Companies & Industries

The Last Five Minutes of Your Day


If you set them aside to pause, breathe, and reflect, you could save your job

Posted on Harvard Business Review: January 3, 2011 9:27 AM

Julie Anko*, the head of a division of a retail company I work with, was at risk of getting fired. Here's the crazy thing: she was a top performer. She had done more for the brand in the past year than any of her predecessors had in five years.

The problem was that she was a bear to work with. She worked harder than seemed humanly possible and expected the same of others, often losing her temper when they wouldn't put in the same herculean effort she did. She was also competitive and territorial; she wanted the final say on all decisions remotely related to her brand even when her peers technically had the authority to make a decision. She wasn't good at listening to others or empowering them or helping them feel good about themselves or the team. And, though she was working all hours, things were falling through the cracks.

But none of that was the problem for which she was at risk of being fired. The real problem was that she didn't think she had a problem.

I was asked to work with her, and my first step was to interview everyone with whom she worked in order to understand the situation and share their perspectives with her.

When I did share the feedback, her response surprised me. "I didn't know it was that bad," she said, "but it doesn't surprise me." I asked her why.

"This is the same feedback I received at my previous company," she said, "it's why I left."

We could look at Julie and laugh at her ignorance. At her unwillingness to look at her failures and, as a result, repeat them. But the laugh would be a nervous one. Because many of us—and this includes me—do the same thing.

I'm often amazed at how many times something has to happen to me before I figure it out. I believe that most of us get smarter as we get older. But somehow, despite that, we often make the same mistakes. On the flip side—but no less comforting—we often do many things right and then fail to repeat them.

There's a simple reason for it: we rarely take the time to pause, breathe, and think about what's working and what's not. There's just too much to do and no time to reflect.

I was once asked: if an organization could teach only one thing to its employees, what single thing would have the most impact? My answer was immediate and clear: teach people how to learn. How to look at their past behavior, figure out what worked, and repeat it while admitting honestly what didn't and change it.

If a person can do that well, everything else takes care of itself. That's how people become life-long learners. And it's how companies become learning organizations. It requires confidence, openness, and letting go of defenses. But here's what it doesn't require: much time.

It only takes a few minutes. About five actually. A brief pause at the end of the day to consider what worked and what didn't.

Here's what I propose:

Every day, before leaving the office, save a few minutes to think about what just happened. Look at your calendar and compare what actually happened—the meetings you attended, the work you got done, the conversations you had, the people with whom you interacted, even the breaks you took—with your plan for what you wanted to have happen. Then ask yourself three sets of questions:

How did the day go? What success did I experience? What challenges did I endure?

What did I learn today? About myself? About others? What do I plan to do—differently or the same—tomorrow?

Who did I interact with? Anyone I need to update? Thank? Ask a question? Share feedback?

This last set of questions is invaluable in terms of maintaining and growing relationships. It takes just a few short minutes to shoot off an email—or three—to share your appreciation for a kindness someone extended, to ask someone a question, or to keep someone in the loop on a project.

If we don't pause to think about it, we are apt to overlook these kinds of communications. And we often do. But in a world where we depend on others to achieve anything in life, they are essential.

After several long conversations, Julie came to appreciate the efficiency of slowing down enough to see the others around her. She saw that she was working so hard and moving so fast, that even if she was delivering quality results, she was working against herself, putting her job at risk, and making things harder for everyone.

So, over time and with great discipline, she began to change. And, slowly, people began to notice. I knew things were going to be OK when I left her a message expecting a call back in several weeks, if at all, but she called me back that evening.

"Hi Peter," she said, "I just wanted to let you know I got your call and I appreciate you reaching out to me. I'm heading out with the team for some drinks. I'll try you again in a few days."

And, sure enough, she did.

*Names and some details changed

Provided by Harvard Business Review—Copyright © 2010 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.

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