07 Sep 3 traps that kill strategy and crush us – Part 2: Distractions
A few weeks ago, I wrote the first draft of this article on distractions. Then, to my dismay, I got distracted. That’s correct. I got distracted while writing an article on distractions.
It’s with good reason I consider Loops, Distractions and Landmines strategy killers. Yet I fell right into the trap of distractions as my long-term strategies took a backseat and my habitual responses took over. (See Atomic Habits.)
It’s hard for our brains to play a long game.
Distractions crush smart plans as we unconsciously favor the short-term over the long term. And even the most gifted thinkers fall into traps of cognitive bias in decision-making.
So we’re in heady company. And we all tend to make decisions with sketchy long-term implications.
Like me postponing this article.
While one article may feel like a small thing, it’s part of a larger system. These articles fuel my social media, they help me flesh out an evolving ecosystem of useful tools (for you), they connect me to people, they allow me to hone my voice and point of view.
They’re part of an intricate long game.
But our minds struggle with long plays, especially ones with uncertain or miniscule short-term rewards.
Bluntly, long games are hard. They require a ton of energy, clear thinking and focus.
But growth of any kind is a long game.
It’s also one with tiny short-term rewards.
So we’re tricked by big and small distractions, which we magnify in the present. And we’re duped into thinking we’re making strategic decisions, when we may not be. When our minds perceive strategies or problems as too complex, weird, unfamiliar or threatening, we unconsciously solve a ‘simpler’ problem. (See Thinking Fast and Slow.)
But simpler doesn’t mean simple. It means problems we can already efficiently solve. Yikes, right?
This efficiency can lead us in the wrong direction.
And it might never course correct.
Let’s let that sink in. Much of the time we’re guessing, we don’t know we’re guessing and we’re wrong.
This is how experienced executives and iconic companies can fail to keep up with disruptive technologies. It’s how big projects with many executive stakeholders and multiple project managers never gain traction. And I think it’s why many of the brilliant professionals I meet often feel restless and stuck.
Over-complicating, combined with our established mental grooves quickly overwhelm good ideas and sincere plans.
So let’s start something that’s always true: we could be wrong.
We could be wrong.
If flawed decisions can send us off course, small distractions create their own purgatory.
My first job was as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Our First Sergeant would routinely send my platoon out for maintenance duties around the base. Some of these were important and necessary. And some of them were painting rocks. Well, boulders to be precise.
From time to time, my guys would disappear for a day or two to paint boulders at the entrances of the base. And they hated it.
Hard work and danger they could handle. Tedium and heat? No problem. But painting rocks felt pointless, the result of a series of silly decisions.
So let’s not paint rocks.
That said, I return to this story over and over because we’ve all painted rocks. One woman I worked with shared a story about a report her team created every week. They carefully compiled data from across many teams. Then they sent it to another team, who admitted they didn’t need the report and never read it.
This went on for nearly a year.
But we don’t paint rocks because it’s smart strategy. We do it because we prefer doing anything over doing nothing.
And we often perceive complex thinking as nothing.
But thinking simplifies what’s next.
I recently spoke with a great guy named Marcus, who came to me confused about not one, but two amazing job opportunities. We spoke twice about negotiation strategies and decision criteria. But towards the end of the second conversation, we clarified a key fact: he had no decisions yet to make.
While he had two opportunities in play, he did not have offers.
But he was spending a ton of energy imagining negotiations and hypothetical long-term problems resulting from future decisions. These were big distractions, which could lead to sloppy mistakes.
First, he needs offers.
So we slowed everything down, which allowed him to see his immediate next steps: staying cool over the next month while preparing for interviews. That’s the effort with biggest short and long-term payoff. It also cleverly side-steps costly mistakes.
Once Marcus receives offers, he can make more complex decisions.
So focus forward.
While uncomfortable, the easiest path out of distractions is to focus forward. And then to continuously think and act, think and act, think and act. And when needed, to course correct.
Like Marcus patiently prepping for interviews for both jobs.
And like me finishing this article.
Specific, thoughtful steps nudge everything forward. They’re long plays. And that’s way more compelling than painting rocks.