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14. Getting Ahead at Work (4)

I'm away on holiday at the moment and yesterday, after three days away, I had a look at my emails - there were 43 new ones. A modest number compared with some of my clients, who tell me it is not uncommon to come back from leave to find several hundred, but a significant number nevertheless. The problem with emails is that some of them are important so however tempting it may be to delete them all, you find yourself going painstakingly through them. Emails are just one of many things in life that consume our time and attention simply by presenting themselves. Today's tip is about making time in your day when you aren't simply reacting, but when you're creating. Taking time to think Imagine you have an important meeting to attend one morning and you're late. You rush out of the house into pelting rain. Expletives ensue. You rush back inside to get your umbrella. Or imagine you're driving your car to work. You're in your usual state of semi-somnolence, chewing over yesterday's events perhaps, or an argument you had with your spouse. An idiot over-takes you and then pulls in just in front of your bumper. More expletives. You brake. Imagine a normal day at work. People present themselves to you for your help and advice, so you give them your time and attention. Your phone goes regularly and you answer it. Your in-tray is bulging and you go through it. Meetings are scheduled so you attend them. Emails and letters have to be written, so you write them. All the time you're responding, responding, responding. When was the last time you did absolutely nothing, even for five minutes? Somewhere along the line, probably dating back to teenage years when nice long lie-ins were so rudely interrupted by mothers who thought you ought to be doing something useful, you decided that doing nothing was sinful. You know it's enjoyable, lying there, looking at the ceiling, pondering the meaning of life, chewing over events from the day before, or maybe just curious as to how that brown mark got up there. But even in the absence of your mother there is an annoying voice in your head that says, 'You're wasting your day. For God's sake get up and do something!' But Marcel Proust, we are told, rarely left his bed. James Watson told us that to do something significant one has to be 'slightly underemployed'. Descartes presumably spent most of his time thinking (after all, he didn't say, 'I answer my emails, therefore I am'). And I don't suppose Bertrand Russell, when writing Principia Mathematica, spent a lot of time reading management messages about the state of the lifts. The trouble with doing stuff all the time is that you're almost always on 'automatic'. On automatic your responses are instinctual, your assumptions unchallenged, your behaviours habitual. Let's say you are responding to an email, for example, asking you to attend a meeting. Your instinctual response will tend to depend on factors such as your perceived need to please that person, how you're feeling, your sense of responsibility, and the potential value of the meeting. If it's someone you like, or someone you want to impress, the answer will tend to be 'yes'. If you're up to your eyeballs in meetings, and feel no obligation to this person, your answer will probably be 'no'. Often these assessments will flash through your mind almost without you being aware of them, but you act on them nevertheless. What would happen if, instead, you stopped and gave a little time to thinking through your response? If the very thought of stopping and thinking is hard for you, and you feel an intense drive just to get the task done, then you stand to gain the most from this experiment. Try this: 1. Think of something of moderate importance that you are going to be doing in the next few days. It might be a phone call, a meeting, writing a report, starting a project, responding to an email. Notice what your normal approach to this task would be, your attitude to it, your assumptions about it, the things you would probably do and the way you would probably do them. 2. Now take five to ten minutes of clear open space to let your mind explore the situation. Imagine that in that space is pure curiosity. You'll notice that curiosity has no particular direction and no particular destination. There's no pressure in curiosity, only question marks. If you just 'allow' this particular situation or task to take residence in that space, and don't try to do anything with it, what happens? 3. If you need any help with exploring, here are some questions you could ask. Take time for each question to settle slowly in your mind. - Why am I doing this? - What assumptions do I have about the task and/or about the person(s) I'm about to communicate with? - What if my assumptions are wrong? - What else might be as true or truer about this situation? - What are the possible outcomes? - What are my options here? 4. What is emerging about what you would like to do in terms of this task, and how would you like to do it? Have a good week!