By Simon Hartley, Founder of Be World Class.
Many people’s initial response to that question is, “I don’t waste time”. We like to see ourselves as incredibly productive people. We don’t sit about twiddling our thumbs; we are always on the go and always looking to move forwards. However, the question is still valid. Being busy isn’t the same as being productive. Sometimes we simply use our time and energy on things that don’t contribute to our end goal.
Several years ago I worked with an international swimmer called Chris Cook. We began working together in 2001, just after Chris returned from a disappointing performance at the World Student Games. He was ranked 32nd at the time and had not yet won a full international cap. Between 2001 and around 2004-2005, we worked in a slight fog. Although Chris was making progress, the plan we were working to was a ‘best guess’. It was a little bit reactionary. It almost felt like we were navigating in very poor visibility and reacting as things appeared. At the time Chris was working to a set of goals which included, ‘making the GB team’, ‘securing funding’, ‘securing sponsorship’, ‘qualifying for championships’ and ‘winning key races’.
Although they seem like pretty sensible goals for a competitive swimmer, they were holding us back. You see, Chris was a diligent and professional athlete; the kind who was willing to do whatever it took to be successful. If you asked Chris to make a list of all the things he could possibly do to improve his performance, he would probably write several hundred things on that list. He knew that there were a myriad of tiny details that he needed to work on and imperfections that he wanted to iron out. Of course, that’s where the problem lay.
“How is that a problem? Surely that’s the mentality that will help an athlete to become great”.
The problem is that it’s pretty tough to focus on doing several hundred things. Inevitably, we end up spreading ourselves too thinly and become ineffective. It’s not just true in swimming. I have worked with Executives and Executive Leadership Teams that have exactly the same challenges. Their desire to be successful leads them to invest more time, energy and resource. Sometimes there is a return, but not always. In their attempts to get greater results, their answer is often to simply invest more. Unfortunately, they often become less effective and more frustrated.
So, what’s the answer?
One afternoon, in around 2004-2005, Chris came into my office for one of our regular one-to-one sport psych sessions. He was looking particularly flustered. When I asked what was wrong, Chris started to explain that he had a lot on his plate; correspondence with British Swimming regarding his funding, arranging travel to competitions, an awards dinner, training, etc. There is a technical term for this condition in sport psychology. Chris was ‘a stress head’. After he’d finished, I said,
“That’s strange. Surly your job is simply to swim 2 lengths of the pool as fast as you can”.
All of a sudden we understood Chris’ job in the simplest possible terms.
From that point onwards, we decided to focus our efforts on ensuring that everything we did contributed to Chris swimming two lengths of the pool as past as he could (we called it the ‘2 Lengths’ for short). We also identified the five key things he needed to do; those things that had the greatest impact on his performance. Once we understood what the five most significant elements were, we also made sure we focused our time and energy on his ‘5 Keys’.
As a result, Chris found that he ditched 60% of his training week, because it didn’t contribute to swimming two lengths of the pool as fast as possible, or the 5 key elements. Amazingly, when we applied the same thought processes to a Law Firm, the Managing Partner also reported that they had eliminated 60% of what they did because it didn’t contribute to their own ‘2 Lengths’.
When you stop and think about it, how much of your time, energy and resource actually propels you forwards in the direction that you want to go? How many of the conversations you have are productive? How much of the time you spend in meetings actually serves you and how much is ‘wasted’?
A sharp focus can be incredibly powerful. Recently I have been working with an Executive Leadership Team in a corporate business. They now have a ‘2 Lengths’ and ‘5 keys’ for the business. As a result they have been reviewing the effectiveness of their meetings and the time they spend. Like many similar businesses, their Exec team used to spend around 85 of their 261 working days involved in internal meetings. With a sharper focus, the Exec team have managed to liberate 16 man days per person; that’s 96 days in total for the team of 6. I haven’t asked them what 96 days of time at an Executive Director’s salary is worth to them, but I do know that 96 days of Executive time is valuable.
So, how much of your time could be more focused, effective and productive? How much more effective could you be if you knew your ‘2 Lengths’ and ‘5 Keys’?
Olympic swimmer Chris Cook found that this mentality enabled him to become a double Olympian, an Olympic finalist and a double Commonwealth Champion, who finished his career as the 7th fastest athlete in history in his event.
Find out how you can adopt this mentality, by reading “Two Lengths of the Pool”