Recently, I read Amy Jen Su’s new book, The Leader You Want to Be: Five Essential Principles for Bringing Out Your Best Self–Every Day. An experienced executive coach and productivity expert, she shares principles for how to be effective and more energized. This includes finding “in-flow” days and recognizing and recovering when things are out of balance and you’re feeling frazzled, overstretched, and ineffective.
Amy Jen Su opens the book by describing two leaders, Leader A and Leader B. Leader A is effective, calm, present with team members and family members, and feels fulfilled in life. Leader B is frazzled, frustrated by how little they accomplished that day, distracted, and burned out. We all have Leader A days and Leader B days. The power, Amy Jen Su says, is recognizing when we’re operating in Leader B mode, and taking steps to move back to Leader A mode.
The Four Pitfalls
To help recognize when you’ve fallen into a Leader B mindset, Amy describes four “Pitfalls of Doing,” coping mechanisms that we tend to activate when something in our work or life is out of balance.
1. The “I’ll Just Do More” Pitfall
Ever feel like you’re on a hamster wheel, your to-dos are piling up, and you’re never making any headway? In this circumstance, our first instinct is often to work more or work harder. We think that by just putting in the extra effort, the extra hours, we’ll finally be able to get ahead of it, get on top of things. Someday, we’ll be able to take a deep breath and cross the last todo off the list.
At first, it may seem to be working, but in the end, victims of the “I’ll Just Do More” pitfall end up feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. Interesting opportunities and challenges that would usually be energizing start to look instead like burdens.
How you get out of this pitfall depends on particular circumstances, but it always involves doing less. It often looks like saying no or not yet to certain opportunities, handing responsibilities off to others, and making hard choices about what to prioritize. It’s about recognizing your individual capacity and taking control of your to-do list, instead of letting it control you.
2. The “I’ll Just Do it Now” Pitfall
This pitfall has to do with an outsized sense of urgency: We want to do everything ASAP. We get a thrill from crossing things off the to-do list and mowing through as much as possible.
In this pitfall, we can fall prey to the urgent while ignoring the important long-term work. We become frenetic, reactive, and focused on execution instead of taking the time to be present with our colleagues, thoughtfully engage in our work, and look at the bigger picture. We’re tense and stressed, instead of present and centered.
The answer to this pitfall is to slow down and take a critical look at which things are truly urgent to accomplish and which ones can wait, and treating them accordingly. It involves taking a deep breath to calm your nervous system when it’s telling you that everything is urgent, and working with others when they come to you with a request to truly understand the urgency of each task.
3. The “I’ll Just Do It Myself” Pitfall
This pitfall happens when we feel we can do things better or faster than other people…or maybe we don’t feel we have the time to teach them. Or maybe we just really enjoy doing them and hate to let go of the task or responsibility.
But as Amy Jen Su states, “When we refuse to wean ourselves off a task and insist on doing it all ourselves, we can create bottlenecks that are detrimental to ourselves, our teams, and the goals we’re trying to achieve.”
Often this pitfall comes from a good place–wanting to help an underachieving team member, for example–but its consequences are dire: Team members don’t get the opportunity to grow and develop, and the organization or team’s capacity to achieve and grow is forever limited by one person’s throughput.
The answer to this pitfall is taking a critical look at the things we’re doing. What represents the highest and best use of our time, and what tasks should really be handed off to other people? What truly makes impact and speaks to our individual purpose? What tasks and responsibilities represent opportunities for others to grow?
4. The “I’ll Just Do It Later” Pitfall
This pitfall is about how we de-prioritize ourselves, whether it’s creating the focus time we need to work on an important initiative, or creating the space in life for self-care such as exercise, vacation, or other personal needs. We assume that we’ll get to these things later, “when things calm down.” Spoiler alert: Things never calm down.
The answer to this pitfall is recognizing the importance of these activities, recognizing that they don’t just happen, and deliberately creating space for them instead of waiting for the perfect opportunity which never comes.
Knowledge is Power
In the rest of the book, Amy Jen Su describes her framework of 5 Ps: Purpose, Process, People, Presence, and Peace. Each P in the framework has several strategies for how to activate them to get back on track when you’re experiencing one of the four pitfalls.
However, even without deeply understanding the 5 P framework, I’ve found value in understanding the pitfalls. They’re a powerful tool to help identify where something is going wrong and begin to take steps to correct course. They help with regaining control when it seems like things are outside my control, or when I feel like I’m at the mercy of my circumstances and surroundings–thinking through the framework can help identify areas where my thinking is false, and I can then begin to figure out where to start to regain control, find my center, and get back to balance.