My coaching clients are typically senior leaders with rapidly growing or very large organizations who are responsible for hiring a management team, identifying a winning strategy, and building a culture that supports their goals. A theme that emerges consistently in my work with them is the importance of open space, deep work, and self-care. What do I mean by these terms, and what’s their significance for effective leadership?
Open space is just that--a meaningful amount of time on our calendar that’s blocked off in advance and protected from intrusion. The length of time varies widely—15 minutes is too short in most cases, but can still serve a useful function, while a full day can be very difficult to obtain, but is occasionally necessary. One to two hours will serve for most purposes.
Deep work is reflection and contemplation of the sort that’s necessary to address an organization’s most significant challenges and to consider the most important issues in our lives as individuals. It involves strategic thinking, creative problem-solving, and a readiness to ask big questions and face up to daunting decisions. We tend to engage in deep work most effectively when we’re at a distance from the press of immediate duties, but we don’t always have the luxury of removing ourselves from our day-to-day environment.
Self-care is engaging in the practices that enable us to do our best work on a sustainable basis and to live fulfilling lives in the process. It entails nourishing our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual selves. We each have different needs as individuals, but my work as a coach and my study of relevant research suggests that four domains are universally important: mindfulness, exercise, sleep, and stress reduction. (I’m not usually a fan of acronyms or puns, but I like that these practices spell MESS, and I get a kick out of encouraging my clients and students to get MESSy.)
It all starts with open space.
Neither deep work nor self-care is possible without sufficient open space. The type of reflective thought that allows us to solve hard problems (and to even understand the nature of these problems in the first place) generally requires some time to allow our minds to wander and to make unexpected associative connections. Creative solutions rarely come when commanded--instead, we spot glimpses of them on the margins of conscious thought, and we invite them to join us. This process is short-circuited when we’re distracted with more immediate concerns or interrupted by others’ agendas. But a fundamental challenge we face is that although deep work is critically important, it’s rarely urgent, which means that it’s easy for us to defer it until it’s too late.
This is doubly true for self-care, particularly when we’re in a leadership role. There will always be something more urgent for us to do than meditate, or exercise, or go to sleep, so we’re unlikely to push pressing matters off of our calendars in order to make time for self-care. We tend to commit to these practices only when we’ve created the open space they require in advance, which allows us to turn them from aspirations into habits. Open space supports this process by lowering the activation threshold and making it more likely that we’ll follow through on our good intentions.
Deep work and self-care are investments, not indulgences.
How we view these activities has a substantial impact on our level of engagement. We tend to view deep work and self-care as indulgences, particularly when we’re transitioning from individual contributor to leader. At the outset of our career, success is often a function of industriousness and conscientious effort. We accomplish our goals and make progress by working hard and staying busy, and open space on our calendars can seem like wasted time. As individual contributors we may face relatively few strategic challenges that require deep reflection, particularly if we’re operating under the guidance of thoughtful leadership. And at this earlier stage in our lives we may find it unnecessary to take a deliberate approach to such issues as exercise or sleep—we take fitness for granted, and we can always catch up on rest later. In this context making space for deep work and self-care seems unnecessary and even frivolous.
But this diligent mindset can become counter-productive if we maintain it after taking on a leadership role, where it may prevent us from seeing deep work and self-care as investments in our effectiveness rather than indulgences. I’m not suggesting that leaders shouldn’t “work hard,” but the definition of “hard work” changes over the course of a career. When we find ourselves facing a broader set of responsibilities, when we’re no longer being directed by others but when we’re tasked with setting the course, it’s critically important to step back from the work of making progress to insure that we’re actually heading in the right direction. This won’t happen without making time for deep work.
Further, as leaders we create the most value not through our excellence as solo performers, but by creating an environment that enables others to perform at their best. This work occurs not when we’re alone, but when we’re interacting with others, both in person, when holding a one-on-one conversation, facilitating a meeting, or giving an all-hands speech, and virtually, when messaging, crafting an email, or writing a more substantive document. In all of these cases our leadership effectiveness depends on our interpersonal effectiveness—our ability to strike the right tone in the interaction, to find the appropriate balance between challenge and support, to empathize with others while also holding them accountable. This is extraordinarily difficult work, and it requires an ongoing investment in self-care. The skills we require to manage these interactions most effectively spring from a foundation of mindfulness, fitness, rest, and calm.
So what does this look like in practice?
Put open space on our calendars in advance, before we need it. This could be 15 minutes at the end of the day, an hour in the middle of the afternoon, a half-day every other week, or a full day every month. There’s no optimal duration or cadence, and we should experiment to see what works best. It’s also important to communicate our intentions to those around us—not only our professional colleagues, but also family and friends—and to recruit them as allies in the process of protecting this time.
Consider how that open space could be devoted to strategic thinking or creative problem-solving, and make a proactive commitment to doing deep work on a more consistent basis. This might involve reflecting back on the events of the day, looking forward to the week ahead, addressing a running list of complex issues, or even just contemplating life without any agenda at all and seeing what emerges. While we may on occasion want to get away from it all and do this work in a truly secluded setting, we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good—we can create the psychological distance that’s necessary for deep work simply by setting some boundaries (and a commitment to self-care, particularly mindfulness, will support our ability to stay focused.)
And identify the self-care practices that will be most useful to us as individuals, and begin turning them from aspirations into regular habits. As an executive coach I don’t prescribe specific regimens for my clients, but in my experience almost all leaders stand to benefit from meditation (or other mindfulness practices), regular exercise, better sleep hygiene, and reducing unnecessary stress (for example, taking a slightly longer but more scenic route on our commute.) Note that behavior change is hard, and some helpful steps include breaking large goals down into components and celebrating small victories along the way.
Photo by Bs0u10e0. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.