Priority Distortion and the Master Responder
On a good day Ryan crushes his work. He is a dynamic entrepreneur who leads his team by example. He is responsive and fast and loves to generate new leads. On a bad day Ryan feels overwhelmed and is hesitant to start his work day looking for anything to do but what is at the top of his list. Ryan can't understand why he is so good at generating leads but falters when it comes to the follow-up work once the lead is generated. Meanwhile important tasks languish on an ever expanding to-do list. As a master responder, Ryan is well aware of his ability to hyper-focus at certain times to get certain things done. Unbeknownst to Ryan, his urgent-first approach to work can't make the important QII items move off his list. His important items just won't respond to his urgent work ways.
Like Ryan, my clients over the past 16 years have had various goals for coaching yet one basic desire has been fairly consistent over this period of time - to have a sense of accomplishment at the end of their work day. This is not surprising given my niche of ADHD, focus and follow-through. To get to this place of daily accomplishment many have had to overcome a formidable obstacle that presents as a fairly effective coping strategy - using urgency to get most of their work done. I am fascinated by the connection between ADHD and urgency. Not all of my clients have ADHD but most like Ryan have used urgency as their number one activator for task. It's no surprise that procrastination, hyper-focus and ADHD go hand in hand. In my last post I talk about a not-so-effective byproduct of relying too much on adrenaline and hyper-focus. I call this the adrenaline response cycle (ARC). This is nothing new or earth shattering. Daniel Goleman has been speaking about "amygdala hijacking" for years. Barkley and Brown have been talking about challenges with emotional regulation for a decade. The ADHD community is well aware of the limbic system and how it can be over tapped. The ARC phenomenon I speak of is cyclic in nature, a roller coaster of a ride that can be difficult to quit.
Creative people can use urgency as a creative coping mechanism. It allows unparalleled production but often does not leave the individual with a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. Like a fox chased by baying hounds over hill and dale, over-reliance on adrenaline can leave the individual drained and depleted. Often they find themselves in a deficit position needing several days to recover from a hyper-focus event. From a strategic standpoint, this ARC way of being tends to distort what is priority and what is not. Real leadership challenges begin to surface when leaders like Ryan model ARC and whole organizations begin to put a premium on urgency's false prophets – responsiveness and speed.
Master responders like Ryan perform exceptionally well in environments with clear guidelines and outcomes and positive and supportive team members. Conversely, Global Creatives (GCs) will struggle when the parameters of a task are ill-defined and when it is left to them to create processes and structures to complete a project. Often confronted by a paradox of challenges, GCs can be highly responsive and flexible in some environments but fail to transition effectively in other environments. Some environments can create a paralyzing effect best described as “overwhelm”– a frozen state of failing to engage in action (procrastination) or failing to disengage from poorly chosen action (disinhibition/impulsivity). “Why do I keep doing what I know is not right?” can be a frustrating question for the GC.
These leaders thrive in some environments and struggle in others. In environments with quick completion arcs and defined parameters they can thrive – short cycle events like start-up periods in businesses and facing clear and real deadlines. They struggle when the environment has longer completion arcs with fluid parameters like shifting roles, responsibilities and expectations.
Why do smart creative people do this? Why do we GCs continue to tap adrenaline to get things done when we know full well there will be a price to pay later on. We do this because it works. Global Creatives can find it challenging to create and sustain useful work structures (like making and executing a plan). An urgent approach to the day creates useful structures to be successful in that day. Namely, urgency creates a clear and present priority. But only for the moment and at most for a day or two. Here's the rub. Something that is a priority today is unlikely a priority for the month or quarter. The crisis we battle today is not likely written in the vision statement of the company. Urgent approaches to work will not address the loftier goals for the individual or the group and yet ARC-bound leaders only focus what is directly in front of them to the detriment of the long term goals. Another reason it works is because of the feel-good byproduct or the "buzz" hyper-focus creates. The adrenaline release creates a sense of invincibility that is hard to deny. It's hard to beat the feeling of Master of the Universe even if it happens at 3:00 in the morning.
Mechanisms at Work
Another interesting element about the ARC experience is how challenging it can be to stop using it. The adrenaline approach can shut out other methods to motivate and activate. Once the limbic system (emotional part of the brain including the fight or flight response) gets a hold of an incoming stimuli it is reluctant to let go until the threat has past. Master responders like Ryan deliberately elevate tasks to threat level to activate the limbic fight or flight response in order to prioritize, activate and crush (finish to a completion). In addition, ADHD and related impulsivity (disinhibition) make holding out for the long-term reward more challenging. GCs are masters of the short work cycle, perfect for the master responder approach. The challenge is that we often try to apply this short cycle approach to long term projects like generating new business and new product lines or evaluating employee performance. Worse, waiting till the last minute, master responders will take on more and delegate less not getting the most from their team. Feeling urgency in the moment, clients report how resources they know are available miraculously disappear from their radar screen or they feel shame or guilt summoning support in the eleventh hour. Beholden to the ARC experience, leaders admit to being less strategic and resourceful. This is understandable since their limbic system is lit up like a christmas tree diverting all activity away from the Pre-Frontal Cortex, the executive function, strategic planning part of the brain.
Begin with Awareness
You can break free of ARC, fold adrenaline into a portfolio of diversified motivators and feel a sense of accomplishment in your day. Start with developing your awareness of how the ARC shows up. Begin with a study of how you work overall:
Do you work like Ryan above?
Do you only rise to the most urgent of matters?
Is your work week characterized by periods of procrastination followed by mad dashes of productivity followed by long periods of recovery?
Get Curious About Consistency
A great place to notice the impact of ARC is in the consistency in your work day. When we think of consistency we often just think about effort but consistency can be measured in a number of ways.
The most effective way to measure consistency is how your value of time fluctuates through the week. I'll wager there are days that time is your most valuable commodity and other days where it's value is pennies on the dollar. During periods of deadline activity you hoard your time - "Sorry Hon, can't pick up Junior today!" Meanwhile during periods of procrastination and delay you wholesale time giving it away to everyone and everything -"I'll pick up the kids all week!". A byproduct can be a habit of trading time much like a commodities trader buying corn futures. More evidence of time, energy and attention going toward 'managing' time than actually working on tasks.
Another area to look for inconsistency is in your daily rules of work and how you rationalize behavior. Creative people can be very creative in how they rationalize behavior which just leads to creative procrastination. Do you rationalize inactivity? Do your own work principles shift as you get closer to a deadline?
A game I suggest is to peg an hour of time at a set value, say a buck twenty five ($125), and try to keep it close to this value through the work week. It's naturally going to move north and south of this mark through the work week. We can all agree some work events are more valuable than others! Just paying attention to how you change the value (and your thinking) of a given hour can be a good starting place to changing how you use that hour.
All change of habit begins with awareness. You can locate other motivators like inspiration and collaboration but first notice your own ARC experience at work and see how time and beliefs shift through your work day.