This is part four, in a twelve part series on high performers and what it takes to develop a “done done” culture of personal responsibility and high performance. You can start with part one, then go to part two, and head over to part three if you're jumping in the middle.
They only do One Thing at a Time
Do you remember the movie City Slickers? It’s a movie about a group of middle-age guys who find themselves in a mid-life crisis and decide to take a vacation together. Only, this isn’t your regular vacation – this is a one-way cattle-driving vacation. In the middle of the movie we meet Jack Palance. He’s Curly – the trail boss – and he’s mean.
No, this isn’t a story about Curly, and no, he’s not a top performer – though Jack Palance did win an Academy Award for his work in the movie. But there’s one moment when Jack is telling Billy Crystal what he needs to know to have success in life.
“One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean shit.”
High performers have their own Curly speaking in their heads – telling them to focus on just one thing at a time – and that’s the lesson for the fourth habit. Done Done cultures are cultures without excuses where individuals personally own and are accountable for delivering. Hopefully they deliver success, but even if they fail – they own it. But they don’t own it by trying to do multiple things at once. They don’t believe in the myth of multitasking. Instead, they hear it in their heads, “One thing. Just one thing.”
The Myth of Multitasking
Wait a second. Did I just say the “myth” of multitasking? Are you thinking you can multitask just fine? Do you want to take issue with the notion that no one multitasks well?
Let’s look at the research.
Not far from where I live, maybe just an hour away, is the University of California in Irvine. They did some research there where they monitored how long it took people who were interrupted to get back on task. You know what I’m talking about – you’re working on a document, typing up a proposal and the phone rings. That’s an interruption. Or you’re thinking through your next product launch, or working on your projected financials and you see (or hear) the notification that you just got email. That’s an interruption.
You know that I’m talking about and maybe you’re thinking that once the email is done or the phone call is over, you just go back to work. But the truth, according to the research is that it takes over twenty minutes to get you focused again.
Author Jonathan Spira, who wrote “Overload! How Much is Too Much” noted that the average information worker loses up to 20 percent of their day simply because of these kinds of interruptions.
It’s like you are Drunk
John Medina, author of Brain Rules, suggests that people who are trying to do more than one thing at a time will likely take 50% longer and have 50% more of a chance of making mistakes. He and others have suggested that driving while talking on a cell phone is, from a neurological perspective, the same things as driving drunk – that’s how impaired we are when we try to do more than one thing at a time.
High performers like technology just like the rest of us. But they’re quick to turn off Outlook when trying to get work done. They’re quick to turn off their cell phone when they’re in a conversation or meeting. They’re quick to make sure that Facebook or any other social media browser windows aren’t open when they’re trying to write.
At this moment, as I write this, I’ve told myself that the music in iTunes helps me write. Guess what? It doesn’t. And I know it. Because right when the right song comes on, you know what I do? I pause to enjoy it. At the same time, I have Gmail, Facebook, and Twitter all open in tabs next to my Evernote Research window. Guess what it’s doing? Calling out to me to check the new email, the new Facebook posts, the new distractions just begging for my time. So what should I do? If I were a high performer when it came to writing, I’d use tools like Omniwriter – a tool that is a blank canvas that removes all distractions when you write.
So focused she forgot to breathe
Whew- apps are closed and for just a second, I’m going to try to be a high performer, like Aliaksandria Herasimenia. Know her? She’s the 2011 world champion in swimming. And when she swims, that’s all she does. Are you wondering what else she could be doing when she’s swimming? Well, while most of her competitors are breathing, she’s swimming. She takes 15 strokes initially before taking a breath. Most of her competitors take a breath after 4 strokes. That’s almost four times longer before she takes that first breath. I don’t know about you, but when I heard that, my only response (other than, “That’s crazy!”) was to be in awe of her training and focus. And it’s not just at the start – she breathes less (13 breaths) over 100 meters than anyone else.
Now, am I telling you to stop breathing because it’s distracting you from what you need to get done today? Absolutely not. But what I am saying is that when you’re a high performer, regardless of whether you’re a cattle rancher or a swimmer, you need to focus on one thing.
The Fourth Habit of a “Done Done” Culture
I want to end this look into the fourth habit by sharing with you something interesting I learned about ants. Yes ants. I know – I’m constantly trying to keep things fresh for you and the result is that I read about a lot of different (and crazy) stuff.
About ten years ago I read a book called Emergence by Steven Johnson. It was all about emergency theory and it was a great read. Then, about a year ago, I was doing some research for my last ebook, and I decided to re-read it. And this time, I couldn’t get past the discovery about ants that he relates in chapter one.
So here’s what you probably didn’t know about ants. The very first thing they do is set up a colony. A home. Then, in whatever space they have, they go as far as they can to deposit their dead. A cemetery. Then, they go as far as they can from each – equidistant from each, and that’s where they put their waste. Their dump. Every ant community has the same geometry – where the colony, the cemetery and the trash heap are as far apart from each other as they can be.
Now, you could dig into all the science around emergence, the set of few rules that govern behavior and translate into what looks like order where there really isn’t top-down order and governance. But that’s not what got me. Not the second time thru.
Here’s the question I found myself asking.
- Do my teams know what the three things are that are critical to our success?
- Do my teams know what it takes to deliver on, or to reach, each one?
- Do my teams spend the majority of their days just moving towards one of them?
My questions for you are the same. If you grabbed any person on your team and asked them what were the three most critical things to get right, would they have to guess? Or would they know? If you grabbed a second person, would they answer the same? And does your team, and do you, spend most of your time driving towards one of those three destinations?
Because high performers focus on doing one thing at a time. And only one thing at a time. And if you’re an ant, and who knew that I would aspire to be more like an ant, you’d know at any given time, that only 3 things were important and that I could only move towards one of them at any given time.