Have you had one of those weeks? I have. The perfect storm of tight deadlines, a sequence of important meetings, cancelled flights, oh, and my eight year old daughter's birthday party to organise. I love a bit of high pace, adrenalin- fuelled action as much as the best of them, and I can stay effective in chaos for a while. But last week I crossed the invisible line that I talk about often with my clients; the line between high pace effective and high pace ineffective:
How did I know I had crossed the line? Because I caught myself buying candles. Yes. In a 30 minute walk between client offices, which I badly needed to use to gather myself, I found myself rushing a scented candle purchase. Craving calm and a beautiful tidy home, I made myself more frazzled and £65 poorer with a very heavy bag.
Funny in hindsight, but horrid at the time. This is just one of the many ways that I can make my working week harder for myself. And I'm not alone. When I coach frazzled women business leaders, common themes include:
1. Irrational levels of perfectionism: "must please everyone"
2. Taking on too much, under-delegating: "mustn't disappoint."
3. Taking it personally when the workload becomes impossible: "if only I was smarter."
4. Neglecting critical, performance-raising activity (eating well, sleeping enough, exercising, planning and organising): "I don't have time for that."
These bad habits are by no means exclusive to women. There is evidence of both successful men and successful women making them the norm, everywhere I look. But I have a particular interest in helping women up their game, and I can't help noticing that many of them focus on perfectionism in an especially intense way.
Take the supermarket test: pick a high achieving woman you know. Someone who has a male partner, who works in a similarly or less demanding job to her. Ask her this: “If you were to find yourself, in the middle of a working day, with 20 minutes to spare next to a supermarket, would you be able to remember the top-up groceries that your family needs?”
Most women I've asked say “yes”. Ask her if she would be able to resist the temptation to rush in and grab those things. Most women say “no”. Ask her if her male partner would respond the same way as her to these questions: Most women laugh.
So can women up our game at work by demanding more from the men we live with? Yes, probably. I'm amused by Cheryl Sandberg's story about a leadership conference where a man asked the speaker: "What can men do to help women advance in the workplace?" She responded with a two word answer: "the laundry". It's easy to get angry about laundry; the injustice of the menfolk who don't share our domestic concerns, don't care. But I've learnt that it serves me better to focus on how I can try to care less? Why do I care so much when my household is running low on bananas or milk? Why would I allow that nonsense into my working memory, taking up valuable space that I could be using to think about my work? I have a choice about whether to fret about that small stuff, or to trust myself to cope without the bananas, milk, scented candles. My family will probably survive...
Why it helps to have a clear head at work
• Perfectionism usually has a healthy, useful value of excellence at its root. Being rigorous about quality and standards is a great thing. It only becomes destructive when it is applied subconsciously, without mindfulness.
• As you become more senior, you have to become more discerning about what will be perfect. One of the biggest challenges for the newly-promoted is judging what elements of the job must be done brilliantly, and what to ignore or do quickly.
• When we are thinking clearly, we make better choices. Your healthy commitment to excellence only gets warped into irrational perfectionism when you are tired and stressed.
• As you become more aware, you get better at noticing and course-correcting in the moment. So you can use the information about, say, irrational candle purchasing, as a signal to slow down and take a break. Pause. Ask yourself what you need. Remember to breathe deeply and slowly. Praise yourself for what you have already achieved. Be kind to yourself.
And, for goodness sake, do all of that before you spot a supermarket.