Turn Anxiety into Positive Action


In the always-on bottle rocket economy, in which creative contributors spend their extended waking hours in simultaneous and schizophrenic bouts of digital grazing, conference calls, work tasks, social media…it’s no surprise anxieties and hypertension have overtaken the workforce.

I had an interview the other day with Chip Conley, Founder and CEO of Joie de Vivre (and killer TED speaker) and learned a cool emotional equation trick he is debuting in his new book. It’s common to feel overwhelmed with looming deadlines, and dueling projects. Here are a few tricks you can try to take control.

Understand You Have More Control Than You Think
We tend to fixate on what we can’t control or have little influence over. Try this from Chip Conley. It’s about turning negative stress in to positive challenge. Think of a project, task, or effort you are involved in and write down all of the things you have control and power over.

Now write down the things you think you have little or no control or power over. In Chip’s experience trying this out on hundreds and hundreds of leaders, they come to realize the number of elements they do have control and power over is surprisingly higher than they realized. And by clearly identifying and sharing pieces they think they have no control over, they realize quickly the people resources and available insights are more immediate and readily accessible than previously thought.

Understand Where You Spend Your Time
One tip from Martin Seligman. Weigh what your goals are against how you spend your time. Write down three to five things you really want to accomplish. Then keep track of how you actually spend your time. You can try reflecting on the past week or looking through your calendar from the last month, but in his experience, a better measure is to actually measure. Post a white board in your office or kitchen – or places you frequent – and jot down the time you spend on activities. It might surprise you the difference between time invested and stated goals.

Take Action
Now do something. That’s right, just get in motion. I heard a cool adage recently, “the amount of time it takes you to accomplish anything is equal to the amount of time you have to do it.” In other words, if you have two weeks to do the presentation, it will take two weeks. If you have two hours, it takes two hours. So my final advice in taking control is to self-impose deadlines and act. In my experience, the big project I’ve been putting off takes very little actual time. Or as my new friend Alexander Kjerulf likes to say, we are always choosing, since inaction is also a choice. So choose to act.

Bring back quiet time and your ideas will benefit

It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer. – Einstein

Theresa Amabile, of Harvard, and her colleagues conducted a study in which they tried to capture creativity in the wilds of teams and companies by asking participants to reveal their activities in Daily Questionnaires. These surveys were aimed at monitoring what participants were doing on a daily basis in their teams and projects to distill how creativity really happens – thus trapping the elusive critter Creativity in action.

Entering the study, the conventional thinking was that imminent deadlines and crisis thinking would lead to more innovative and novel solutions. The power of urgency right? As Theresa’s colleague Leslie Perlow demonstrated in a 1999 study, the vicious time-work cycle of crisis mentality, rewarding individual heroics, and constant interruption, is considerably less conducive to fostering real creativity and innovation, than good old-fashioned focus and uninterrupted attention.

In Amabile’s study she introduced a mandatory quiet time, followed by collaborative interaction, then another quiet period of work and implementation. Overwhelmingly, the engineers reported a higher level of both productivity and creativity when the strict quiet time was imposed. Sadly, six months after the study concluded quiet time had vanished, and within a year the old habits of constant interruption were back in force. I might get an email from the Getting Things Done guru David Allen on this next point, but Therese Hoff Macan showed in a 1994 study that although time management training and tools could bring greater satisfaction, contrary to popular claims, time management training was not found to be effective in job performance.

Bring back quiet time, and uninterrupted work. How we spend our day is how we spend our life. We are the sum of what we pay attention to. What we focus our attention on determines our skill, experience, knowledge, amusement, fulfillment, joy.

Seeing the Whole Picture

Richard Nisbett, University of Michigan, has a fascinating study in which he took a group of American college students and a group of native Chinese and Japanese students who had just arrived in the United States and asked both groups to take photograph portraits of each other. A typical portrait taken by an American student is shown on the left, and a typical portrait taken by a Japanese student is shown below:
Whereas the American students’ portraits were close, the Japanese portraits showed much more context, landscape and environment. In fact, not one of the portraits the Japanese students took were as closely framed and the left-hand image here.

In another portion of the study Nisbett tracked eye movement of the students as they examined photographs which included a focal object, and discovered that the Chinese and Japanese students spent 80% of their time looking at environment and context, while their American counterparts spent 80% of the their eye movement focused on the primary focal point in the picture. In this picture the Japanese students spent most of their time scanning the background of this image while the American students spent 80% of their time looking at the tiger.

Nisbett and his colleagues don’t draw conclusions about cognitive performance or competitive ability associated with contextual thinking, but Dan Goleman did in a study he evaluated which included assessing the performance skills of executives from Fortune 100 companies, and concluded, “Just one cognitive ability distinguished star performers from average; pattern recognition: the big picture thinking that allows leaders to pick out the meaningful trends from a welter of information around them and to think strategically far into the future.” And Dan Pink certainly has popularized the importance of “symphonic” thinking as competitive advantage.

If Goleman and Pink argue that symphonic thinkers perform better, what’s the economic value of these high performers? John Hunter, Michigan State, and Frank Schmidt, University of Iowa, conducted another study in which they evaluated the economic value of the top 1% contributors and found that in moderately complex jobs (retail sales, home remodeling) the top performers contributed 14x more productivity and value.  And in highly complex professions (professional sales, lawyers, doctors, engineers), top performers contributed over 100x more productivity and value.

Follow the Right Idea Threads

“I can’t recall a period of time that was as volatile, complex, ambiguous and tumultuous. As one successful executive puts it, ‘if you’re not confused, you don’t know what’s going on’.” – Warren Bennis

Yesterday we had the honor or producing an event with Ram Charan, surely one of, if not the, most sought-after executive and management consultants in the world. His presentation was indeed thought-provoking and inspiring, but I’ll just pick one of his insights to share here: follow the right idea threads. We got into a conversation during our interview that has become almost cliché about the rapidity of change, the compounding nature of change, the complexity and chaos of rapidly changing technologies and information, etc etc… In our interview I asked him how is it possible to keep up with it all – which is what many people try to do. He agreed that of course this was impossible and said, “The key is to focus on what matters.”

Well yes, but that doesn’t exactly tell me what matters, so I asked him how do you know what matters. He went on to explain it’s all about context and what matters to you, in your work, in your organization, the problems you are trying to solve – and your best approach must be to follow the idea threads that matter. What he meant is that while of course we can’t possibly digest the encyclopedia of our particular domain expertise, what we must do is follow the conversations where the center of gravity is. By attending a conference relevant to your field of expertise and interest, the keynote will drop a reference to a seminal study, and then you’ll go back to your hotel room and look up that study and follow that thread. These threads don’t always end in eureka!, but by staying close enough to the thinkers and ideas that matter, you can follow the right idea threads.

I have a personal example. I recently reached out to Arie Lewin, at Duke Fuqua School of Business, to request an interview with him around his seminal ideas of creating super-adaptive firms by globally sourcing ideas. During an advance call with Dr. Lewin to discuss content he referenced the work of Vivek Wadhwa. In my ignorance I had to ask him to spell it twice, but it sent me on a journey to read Vivek’s studies and listen to several podcasts and interviews he has given recently on moving labor markets and talent. Now convinced that Vivek’s work represents not only excellence that matters in the world, but also important to my discovery process on moving talent pools, I have a new idea thread to follow. It works like that – follow the right people and ideas and they will lead you to the next.

Enjoy the journey and find the right idea threads.

Replace Fear with Curiosity

We recently had the cool opportunity to interview Professor Yves Doz from INSEAD University in Paris and he had three bits of advice for those looking to make a difference: expose yourself to new environments, get curious, and challenge yourself.

He has a great story about a big company CEO who travels alone and incognito when visiting his store locations around the world, and would always use the opportunity to visit local architecture and culture.  Without the entourage and fanfare he claims he gets much closer to the people who interact with customers and operate the business every day. Brad Anderson, former CEO of Best Buy, would famously disappear for weeks at a time and drive around, surprise visit Best Buy stores, and ask tons of curious questions to the associates to learn what they think is going to work best for the business.

And finally Professor Doz emphasizes the importance of getting outside your comfort zone and constantly creating new challenges for yourself.  Often fear motivates stagnation.  The fear of failing can drive people to not try new or challenging things outside their competence, and thus finally arrive at their own level of incompetence.  A critical part of challenging oneself involves fostering environments that are unstable by design.  He advises reconfiguring resources, roles and business architectures regularly to intentionally create a moderate amount of creative tension.  This intentional disruption can aid strategic agility – a phrase he uses to describe the importance of being constantly strategically inventive, not seasonally.  Often companies enter a periodic mode of brief strategy sessions followed by longer-term implementation and execution.

So get out, get curious, and challenge yourself!

Nothing is more precious than to be able to decide

“When I set out to take Vienna, I take Vienna.
Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than to be able to decide.” – Napoleon

I posted about an interview we did recently with Dan Glaser, CEO of Marsh, but it’s not enough.  I’ve been reviewing the tapes and it’s so rich with cool ideas to share.  Dan Glaser has restored performance discipline at Marsh and enjoyed seven quarters of increased performance, but look behind the curtain.  Yes, he restored focus but here’s another clue to how he got to financial excellence – “let your leaders run.”  That’s the expression he used when building expansion and opportunity at Marsh.  You might think a 5B insurance giant might be laden with bureaucracies.  And there is some of that, but Glaser started only two years ago with a few, but focused, ideas, and he doesn’t miss a trick.

First, he looked to the ground floor – he spent time interviewing and lunching with the people who do the work at Marsh.  He would walk the halls and ask associates, “What are you working on?” and “How does that fit in our greater mission and values?”  In many cases he ran into people who reported to four different people, which created conflict in their behaviors and actions.  The first step was to streamline the reporting process and get people aligned with the projects and ideas that provide value to customers.

Then he asked his managers – he appropriately calls them leaders – to pursue possibilities, not probabilities.  Probabilities suggest what might happen to you, to the organization – what you might have to react to.  It’s a limiting and reactive mindset.  Glaser asked Marsh leaders to look toward possibilities, not probabilities.  Possibilities leave the future open to be created, the landscape to be defined by wide-open opportunity.  The sky is the limit mentality.

But to be sure, while leaders at Marsh are offered the open leash to explore, they are indeed held to specific business initiatives which will create value for the customer, build growth for associates, and create shareholder value.  Glaser famously (at least internally since he is a fairly private person) held his key leader retreat in a windowless conference room in their NY offices, not in a swanky resort, and built the culture that they intend to be a lean, highly performing, multi-national focused on delivering results and customer value.

Here is an interview excerpt in which he is talking about allowing white space in the organization to allow people to create. Enjoy!

Where do you spend your time?

Does this sound familiar? – “I’m incredibly busy right now juggling multiple projects and numerous deadlines.  Things are just really crazy.  Everyone I work with is flat-out and working under constant stress to accomplish our goals.  But our work is important and once we get through this current push, there will be time in maybe six to nine months and I’ll be able to get home a little earlier and focus more on planning our family trip next summer, and maybe pick up piano lessons with my daughter.  And things won’t be crazy anymore.”  Or something similar?  Marshall Goldsmith repeats a story like this in his presentations and his point is simply to focus on the one thing you can and will change today – not the twelve things you think you might change sometime in the future.  Pick just one thing you are willing to do today to get closer to a goal.

How you spend your day is how you spend your life. – Annie Dillard

So with this in mind I was attending a recent conference and focusing on changing some of my fitness habits on the road.  We were down in Clearwater, FL at a resort and I took time to run on one of the most beautiful beaches in Florida.  We are all constantly reminded of the importance of balance – of building both mental and physical provocations.  Many people you know may say they do their best thinking on their bike, while running, in the car, walking in the woods, etc…  Jim Loehr suggests this is the time we are recovering from mental stresses.  He reminds that problems arise not from stress, but from chronic stress – from not allowing time for recovery and growth.

Ever seen the bottom of your in-box?

david_allen1.jpgMid to senior-level executives have an astonishing amount of STUFF thrown at them every day and it can take as much as 90 minutes every day just to identify and categorize the work to be done. Let alone actually get it done. In the knowledge economy, new skills are needed to accurately process the constant flow of information.

Ever seen the bottom of your in-box? Flushed out the voice mails from your cell phone? And your business line? And your personal email? You probably have no fewer than four different ways people try to reach you every day. David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, has a few tips to finally find the bottom of your in-box.

First, just define the message – What is this message? Then you can choose an action to respond, toss it, tickle it, or file it.

  • Is it actionable?
  • Trash?
  • Need to incubate?
  • Waiting on another contributor?
  • Is it reference material?

David recommends that if you can do it in two minutes or less? Do it. See if you can find the bottom of your in-box. Good luck! Also check out Tim Sanders on Email Etiquette and Email Management.