Most leaders — even very good ones — try to accomplish too many things or get trapped in reactive mode by the problems that crop up or meetings that fill their calendars.
I’ve written before about your entire business culture really boils down to whether your company prefers “reaction” or “response.” In reality, it’s not “either/or.” Some situations called for reaction — i.e. “I’m on it,” or “That’s tracking” — and some call for response, i.e. “Let me think on a broader concept here for a day or two and get back to you with some measured thoughts.”
Unfortunately, largely because of how the human brain is wired, we tend to prioritize reaction over response. Reaction leads to people being overwhelmed, because they’re always getting pulled into meetings or responding to pings or emails, and overwhelm leads to stress, and stress subsequently leads to turnover. It’s a brutal cycle.
Simply put, you almost always lose your best people because you are making them do more and more — reaction — without paying them more and more at the same time.
And now, let’s play devil’s advocate from the other, executive side. Not all companies are banks. Many are small shops. You cannot pay everyone in a small shop 120K unless you are absolutely positive on revenue forecasting. I get that. There are trade-offs and people need to “pay their dues.” That’s all completely true and logical.
But when your culture is very reaction-driven, all that becomes is someone running from A to B to C to F to J to R to Z all day answering supposedly “urgent” demands and pings.
Even if you have a fat mortgage, no one wants to do that for 10 years. They will go find something else, or someone will find them. The best recruiters in the world know how to sniff out talented people who are being under-utilized — or talent people who are being killed with task work because they’re talented.
Build margin into your life
Michael Hyatt wrote this back in 2012, but he still shares it on LinkedIn because it’s relevant. “Building margin into your life” means making time to get off the damn hamster wheel and stop reacting to client/boss needs. Here’s a definition via a legit doctor that Hyatt quotes:
Margin is the space between our load and our limits. It is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating.
Put it up this way: very few people get to their hospice moment, when their loved ones have basically reached a point of comfort with them slipping away, and think to themselves, “Man, I wish I had more spreadsheets to manage.” I would venture that no one says that.
You gotta find spots for margin. You gotta stop reacting. Sometimes it’s OK to get a beer at 4:57pm, and sometimes it’s OK to take your dog to the park in the middle of the day. The work will still be there. You’ll still have more opportunities to react. Just don’t let it be all that’s driving you.