ‘compartmentalization’. This means training ourselves to focus on our home pressures when we are at home and our work pressures when we are at work and having a clear boundary between the two. Many people achieve this by having some sort of ritual that symbolizes the end of the working day and the return to home life – for example, by getting changed. Different rituals work for different people, but they can all play an important role in keeping our two domains separate so that we do not find ourselves in the situation where home and work pressures combine to leave us feeling stressed and ill-equipped to cope with the challenges we face.