The Executive's Curse - Conscious Overload

By: Greg Layton


Its a steamy Hong Kong morning and I watch closely as my client walks into our usual meeting spot, a trendy local caf buzzing with activity. His shoulders are hunched, his eyes are a little red and the furrow in his brow is poised for action. He slumps into his chair with a sigh and just looks at me in disbelief. He launches into a monologue about his days that dissolve into weeks and months. How he doesnt know his family, how he is underperforming and missing critical points in meetingsHow in the hell is anyone meant to perform when there is so much to do? I let him finish until he has nothing left to say and now hes looking at me with a look that is hopeful or is it wishful? Clearly he is fed up with being tired, harassed and not performing effectively and has no idea how to get out of this fix. Luckily, his condition is quite common and the solution is closer to hand than many think.

I give him a nod to follow me and we walk to a nearby building that has a sky deck. Up we go, up and up, the people become scurrying ants and the cars and road like little pulsing arteries. From up here, I say, the world always looks different.

My wonderful client, a senior executive of a large corporation is suffering from what we call, Conscious Overload. Its simple really; he is taking his old ways of thinking and applying them to much greater roles. As he came up through the ranks, he was required to be in the weeds of projects, to drive detail and process and performance. This is what got him success and promotion. I think it was Albert Einstein that said, What got you here wont get you to the next place. Applying his type of thinking to a marge larger set of initiatives just wont work.

Of course, there is a neurological reason why my client cant seem to maintain a line of thought. The conscious mind has a limit on how much it can think about at any given time (research has show this is somewhere between 5 and 9 items at a time see George Millers original experiment here http://www.musanim.com/miller1956/) and as long as he stays in the weeds, as long he tries to control a large number of variables, he will be exactly what he doesnt want to beout of control. His mind simply cant deal with the overload, its like he doesnt have enough RAM and everything just backs up and progress actually slows down.

Many of our executive clients tell us that their lives are busy beyond belief with constant stimulus and decision-making.In their minds, there is no way of handling the myriad of tasks, projects and relationships that fall under their responsibility day in day out.

They are all in Conscious Mind Overload and there are physiological (fatigue), emotional (stress and anxiety) and performance related costs that stretch far into the future for anyone living with this pattern.

From the top of the tower, high above the cacophony, we define a new method for managing his life and work. Up here, he can see the forest through the trees, clump thoughts and concepts and see what he needs to change to achieve a great outcome.

At the end of our meeting, I notice a change. The furrow has retreated, the shoulders are square and confident, and the eyes appear focused and sharp. Weve reset the mind, created a framework for him to store his thoughts and maintain focus on the end result. He is highly congruent about how he will deliver this change. Down we go, down and down, and finally he re-enters the fray with his mind still looking down from a much higher place.

Application - Beating Conscious Overload
1. Think at a higher level:- The single most important step in beating conscious overload is to chunk up to a higher level of thinking. This is a jump from detail to strategy and focusing on the end game. As you rise out of the detailed thinking you can start to categorize tasks and concepts into groups and see patterns of thinking, interdependencies and opportunities for synergy.

What this means is packaging up groups of thoughts together so that we now think about a concept as a whole with a load of smaller parts rather a whole bunch of smaller parts. Think of things as a program of work rather than a range of individual projects. By removing the clutter you free our mind for insight and those moments when ideas pop into your head.

2. Mindmap your Vision and Strategy:- Assuming you know your Vision and Strategy, I find it incredibly valuable to Mindmap it so that you have a clear vision of how it all fits together through time. I draw it on an A3 piece and connect ideas and thoughts, record concepts and resources and people. Sometimes I use several pieces of paper but in the end, everything fits together and during this process I nearly find an opportunity to create some sort of synergy. Thoughts flow during this process and my effectiveness booms as now I can see everything on a page.

Put this on your wall in your office and talk to it with your people. Let them see how you put all the pieces together and get them to help you fill in gaps and identify even more opportunities.

Sometimes its useful to have one of these for every aspect of your life. When I do life design, I use a mindmap of my life and then systematically focus my attention on each part of my life and how I can improve it.

3. Delegate and Empower:- Of course, someone has to deliver on the tasks that you are no longer (or never were) responsible for. This requires delegation to your team and I like to use the Stewardship Agreement framework that Stephen Covey developed. This is about creating a framework for your team to be focused and successful. You must define in rich detail what the ideal outcome is, the performance measures, roles and responsibilities and resources available to them and how you will help them achieve their goal. Link their work to the achievement of the Vision and Strategy and make it a formal agreement. (Check out 7 Habits of Highly Effective People for more on this)

4. Review and Signoff:- At the end of each day, I review what has happened and the impact on my mind map. I make notes and updated my mind map. I literally dump all my thoughts onto the plan and if there are items I need to work on or follow up then I make a note to do it at the next most reasonable time.

This review and sign off allows me to go home with a clear mind. It allows my now empty head to think about other things and focus 100% of my attention on them.

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