How Can We Learn When We Are So Frazzled?

Excerpt from “Simplify Work: Crushing Complexity to Liberate Innovation, Productivity, and Engagement” by Jesse Newton (Morgan James Publishing, February 2019).

We live highly cluttered lives; have become addicted to checking our phones; are too responsive to interruptions; and do not nurture, protect, and direct our most productive energy. How can we expect learning programs to be effective when we are pulled in so many directions and feel so scattered?

We experience a constant stream of interruptions. We have phones that vibrate or ping any time we receive a new e-mail, calendar invite, or reminder; a LinkedIn or Facebook update; or a notification from the plethora of apps that want to keep us engaged. These disruptions break our focus and reduce our ability to think deeply. But we don’t seem to mind. We now are so addicted to checking our phones every few minutes that if we are away from them for any extended period of time, we suffer withdrawal. According to one publication, we check our phones well over 100 times per day and up to every six seconds in the evening. 

If we’re working on our computer, we have instant messaging popping up at random times, breaking our focus. We have multiple programs open at the same time and seem to click back and forth between them endlessly. We have the browser open with multiple pages up at the same time. We make it too easy to get distracted and pulled from the work that matters. 

We allow our calendars to be booked back to back with meetings on every topic imaginable. Our global teams demand an always-on mentality, and that’s what we give them. We do not recognize when we do our best work and religiously protect this time to focus it on what matters most. And we don’t let ourselves recharge our batteries when we’re not doing work, thereby increasing the speed of burnout and generally limiting our potential.

In almost every one of the 100-plus companies I have consulted with over the years, I have witnessed leaders simply going from one meeting to the next. It is a stream of one topic to the next without breaks. No time to reflect, process, and synthesize. No time to recharge and refocus. The highest opportunities seem to get lost in the jumble of various things that take up their time. Having to deal with so many things naturally limits the depth of thinking and focus and consequently the quality of their contributions on the things that matter most.

Many of us have simply lost touch with the work that truly delivers the greatest value and impact to the business. We stay busy on the tasks that are apparently most urgent. We often are stuck in firefighting mode, responding to problems, errors, or crises that keep us from operating in a strategically proactive manner. I remember a conversation I had with a highly experienced executive coach. I asked him how much time on average his leaders spend on reactive work, such as responding to e-mail or attending low-value meetings. He said they spend at least two-thirds of their day, with many allowing all their time to be absorbed by reactionary work. The opportunity to refocus on the highest priorities and remove or redesign how the low-value, non-core, reactionary work is managed is huge. The spike in productivity, strategic impact, and cost savings would be tremendous if habits were built around prioritization, time management, and focus. 

It’s interesting how hoarding low-value physical stuff also contributes to our lack of focus or highly complicated lives. This could be holding on to anything from surplus documentation to unused clothing. We pile up documents that we’ll get to later when we have more time, or we keep that shirt we sort of like but probably will never wear again. For anything that doesn’t fit in our packed storage cupboards, basements, or garages, we purchase extra space in an external storage unit. What many of us don’t realize is that all of this excess stuff weighs on our mind and reduces our ability to think clearly. The act of culling excess stuff is mentally liberating and one of the most crucial steps to simplifying your life and taking back control of what’s important. 

Another area that seems to be underappreciated is our energy. Our energy, both physical and mental, is a driver of our productivity, creativity, and problem-solving abilities. We do not do enough to nurture, protect, and dedicate our best energy toward the highest priority activities. Most of us don’t even consider how to structure our day so we best use our most productive time. We also have so much going on and are pulled in so many directions that we don’t take time to recharge, let go, and refocus. We work late into the night and do not prioritize our sleep. Simple shifts in how you organize and structure your day will increase energy levels, and as a result, increase not only your productivity and impact but also your general well-being and happiness. This is why topics such as mindfulness and meditation are getting more traction in mainstream business. People are discovering that taking five minutes to switch off all the noise in your prefrontal cortex is hugely beneficial as it can help to elevate thinking and reduce impulse reactions to the various fires going on around you. 

There is clearly a ton of opportunity to simplify both business and our lives. The potential returns are tremendous. Ironically, getting to simple or keeping things simple is often quite challenging and certainly more difficult than adding more complexity in our lives. 

What If…

What if we could take a fresh look at our businesses and our lives, reconsider what is really important, and start to focus our time and energy on those things that matter? Imagine the positive effect it would have on your people if you told them they now have permission to do more of the work they were hired for. Imagine their sense of liberation if you removed a big chunk of the activities that soak up their time: low-value meetings, expense processing, report building, budget setting, clunky performance management, and so on. 

The time is right to simplify and focus.

Excerpt from “Simplify Work; Crushing Complexity to Liberate Innovation, Productivity and Engagement” by Jesse Newton(Morgan James Publishing, February 2019).

Jesse Newton is the founder and CEO of Simplify Work, a global management consulting firm that helps organizations throw off the shackles of debilitating complexity and reignite top performance. He is the author of “Simplify Work; Crushing Complexity to Liberate Innovation, Productivity and Engagement.” For more information, e-mail: or connect via LinkedIn

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