January presents a blank slate for the new year, full of hopes and possibilities for us to write a new future and a “better” version of ourselves. We all return to work filled with a renewed sense of purpose and drive, or a feeling that we need to find something new and better. Unfortunately, after two to four weeks, the shininess of 2017 wears off and our bad habits suck us back into the same old rut of years past.
So what keeps us from making bigger changes each year? It’s always the little stuff. We let small, negligible things get in the way of our goals and desires. I constantly find myself walking away from meetings where I may not have been needed or were not relevant to my big priorities today, but I have such FOMO that I let these sorts of activities clutter up my time and mind. An hour here or there seems insignificant at first, but an hour a day over the course of a year equals an entire month wasted! Honestly, we all do it. But if we stopped these low value or low impact meetings and reclaimed our time, could we accomplish all these big goals that otherwise seem to slip through the cracks? With 30 extra days a year of productive work, the answer feels like a resounding yes.
As a busy executive, I’m sure you feel this longing to be better or to do more, but time and endless priorities stop us from feeling true accomplishment. If your default response is “there is always more to do”, then how do we make sure that we focus the “always more” on the right things and not on meaningless check boxes that add up to little vs big gains?
In 2016, I made more progress toward personal and professional development than in the previous 5 years combined. I lost about 20 lbs, built a habit of going to the gym, prioritized my wife and son by being home more, and made more money than ever before. I did it by letting go of things I couldn’t control, others’ behaviors, and my FOMO. Instead, I focused on what made me happy and what was most mission-critical at any given time. I stopped asking “What more can I do?” and instead asked “What’s the right thing to do right now?”
To drive this change, I focused on three key areas. With a little practice, patience, and willingness to be uncomfortable, every executive can make 2017 a better and more fulfilling year.
Focus on the quality of your initiatives, not the quantity.
You want to spend your limited time and energy on less, bigger-picture projects, not on completing as many new projects as possible. At a rapidly growing company, the temptation is to always do more. There are always more projects and more work such that to-do lists become a mile long because of our seemingly insatiable appetite to do more. But have you considered your employees? It can set them up for failure because you’ve made it impossible for them – and yourself – to live up to your expectations. Your leadership teams simply don’t have the time for perfect, high-quality work because you continually kneecap their efforts with more stuff that’s not mission-critical. So then this culture of “get more shit done” trickles down the chain, and the quality of projects becomes subordinate to the quantity we can complete.
I’m not advocating that you shouldn’t push your people. But, I am strongly suggesting that your teams, when operating at maximum capacity, simply don’t have the bandwidth to create quality when the focus is on quantity. You can’t squeeze blood from a stone.
The solution is to sit down with your direct leaders on a monthly basis, at minimum, to discuss project roadblocks and to ensure they align with mission-critical projects for the quarter. Help them to prioritize the mission-critical projects and to punt the less important ones that reduce the quality of the big stuff. Let them do their best work and not just check more boxes.
Make time for you — not your family, friends, or colleagues.
The person we neglect most is ourselves. Our wives/husbands/partners may disagree, but I’ve seen what happens when leaders myopically focus only on work, family, and maybe religion if they have time. Stress runs over them as “work-life balance” never works out for anyone involved. Everyone ends up feeling neglected, and you consistently feel like you are failing.
If you don’t take care of yourself mentally, spiritually, and physically, it’s tough to be present for others. I’m not a self-help guru, but I have seen the effect of the following five activities on my own life:
- Exercise. We all know the physical benefits of staying in shape, and for me the mental benefit is most important. I feel more confident when I’m in shape, and more miserable when I’m not. It’s the mental benefit that keeps me coming back to exercise. Make the investment to work out the way you want. Hire a trainer, join the best gym, whatever it takes to ensure you are motivated to build good exercise habits.
- Meditate. I use the app Calm, and it’s taken about 30 sessions for me to see results. It’s brutal and frustrating for the first 15 sessions or so as you try to “make the present moment your friend rather than your enemy,” as Dan Harris puts it in “10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story.” Now, I can’t imagine not doing it and look forward to it every day. I suggest starting with guided meditations because the voice is helpful and provides reminders to stay on track.
- Read. Keep learning and testing your mind. A rolling stone gathers no moss — just like an active mind. I don’t mean scrolling through your Facebook and Twitter feeds, feeding your ADD while retaining very little. I mean go deep on topics or a book and get utterly lost in it.
- Create. Write, create art, play music. I can’t play an instrument and have zero artistic ability, so my creative outlet is reading and writing. I enjoy writing and sharing what I’ve learned with others. In my line of work, my company writes stories and talk tracks for other companies, so my creative outlet meshes well with our mission. Getting it out on paper is cathartic and also helps to crystallize new beliefs or ideas as you force yourself to clarify your thoughts on paper in ways cogent for your readers.
- Vacation. Take short vacations to think and do something you enjoy. I took a 2 ½-day ski trip to clear my head and reset for 2017. It’s done wonders for my ability to come back refreshed to all my obligations at home and work. I had a mini-agenda of “items to think through” and I completed most of those by the time I returned. No friends, just me, my thoughts, and a computer to record those learnings. These were all topics I had wanted to spend time on for months but could never find the time. When I did find the time on this trip, it felt as though a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.
Get support from a business or life coach, shrink, or an intelligent yet fair friend.
I have been working with a business coach, Devin Martin, who’s been a huge catalyst for much of my progress in 2016 and who will undoubtedly be there for me in 2017.
I can’t put a price on having someone who isn’t a spouse or too personally connected to me but who knows my professional pressures, can be a sounding board, and is there to work through complex problems. They can think through the counterpoints, keep you honest, and help you to work out solutions that you may not even be able to discuss with your closest leaders internally. The top of the company ladder is lonely indeed as you have to keep the professional lines clear, but sometimes you just want to get shit off your chest! If relationships are too personal, then you find that advice isn’t fact-based as emotions and the desire to protect friendships can take precedence over honest, needed advice.
Get a mentor, coach, or psychologist with whom you can meet regularly. The key is consistency.
These three paths are not just for C-levels but anyone who wants to follow through on those New Year’s resolutions and not succumb to another year of regret. By focusing on quality projects, spending more “me” time, and getting outside support, you will see a whole new world of opportunity and traction on those big things that you keep putting off
It’s been remarkable how the dominos have fallen as I spend more time on myself and only the truly important stuff. I haven’t lost my edge by becoming less of a paranoid, email-addicted maniac. Instead I’ve become more focused, accomplished more of what matters, and I think my family, friends, and employees would all say that I’ve been more pleasurable to be around. Try it out for yourself and email me if you want any additional tips or recommendations on these topics. Happy to help if I can. [email protected]
Jake Dunlap is the CEO & Founder of Skaled, a modern, revenue-focused consultancy that delivers business results. As a C-level sales leader and entrepreneur with more than a decade of experience, he has developed and led high-performing sales and operational functions for both global 2000 organizations and start-ups, specializing in building out repeatable, sustainable processes. Since launching Skaled in 2013, Jake has been a highly sought-after industry thought leader, quoted by Forbes, Inc., Huffington Post and Venture Beat.