How Are Things on Your Tightrope?

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James Coltharp. Courtesy KeePressingOn Project.

Twenty-six hours a day

In early October, I stepped away from my role as a senior executive with Comcast, which I held for 22 years, and stepped into the “second half” of my life and career.

I did not intend to start a new business. Actually, I had never even considered it. But I did set out to develop a champions mind, and I did work to get better. This led me to establish the KeePressingOn Project, a new business coaching venture to help companies, teams and leaders deliver their best in key moments when they need their best.

Years earlier, I began my pursuit of executive coaching to help others in their journeys. I wanted to share the powerful lessons I learned as a senior figure at Comcast and competitive ballroom dancer. I hope these stories from my journey will be helpful to you.

If you’re running your own business, stepping into a new role or confronting a new challenge, you may think you have to do everything. This may ensure you meet your own standards and reach your goals, but ultimately, it is unsustainable. Many people have this mindset about their work and believe that this is normal and everyone works this way.

Not so fast. We can try to do everything, but it comes with a cost. We eventually find that we have to choose only what is essential. When opening Comcast’s D.C. office, I started out on my own, but later expanded to a small but effective group. We were forced to focus on what was most essential because we had limited manpower. How did we prioritize our time in order to do what was essential and still remain effective in our mission?

I found an especially useful way to organize time. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s approach to handling an overpacked schedule and the flood of work crossing his desk involved classifying tasks by urgency and importance. ‘Urgent’ matters need to be essential to business performance and viability and should be completed today, as their consequences are the most immediate. ‘Important’ matters are also very significant, but less directly related to revenue and viability and can be scheduled for later. President Eisenhower’s method is instructive today to help us keep on top of all the urgent and important work, yet remain mindful of personal limits.

Careful distinction between urgent and important matters is a gateway to preparing and performing with a high level of excellence, yet at a healthy pace. Your mission comes first. What benefits you and your company the most? What moves you and your company towards those goals most directly? These essential activities receive top priority, and other important demands may be scheduled tomorrow or later this week. This discussion is especially noteworthy for business leaders. There also are tasks that may be presented as urgent or important, but do not rise to that title under closer examination. These I delegate to people for whom they may be more effectively done because of their available skills or time. If the tasks cannot bring me towards my goals or business objectives, someone can help deal with those tasks.

Failing to trim these matters from your schedule causes overload. As we become overloaded, we experience many forces that accelerate our perception of our schedule, and thus our thinking becomes faster and faster. Establish boundaries to intentionally turn your course away from those accelerating factors. I have experienced this a number of times. But I have become effective in creating margin for regeneration in my daily life.

For me, exercise and quiet are the pillars of a strong response. Working out in the gym is fine, but doing so in a way that involves building a connection with another person or group provides a relational outlet as well. Preparing to compete as a ballroom dancer has become a pivotal part of my growth as a person and the strong partnership I have with my dance partner enables me to learn and exercise creativity, communicating in a different way.

I want to confess that I am writing this as a lesson for me as much as for anyone else. Years ago, during major, long-term projects, we could be consumed for many months or even years. I visited colleagues who were in the hospital due to stress-related issues. I learned in as many conversations as possible to ask, “How are you doing?” This lesson came from being on the receiving end of kind visits from others when I needed help.

Early in my career, when I first rose to a key role at the FCC, I sought out people who had been in that position and asked for their advice. When we met again at events, they always asked how I was doing. One time, one of them asked this, and I replied as usual, “I’m really busy.” He said, “Jim, you’re always really busy. Every time I ask you that question, you say you’re really busy.”

He got my attention.

About a month later, this friend had a heart attack. It showed me that my current choices could not continue without incurring severe cost. I began to choose to focus on kindness and involvement in the lives of people around me. The busyness was a wall that I seriously needed to bring down.

I struggled with extended overload for a long time. For many people, they find that they can’t just slow down, reduce their workload or allocate time for relaxation. It’s about changing our thinking. Time must be viewed differently. As I have moved through different roles, I have become more aware and intentional in disciplining my time. Countless tasks of all levels of urgency and importance crossed my desk, but time for refocus and relaxation had to become a priority. In addition to dancing, I value quiet to help regenerate. I turn off the television and read and silence my phone and pray or memorize scripture. At first, I was afraid of what I would miss. But it provides a time for my brain to refresh so I can maintain lower levels of stress, minimize unnecessary input and focus on my most important sources of renewal.

Let’s be honest. We all struggle with time. We long for 26 hours per day, but the painful truth is that most of us live way beyond our means in terms of time. That pace, that desire to do more and more comes with a cost. On its surface, that pace appears to only affect us as individuals. We rush faster; we’re accessible 24 hours per day and the pace accelerates.

The truth is that it doesn’t only affect us individually; it affects all of our personal relationships, our ability to create relational cultures within our businesses and our willingness to make our communities better and stronger. Many of us begin each year by evaluating ourselves and setting our priorities. What we choose to consider important is not just something to consider in January, but throughout the year. How do our choices affect the way in which we live, work and interact with people who participate in our journeys? Too many of us walk the tight rope of overload and risk the consequences of burnout.

How are things on your tightrope?

The KeePressingOn Project serves individuals and teams who seek to generate growth and increased productivity through relationships that build trust, encourage excellence and create an expectant, positive view of the future. Our expertise, in combination with our ability to motivate and inspire individuals, teams and organizations, creates greater consistency in attaining peak performance. Contact James Coltharp at KeePressingOn.com.

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