The most strategic habit you can develop

The power of pausing

"I can't slow down," Jim said to me impatiently a few weeks ago. "I'm starting up a new organization. I'm spearheading cost transformation cross-functionally, and that's all in addition to my day job. Slowing down would be suicide!"

The thing about Jim is that you never have to wonder where he stands on an issue. He's slightly built, like the wrestler he was in college 20 years ago. He's loud and emotional, mostly well-liked by people who know him. He gets stuff done - which is why he is one of the youngest vice presidents in his company. And he's fast. He talks fast, he walks fast, he works fast, and he reacts fast.

It's this last one that needs a little work. Sometimes Jim doesn't think through the implications of what he is about to say or what he is about to do. The problem with that is that sometimes in going too fast he steps on people's toes. They may think he is moving in on their territory (yes, this sometimes happens in Corporate America) for example, or they may take offense at what he said or the tone he used. Jim considers that collateral damage and not that important, but the problem is that it alienates people. That means it's holding him back in his career and potentially keeping him from making a much bigger contribution.

The reaction he had is typical - hard-charging executives mostly get annoyed when I tell them to slow down, and they insist that they can't. As I told Jim, I'm not asking him to cut down the number of hours he works (that's between him and his wife) or even to do less in a day. I am asking him to make more strategic use of his time - something we can all be more aware of.

It may sound counter-intuitive, but pausing saves you quite a bit of time. It also directs you toward more high-value activities. If this doesn't sound good to you, fine - leave the promotions to someone else.

For the rest of you, try these 3 pausing practices:

Pause early. Your best pause of the day happens in the morning. Note that I didn't say first thing in the morning - I mean, what does "first thing in the morning" even mean anymore? If you're like most of my clients, you wake up at 6 or 6:30 a.m. and check email on your iPhone or Blackberry immediately. You then continue checking email on that device (yes, we know you check it in the car) until you get into your office or to the airport to catch your flight. So let's be realistic - check your email. Then, before you really get into your day - for some people this will be between 7 and 9 a.m. - pause. Ask yourself 2 powerful questions:

1) Do I know specifically what I intend to accomplish today? It will be easy and obvious to react to what the day brings you, mostly things which are not on your critical path. When you get very specific about what you intend to get done today and take a clear step in that direction, you put yourself on a course to get important things done. Bonus points to you if the things you set out to do are strategic and "important but not urgent."

2) How do I want to come across today? A leader has to carry the mantle every day. If you're not in the mood, if you are tired, if you are under stress, it's even more important to tune in to being a leader today. Pause to get yourself into that mental space. Remind yourself that are the leader and that you are under surveillance - people look to you for guidance. An anxious or annoyed look on your face is discussed and interpreted. You being a little quiet or a little excited is noticed and inspected. An angry outburst or big emotional reaction doesn't build trust and respect. How you go about your day is just as important as what you get done.

Jim realized that he had never once asked himself how he wanted to come across. He also admitted that he was moody, and that he could see that his moods would transmit to others. Even more easily, Jim thought about the bosses he had had over the years and the effect they had on him. After acknowledging that this exercise would take about five minutes, he agreed to pause in the mornings to experiment with these questions.

Pause strategically. People often run through what they are going to say before presentations. Sometimes they do this before high stakes meetings or difficult one-on-ones. Most often this practice time is devoted to what they want to say, not to what is going on with the others. To be most influential, pause strategically and get very clear on these two questions:

1) What is going on with the other people or person? This is the most important thing to focus on during any interaction. When you look at the world the way they do, you will automatically fine-tune what and how you present to be more in line with where they are coming from. This will make you more successful in any interaction.

2) What specifically do you want to have happen after this interaction? Put another way, what is your goal?

Jim saw immediately the benefits of these two questions. He realized that he often needs to sell his ideas in large meetings and one-on-ones, but that his audience is usually not ready to buy - they need more information or they have a different agenda. He realized that pausing to understand this in advance would help him present the right data in a given meeting and also to calibrate what the outcome of that meeting will be.

As Jim continued thinking about this, he saw a bigger strategy for himself: Jim likes to present large bold ideas and challenge people with them. He realized that major leaps are usually rejected; people are much more willing to take small incremental steps. Armed with this insight, he saw that he could get a lot more done with less effort by changing his approach.

Pause when surprised. Two tools for this:

1) Pause to plan in advance for some scenarios. You are definitely going to walk into an elevator with some person important to you - maybe the CEO or an important customer or someone you are trying to sell to. Pause now and again and think about a few scenarios of who you might run into and what you might say.

2) Pause to compose yourself. We react quickest when we are surprised by something - when someone confronts us with bad news, for example, or when we run into the CEO in the elevator. After you say something, it can't be unsaid. Pausing half a second to assess the moment when you are surprised is one of the most strategic things you can learn to do.

This may sound a little silly, but when I mentioned it to Jim he nodded forcefully. "I know! That is the one thing I always do. I run into Howard (the CEO) pretty regularly, and I have gotten into the habit to pause half a second and gather my thoughts. I always have a great answer to 'how are you doing?' or 'what are you working on?'

Find an opportunity to pause today. I would love to hear your experiences and feedback!

Interrupting yourself

Interruptions usually come from others - your boss, your co-workers, your kids. Interruptions are most often external - unexpected, unplanned for.

Another way to pause strategically, though, is to set up interruptions for yourself. This will help you take stock of yourself throughout the day to keep yourself on track.

How to interrupt yourself:

  • Set up an outlook reminder to go off every hour, or 2-3 times a day
  • Enlist a colleague and have a plan to interrupt each other once or twice a day to re-focus each other
  • Go get a cup of coffee or tea during a planned period and use the 10 minutes to debrief your day
  • Take a walk around your building, indoors or outdoors

These are all perfect opportunities to step away from your day to day work and clear your head, to concentrate, to course correct. Just that small pause will yield you much more focus on the right things.