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I have a three-pronged proposal for organizations in 2020. None of these would normally appear on corporate annual plans because the items will seem small potatoes and tangential. Still, companies should consider:

  • Improving effectiveness by substituting importance for urgency on a daily basis.
  • Confronting the crisis of attention in our midst, and assist employees to concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time, again improving productivity.
  • Helping employees – and in particular leaders – to sleep so they think more clearly, control emotions better and, yes, be more effective.

That doesn’t compare to launching a new product, revitalizing your branding, or gobbling up another company to goose the stock price. But the ideas are important. They are also urgent. And they are down-to-earth.

The dialectic between important and urgent traces back to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who used it as Supreme Allied Commander in the Second World War and as U.S. president, but was popularized anew by Stephen Covey in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. We spend an inordinate amount of time grappling with urgent and unimportant matters while not getting to the important but not urgent. This is usually treated by top executives as an individual problem for us dumb bunnies to solve ourselves.

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But in Harvard Business Review, four time-management experts report on a study at sales and marketing company Maritz where a random group of employees were instructed to employ “proactive time.” Each week, in a 30-minute planning session, they made a list of their work tasks and blocked out two-hour periods in their calendars each day for the important but not urgent. Self-reports suggest they were 14 per cent more effective with their time than a control group. That approach is worth trying in your organization. As well, managers – particularly top executives – have to recognize that they often create needlessly urgent activity for subordinates and must rein themselves in.

Our shrinking attention span is urgent and important but ironically not as new as we believe. In 2004, Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California, found that knowledge workers average about three minutes on a task before switching – two minutes when using an electronic tool. Our work divides on average into 10 different working spheres and we spend about 12 minutes in a sphere before switching to another.

We don’t need studies, of course, to know this is true. It seems like we get bored and distracted more and more easily, with long, deep concentration elusive. Content providers serve up information in bite-sized packages, adapting to, but also perpetuating, the problem.

“Today, we must assume that the folks we work with will lose interest in whatever is going on after three minutes. This is a bad, bad thing: It has made meetings, those hotspots of brainstorming and creative problem solving, into defocused sessions where everybody is eyeing their phone screens, their minds light years away from the matter at hand,” Israeli information expert Nathan Zeldes says on his blog.

Again, this is treated as an individual problem. However, organizations have to stop looking the other way and consider how they allow or even foster interruptions and distraction in the workplace. As entrepreneur Seth Godin notes: “Attention is a scarce resource, and we need to use it wisely.”

Finally, sleep. The evidence shows we don’t get enough and that hinders our work. Worse, sleep deprivation is applauded in far too many organizations. In Positive Sleep, business coach Giles Watkins tells about his own difficulties obtaining proper sleep and presents research suggesting it reduces our ability to solve problems effectively, seek different perspectives, and emotionally support others.

Yet again, this is treated as an individual problem but would benefit from organizational attention. Mr. Watkins advises trying not to schedule meetings before 9 a.m. or after 6 p.m.; setting boundaries on times when e-mails can be sent; establishing nap rooms and making nap mats as common as yoga mats; and leaders being open about their need for rest and sleep. “If you make it clear to your team that after 16 hours awake – hopefully not all of it at work – you need some sleep, that will have an impact,” he declares.

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Each of these issues is about focus – focusing longer, sharper and better. Include them in your organization’s 2020 plans. If your bosses don’t, try to improve the situation for your own team.

Cannonballs

  • Research doesn’t predict the success of newly hired employees, recruiting expert John Sullivan notes. So in 2020, when you catch yourself opting for (or lunging for) experienced candidates, be cautious. He also notes that unnecessary high-experience levels can reduce your diversity and increase your new-hire salary costs.
  • Also on hiring: Executive coach Whitney Johnson says in Harvard Business Review that hiring is a lot like picking stocks. You want to build your portfolio by buying low (picking people early in their careers); being clear about your investment thesis, notably what value this person will bring to the organization; and selling high, encouraging people to jump to new assignments inside your organization when they reach the top of their learning curve.
  • Hiring question: What are the qualities you like least and most in your parents? The member of the KnowYourTeam community that suggested it says it moves away from the normal “canned track” of an interest and opens a conversation on core values.

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