I was in a meeting the other day that seemed to go on forever. Never mind the fact that I have inherent dislike for unfocused efforts that are time sucks. What I find really difficult are people that talk for the sake of talking without any action that follows. In the meeting I was in the person made a specific point that was valid. But then they made it again, only a different way. They complained about the situation. Then they remade their point. Again.
An Avalanche of Disruption
There are plenty of reasons to “explore” topics or even have conversations that go in an unfocused way so long as all parties agree that the session to be that way. However, most meetings, or meetups, aren’t mean’t to be like this. And I see this “exploration” spilling over into individual non-action which is the point of this post. Often times, even when we think we are focused we can easily get distracted. There is a lot of “talking” going on in the form of disruption including:
- Urgent but not important calls or emails by others (someone else’s crisis)
- No prioritization on the most important thing that you have get done (no discipline)
- Someone taking (or talking) your time away without asking permission for it (no limits)
- Unfocused use of social media and the internet (easy distraction)
In short, a lot of chatter goes on and comes from many directions, and you are in the center of it. Some of it is dumped upon you by others, and some self inflicted. In martial arts training any small distraction is termed a “suki” and literally translates to “a space between objects”. What it really means is that the mind is temporarily distracted from what it’s focus is. In combat that’s fatal. In feudal Japan a samurai faced his opponent with complete concentration not allowing the smallest distraction to disrupt their mental acuity. Being cut down (or in half) in an instant was the price for not paying attention. I see the parallel in our modern lives all the time (although not as dramatic but nearly as fatal as a time suck).
Beware of “The Pontificator”
On the training floor teachers keep students moving through continuous training exercises. When a drill is taught a group of students performs a technique and then he recieves feedback in form of criticism, as I have written about here. The purpose of the feedback is to provide a quick check in by others that can assess your technique and help make corrections. A critique should last 10-20 seconds. But often times the “pontificator” emerges going into explicit, often excruciating detail about what you did wrong, what you should improve, how you should do this or that, etc…We frown on that level of detail and often terse and loud comments of “less talking, more doing” are barked from a senior belt walking around the floor.
Most people talk simply to hear themselves as a form of personal validation. I see a lot of talking and not much doing. Talking in this context takes many forms as I defined in the bulleted list above. There is no one remedy for dealing with this however the following framework can help bring needed focus:
- Confirm in your mind that what another party is asking of you is worth your time. If not tell them you cannot get to their issue, or at least not in the current moment.
- If you are already in the conversation and can’t easily get out then you need to stop their talk track. Find a graceful way to interrupt or inject yourself into the conversation (pontificators don’t stop talking so you have to stop them).
- Briefly summarize their point. This provides them the validation they are seeking and allows you to re-direct the conversation in a way that let’s you move to the next topic.
- If appropriate, look for an action step (what should be done next) and use this in your summary of the immediate issue as a way to move to the next step.
Mike Myatt at one of my favorite leadership blogs, N2Growth, makes a great point on the sanctity of brevity in communicating with other people and it is worth a read.
Calm Your Mind and Find Your Flow
There is also a lot of “talking” that happens even if no one else is in the room. I have written extensively here and here about how our minds can easily get distracted (internal talking) and how to quickly re-focus. It bears stating that it takes real effort to keep yourself focused and your mind clear. There is no quick fix or 10 point list on how to do this. Even after decades of training I still struggle with staying focused and I am constantly working at it. For internal distractions here is simple framework for less talking and more doing:
- Often times external distractions really are just an excuse we create because we can’t think through a problem or issue. We think about anything except the issue at hand. This is “talking to yourself” only here you are the pontificator.
- The first step is just to recognize you are doing this and then bring yourself back to the problem you are working through.
- For mentally intensive activities such as writing, creating or problem solving we are typically most focused when we get into a “flow” state.
- It’s easier to be in a flow state when you are working on something you like doing. It’s when you are not that mental disruption occurs more frequently.
- In situtions when I cannot get into a flow, I try to break a problem down into smaller parts and focus on each part more fully so I have a greater chance of success in solving just a part of the problem.
- This provides a better opportunity for being in a peak performance mode. Aim to get yourself into this type of state if possible.
- There is usually a direct physical correlation as to why we can’t concentrate mentally. The most important connection is a mind and body unity that has to occur. Zen training this is often referred to as “moving meditation”.
- A simple way to do this is simply to quietly breathe for a moment, focusing on the breaths you take (which is a form of meditation). Often times just breathing and focusing on the effort calms your mind and your body down.
- Most people with no exposure to Martial Arts or Eastern practices will write this off as “flakey”. It’s not and it works. I do this all the time in business settings including high stakes negotiations and presentations to large groups.
Remember those samurai above facing down a sword that is going to cut them in half? There practicing moving meditation to survive. Less taking and more doing please.
Thanks for training with me.