The stress was really getting to me. I simply did not know what to do. Out of the blue, whilst grabbing a coffee together after a challenging business meeting one of my colleagues handed me her resignation letter. Her date of departure was right in the middle of the three weeks I had planned on taking a trip of a lifetime to celebrate a significant birthday. My plan was to take part in one of the world’s toughest mountain bike races, 2750 miles of self supported riding in the wilderness from Mexico to Canada along the top of the Rockies. I was relying on her presence to keep the operation running smoothly. I had been in training for over a year for this race, dreaming about it every ride. Was all this for nothing? Should I cancel?
My first thought was to explore delaying the resignation. It required 6 months notice so I hoped a week or two delay in departing might be considered, but it was not forthcoming. I wondered whether I should delay the race until the following year? But subjecting my family and colleagues to an even longer period of my being permanently tired from all the training seemed unfair. Various solutions and arguments churned in my mind but none of them resulted in a satisfactory solution. I needed some help thinking this through. But who?
I needed to talk to someone who would listen, ask questions to understand and not be afraid of giving me their opinion based on their expertise – someone whom I respected and whose opinion I valued. Whilst I think the concept of a mentor is great, I have yet to meet one person who has all the answers and whose view on every aspect of life and work is equally valuable and insightful. I do, however, have a friend who has a remarkably creative way of thinking and with whom a conversation leads to all sorts of ideas and possibilities. I have another who has the ability to cut through the issues to pin down the nub of the issue. A third friend is superb at pragmatic solutions and I have someone special who provides the necessary emotional support to get through the toughest of times. Having these awesome people in my life has taught me that what we need is not one mentor but instead, a personal cabinet of key people to whom we can turn in those moments of uncertainty and doubt to seek counsel. What these people do is speak with candour. They listen, I mean really listen. They are not afraid of telling me the hard truth. They will tell me what I need to hear rather than what I might want to hear. Above all they care and their insights are always with my best interests at heart. Which one I choose to speak to is based on my perception of the nature of the issue. Sometimes, all I need to do is to speak to one, sometimes I need the opinion of all of them.
Seeking counsel from my personal cabinet is not about abdicating responsibility for the decision. Far from it. Any decision as to what I do is mine. This is critical for the relationship to work. It is unfair to make them responsible for a decision. What they provide are inputs and what I must do is apply judgement to that input and weigh it up in the light of everything else I know about the issue. It is precisely because they are not responsible for my decision that allows them to speak freely and provide a perspective based on their wisdom, insight and flair – it liberates them to be the critical thinkers I need them to be. Most of my cabinet are outside the business. I value the outside perspective they bring.
In the end I did the race. As one of my cabinet pointed out, I was unlikely to look back in later life and be excited about spending more time in the office. Instead, being able to look back on an amazing adventure, reliving the stunning mountain scenery, remembering the wildlife and the incredible people I met along the way as well as all the things I would learn about myself was a far more rewarding experience. I discussed with another how best to mitigate the risks of loss of business in my absence, this led me to identify the key activities that needed to continue in my absence and working with my colleagues to ensure these were covered. In short, my cabinet helped me take control over my fears and concerns and helped me set myself up for success and my colleagues stepped up to the mark and did a great job.
If you don’t have your own cabinet, I encourage you to develop one. When you have selected them, make sure you tell them and tell them why they made the cut. That way they know what it is you value you about them and how they can help you best.
© Dominic Irvine 2019 All rights asserted
If you are caught whilst driving using a mobile phone, you will be fined and if you live in the UK, points placed on your licence. There is good reason for this. Driving requires visual attention and this is a finite resource. Split it between looking at a phone and driving and the evidence is unequivocal, you are far more likely to have an accident and possibly injure others. It’s a misconception that we can ‘dual task process’ i.e. pay attention to two or more things at the same time. A common manifestation of this misconception is when someone tells you “I’m listening to you” whilst they are looking at something on their phone. They are doing neither effectively. This is because we ‘switch task process’, i.e. we switch from one task to the other and back again and the result is performance in both tasks is reduced. This is why the person listening to you has not really taken in what you have said nor have they processed the information on their phone accurately. If you want them to pay attention, you have to get them to put their phone down first.
Despite the evidence of dual task versus switch task processing, many organisations place people in circumstances where there are multiple demands on their attention which makes getting anything done extraordinarily difficult. We seat people at desks surrounded by others also trying to work. We place them in front of a computer screen providing multiple distractions and a phone providing yet more and colleagues all around providing another source of interruption. I’m not advocating everyone should have their own office – there is much to be gained from having people work together, it promotes cross functional understanding, team-work and a myriad other benefits. I am, however, advocating space to allow people to focus when they really need to. This may mean working from home, or having quiet spaces to work. It is also incumbent on the employee to manage their own distractions which may mean learning how to cope with their phone on silent, or learning how to use filtering rules on their device to determine who is allowed to disturb the peace and quiet. Why is this an important thing to do? It’s because if we overload our attentional resources and we are more likely to make mistakes in the work we are doing, our response time slows and it even degrades our ability to perform physically (an athlete distracted by having to process lots of things in their mind will not be as quick as one who is not so preoccupied). Or, as in the case of driving, we are likely to crash. To be successful, you need to pay attention.
Our mental workload capacity is impacted by experience and skill. As we become more experienced and skilled in a task, it needs less attentional resources effort to complete the task. This is because the behaviour has become habitualised and habits require hardly any attentional resources to execute. Habits involve a different part of the brain than that associated with mental workload. However, for the novice, the task will require a lot of thinking about and this is using up attentional resources and therefore demands a greater mental workload than the experienced individual. Thus, from a performance perspective, it’s a good idea to create habits that ensure the things you need to do regularly to be successful are ingrained into your routines. This will leave your attentional resources for the unexpected or more challenging issues that require some thinking effort to resolve. As with all skills, gaining experience and becoming skilled takes effort. There is no shortcut. To be successful requires hard work and diligence. The reward for this graft is an improvement in capability and a better ability to cope.
Underload or overload – find the balance
Paradoxically, not enough mental workload can also lead to underperformance. You can probably recall a day when you had limited amount of things to do and planned to use the free time to catch up on a whole load of tasks but found yourself unable to get going to do any of them. In the absence of sufficient pressure and motivation, we underperform. Somewhere between underload and overload sits the optimum level of mental workload that enables us to perform at our best. Where the exact red lines are that demarcate underload from optimal workload and optimal workload from overload is unclear, but the signs when these lines have been crossed are well understood. The strategies to manage stress are documented in detail elsewhere. What’s useful to understand here is that excessive workload is a key cause of overstress. But by freeing up mental capacity to cope with the pressure of work through better management of distractions and improving skills and gaining experience, much can be done to mitigate the risk of overstress and to avoid mental fatigue. By recognising when there is insufficient pressure you can create self imposed goals to generate the right impetus. By spotting the signs when you have overdone it and are in danger of overload or burnout you can manage your workload with and through others to alleviate the pressure. To be successful, you need to optimise the pressure you are under to drive your best performance.
We are not machines. We do not have an infinite capacity to cope nor are we any good with very little to do. Success comes from recognising the things that inhibit our performance and those things that help. Technology is both a distraction and an enabler – it is both part of the solution and part of the problem. If we want to make the most of our cognitive abilities we need to work hard at optimising our performance. But for now, leave your mobile phone alone in the car. Using it won’t help you or anyone else.
© 2019 Dominic Irvine. All rights asserted.
Today, Epiphanies partner, Dominic Irvine did a photoshoot for the Waitrose Weekend in-store magazine. It was blowing a gale but photographer Adam Prosser persevered. We’re looking forward to seeing the article some time in January. Dom was the first Northbound finisher of the 2018 Tour Divide, an epic 2750 mile mountain bike race along the continental divide from the Mexican border to Banff in Canada. Dom, along with his riding partner Charlie Mitchell and supported by the team at Epiphanies, also broke the Lands End to John O’Groats record in 2015. You can read about Dom’s Tour Divide experience here and about the record breaking ride, here. Dom uses ultra-distance racing to test aspects of high performance we use with our clients.
Photo credit: Lucy Martin