Stop the Squeeze

I remember not too long ago, I had about an hour or so available, so I decided I wanted to clear my inbox. This was an artificial deadline that I imposed on myself. Of course, I didn’t have to do it within the hour; nothing would blow up if I didn’t get it done in that time. The problem was that I got so focused on the outcome of having a cleared inbox that I was rushing myself to make it happen, so much so that it became a race against time, and as a result, I had to make frantic decisions about each item on my list. Needless to say, by the end of the hour, I was depleted from the rush. I found myself weakened by this experience. While there was nothing wrong with the process itself, it had more to do with my relationship to what I was doing. Although I was able to finish what I intended to do, it wasn’t worth the speed and/or the effort involved. Sometimes we get so caught up with the doing of things that we forget about the importance of being, which is vastly more significant and fundamental to our human experience.

We may have 10 minutes before our next meeting. What do we do? Most of us would try to do one more thing from our lists instead of taking that time to gather ourselves ahead of the meeting. We get obsessed with making the most of every minute so as not to waste any of it. We sacrifice the quality of the resource for the quantity of it. While I can’t argue with the intention about making the most of our time, this experience leaves a lot to be desired, as it leaves no room for space to simply be.

When we try to make the most of our time, we get so focused on the outcome that we lose sight of the process. We create these artificial deadlines and stress ourselves out in trying to meet them. We care so much about getting something done within the time we have available — even to the point of exhausting ourselves — that we don’t take the time to process and learn.

There is no dearth of “productivity nerds” on the web looking for the next “lifehack” to bring sanity to their lists (and to their lives). These are those of us, who get so focused on the tools and techniques in being efficient that we forget about what we should be working on in the first place. We get fixated on how we should be doing our work rather than thinking about what we should be doing, which is vastly more important.

In other words, we get caught up with inputs, when we should be concerned with the output, which at the end of the day is what really matters. That said, there is a time and place for reviewing our tools to assess our effectiveness every now and then, as long as it’s coming from a place of intention (not obsession).

This idea of making the most of our time goes beyond the cult of efficiency and applies to people, projects, profits, etc. I already shared the result of what happens when we try to make the most out of every minute. We work ourselves to exhaustion, leaving no breathing room for our sanity. We are humans, not machines.

Speeding your car and trying to be somewhere quicker is another example that comes to mind. In most cases, the time gained from having arrived early at our meeting would be insignificant, and would ergo question our choice for hurrying — never mind the risks involved with speeding.

Another example is how often we seek to squeeze as much profit from our business deals as we can. This is at the cost of the human at the other end — and we do it without batting an eyelid. We celebrate when we are able to do it successfully and we get reactive when things don’t go our way. But how do we look at ourselves in the mirror? How do we sleep at night? Where is our conscience?

At work, we might squeeze our employees by paying them minimum wages, micro-managing them, and having them spend long hours at work, and as if that wasn’t enough we expect them to work on weekends from home. What ends up happening is their entire life revolves around their work, (when it should be the reverse). You don’t need me to tell you that this approach is far from sustainable, yet it’s the norm rather than the exception.

The point is we squeeze every bit out of the resources we have, but those marginal gains are never worth the cost of the poor experience it affords us.

The irony is by being focused on making the most of our resources (in terms of quantity and outcome), we sacrifice quality and process along the way — the very elements that we sought to begin with.

Here’s the thing. Life is not a lemon to be squeezed. Those last drops of lemon are too sour to taste anyway. The marginal gains achieved from squeezing every bit of resource are never worth the cost. On the contrary, it turns out expensive for everyone involved.

It’s only when we stop trying to make the most out of every minute that we make the most of our attention. We are focused on the process, not the outcome. That requires us to slow down and to give our conscious attention to everything we do without rushing because anything we do is worth doing well.

Stop creating artificial self-imposed deadlines. Instead, look at the time you have available and realistically assess what can be done well in that time. Then, focus on the quality of your work, and you’ll find your experience of doing it is vastly superior to those times when you rushed to finish it.

Let’s stop getting fixated on our tools and shift our focus to doing the work. In fact, we shouldn’t be thinking about our tools to a point they become invisible. For instance, a painter doesn’t think about what paintbrush he is using, or a real photographer doesn’t get caught up in the technical details of the camera as they’re too busy taking pictures to tell the story they want to tell. Remember, it’s about output, not input.

At work, we need to stop getting in the way of our people. We need to serve them, so they can do the work we have hired them to do. We don’t need to “empower” them; they are naturally empowered. We need to stop disempowering them.

In order to lead and serve well, we need to learn to give up control. That might mean holding our people accountable to outcomes rather than micro-managing them.

We need to hire people for doing quality work and pay them good money. What’s reasonable is working 40-hour weeks M-F, 9-5, but anything beyond that is likely indicative of something being wrong with them or their line of work; or both. Weeknights and weekends should be off-limits.

In business, think win-win — what is in the mutual interest for us and the other person? It means to stop playing a zero-sum game, which is that in order for us to win, the other person doesn’t have to lose, and vice versa. We can both win. Win-win is not a compromise.

In our personal lives, we can give ourselves the space to commit to a few projects at any given time, so we can work on doing them well versus spreading our attention between too many projects and moving forward a little on each of them. We can also learn to relax, be in the moment, and stay in the zone.

I hope this draft has given you some ideas for stopping the squeeze. Remember, we can all learn to slow down. We need to stop giving ourselves artificial deadlines, much less get stressed from not meeting them. We can make the most of our attention by stepping back and giving ourselves space, so we have the clarity we need in moving forward. We are humans after all. Let’s act that way.

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