Reactivity is a habit that can be broken

Planning our day is a lost art; reactivity is the norm.

We dodge, weave and tackle what is hurled at us each morning as soon as we enter the office. Each claim on our time is deemed necessary by someone else, so our flimsy intentions don’t stand a chance.

Our wishes cascade to the bottom of the to-do list that will never get done. Or, we resentfully cram the neglected tasks into the nighttime and weekend hours.

We heroically don our fire-fighting gear and extinguish fire after fire. By day’s end, we are too scorched to make progress on our work. Watching our responsibilities go up in flames, we accept burnout as inevitable.

Lack of planning leaves us vulnerable to everyone else’s priorities. If we are honest with ourselves, we like the moniker of busy. We feel needed and significant. We tell ourselves we are productive. We rescue like a super-hero, but in doing so, get strangled by our capes. We have lost touch with what matters and wonder why we feel defeated at the end of the day.

The unsexy tasks like strategic thinking and working on a long-term project lose every time in the battle for our intention and attention.

To gain a sense of mastery over our day, consider adopting these deliberate practices:

  • Plan your day the day before. Set the alarm for 30 minutes before the intended departure from work. Wrap up loose ends, celebrate any progress, and clear off your desk.
  • Identify three priorities for the next day.
  • Schedule three, 45-minute sessions for each priority. (Research concludes that a 45-minute session is the ideal maximum window of focused attention.) Be specific about what task will take place when.
  • In the morning, postpone social media and email.
  • Protect 30 minutes of planning in the morning either at home before the family demands begin, or at work before people arrive.
  • Review your plan, shift if needed, and then recommit to it.
  • Treat these priorities like you would an appointment made with someone else.
  • Notify the greatest offenders — the ones you have taught to trample your agenda — that you are renegotiating access to you. We have trained people how to treat us, so expect resistance that will only pass when you hold steadfast to these new rules of engagement.
  • Close the door, if you have one, to reduce distractions. Post a “do-not-disturb” sign if without a door to indicate you are unavailable.
  • Turn off tech and phone.
  • Set the timer for 45 minutes.
  • Head down until the timer goes off.

The discipline required to identify three tasks we deem most vital and then shield them from the most cunning distractions is an underutilized and underestimated muscle.

When we do so consistently, we gain a sense of accomplishment, do the right things at the right time, and promote peace of mind. What was chaos becomes order, with crisis becoming the exception and no longer the norm.

No matter our title, we have more agency over our schedules than we are exerting. Establish clear boundaries and rules of engagement and then stand behind them. We must respect our guidelines before we can expect adherence from anyone else.

How we invest each minute of our day has a direct correlation to the career legacy we leave behind. Reactivity is a habit that with clear, stated boundaries, can change.


This article also published in the Hartford Business Journal.


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