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power points

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Venture capitalist Sahil Bloom thinks we can all benefit from the Zen parable of the martial arts student who asked his teacher how long it would take to master their craft and was told 10 years. The impatient student said he wanted to master it faster and would therefore work harder than anyone else, putting in long days of practice, not resting until he became proficient. “How long would it take then?” he asked. The teacher smiled and answered, “20 years.”

The message of that parable was highlighted by writer Aldous Huxley in what he called the Law of Reversed Effect: “The harder we try with the conscious will to do something, the less we shall succeed. Proficiency and the results of proficiency come only to those who have learned the paradoxical art of doing and not doing, or combining relaxation with activity.”

Mr. Bloom points to elite sprinters who try to run at 85-per-cent intensity because it keeps them loose, fluid and effortless. When they aim for 100-per-cent intensity, their body tenses up and they slow down. “The lesson here is simple: When you adopt a mindset of balanced effort, you achieve greater heights,” he says.

Anne-Laure Le Cunff, who worked on digital health products for Google before becoming a PhD student in the neuroscience of education at King’s College London, says one aspect that seems uniquely human is the need to keep busy. “Most animals would be happy if their basic needs are met: Food, shelter, rest. In contrast, we humans don’t like to stay idle. Even if it means falling prey to the illusion of productivity,” she writes in her Ness Labs newsletter.

She notes there is research indicating we tend to do whatever it takes and to use any justification to keep busy, even if the task is meaningless. University of Houston professor and best-selling author Brené Brown has described being “crazy busy” as a numbing strategy that allows us to avoid facing the truth of our lives.

Ms. Le Cunff points out that between work tasks and social commitments, it’s easy to spend your entire week running around without really knowing where the time has gone. She suggests you conduct a busyness audit, ideally over a week, in which you record your activities and place each on a matrix that evaluates the action according to relevance and meaningfulness.

Relevance is based on how aligned the tasks and activities are with your current professional and personal commitments. Meaningfulness is based on how alive these tasks make you feel. A picture of your life will emerge in four quadrants, showing your current allocation of time and how you might improve.

Obviously your focus should be on tasks that are meaningful and relevant. You may not be able to completely eliminate tasks that fall into the three other quadrants but perhaps you can reduce them or delegate them.

“Don’t measure productivity in terms of how many tasks you get done, but rather in terms of doing the ones that matter. Clean up your to-do list. Shift your focus from tasks to outcomes,” she advises.

She also recommends becoming comfortable with inaction. Schedule dedicated downtime. Reflect or take a short walk.

Executive coach Rebecca Zucker urges you not to underestimate the power of small breaks during a busy workday. She notes in Harvard Business Review that creating a number of short micro-breaks throughout the day – as short as a minute, although more commonly five to 10 minutes - can help us to manage our energy and maintain cognitive, emotional and even physical capacity.

She recommends that you schedule breaks and set reminders for them. That may involve resetting the default time in your calendar for activity slots. Build on bathroom breaks, perhaps adding to them by meditating, climbing a set of stairs or walking around the block to get some exercise. Know in advance how you can take advantage of unexpected time when a meeting ends early to have a break.

When unsure whether to take a break, remind yourself of The Law of Reversed Effect.

Quick hits

  • As new university graduates enter the work force, communications consultant John Millen offers these practical suggestions (that apply, of course, to all of us): Learn to be fully present; the most important communications of your life will happen face-to-face not by smartphone; master the art of video presentations and interaction because those will count as well in this era; listen more than you talk; focus on people and building relationships; and never burn a bridge.
  • Although it’s widely believed that self-promotion in an interview is the best way to land a coveted job, psychologist Adam Grant says various research shows that’s not true. People tend to see right through you. Best to be realistic or joke about your capabilities – humour signals competence without arrogance.
  • “Reputation is the echo of your actions,” observes author James Clear.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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