This is the time of year when my dog, Bear, drives me crazy. The squirrels are out in full swing, gathering their acorns and running all over the backyard as winter approaches. And Bear tries to chase every last one of them. No sooner does he go after one squirrel that another catches his eye and he is off running in the opposite direction. Like the dog from the animated movie, Up, he can’t escape the lure of “Squirrel!”
“You can’t chase every squirrel you see,” we say to him. That’s advice that is good for dogs and also for people, especially those people (and you may be one of them) who are easily distracted by the next thing that catches their attention. You may work with someone like this or live with them – they have a plan or idea and they go full steam ahead, until the next shiny new object attracts them. They find themselves jumping from one project or idea to another, and not necessarily finishing anything or getting any results.
Maybe you chase squirrels because you find it hard to stay the course – or you work in an organization where “stick-to-itiveness” is hard to come by. There are many reasons why it can be hard to see things through. We may lose interest, get frustrated with barriers that get in our way, or tire of the slow progress we are making. We then move on to something else before getting any real traction. You may work in a place where initiatives are nothing more than the “flavor of the month.”
Now there’s certainly nothing wrong with changing your mind, reacting to a new idea or input, or recognizing when what you thought you wanted isn’t really what you thought it would be. But if you’re not finishing the things you start, maybe it’s time to ask, “Is there a pattern here?”
To avoid chasing squirrels and being drawn in by the next thing that catches your eye, or if you simply lose focus for a variety of other reasons, consider these actions:
Stay focused – there are many things on our to-do lists and lots of ideas and plans that we want to put into action. Trying to make progress on five projects or ideas can become burdensome and may leave you feeling like you can’t make headway on anything. Tackling one or two things at a time – and seeing them through – will help you maintain the focus you need to avoid being distracted by the shiny new object in front of you.
Build accountability – put structures in place to keep you aware of those moments when you are tempted to chase the next squirrel. Find an accountability partner who can help you hold course and call you on it when your commitment starts to wane. Shout “Stop!” to yourself when you feel the need to shout “Squirrel!” so that you can thoughtfully decide if it’s the right squirrel to chase and the right time to chase it.
Anticipate obstacles – the best way to avoid hitting bumps in the road that get in the way of progress and sap your motivation is to get ahead of them and think about what could get in the way. Asking questions about what could arise, what resistance you can expect, and what hurdles you will find on the path to your goal will help you to anticipate and plan for obstacles before they stall your efforts.
Challenge assumptions – any plan or idea involves a set of assumptions that drives decisions and actions. You may have reams of data to support your assumptions, but the more you can challenge your assumptions and poke holes in your conclusions, the better you will be able to keep your project on track and maintain focus.
Seek buy-in – resistance or disinterest from others is often the thing that causes you to give up on your idea or plan. To avoid having your idea weighed down by those who are not onboard, spend the time early on socializing the idea, sharing information, inviting questions, and getting others excited about your plan.
Seeing an idea or project through and staying the course takes discipline, focus, and action. We have to ignore the impulse to go after the next interesting thing or hop on the next bandwagon, and we have to have the determination to stick with it even when we get frustrated or discouraged. As a leader you don’t want the reputation of being that person who gives up on your ideas or of encouraging a culture where programs die on the vine.
Early in my career I worked at a company where few initiatives made it to the finish line. When a new program was introduced, the buzz around the office was “don’t worry about taking that on, it will change tomorrow” or “this is the program of the month. Next month it will be something entirely different.” That lack of “stick-to-itiveness” became pervasive and made it hard to get things done. Like Bear, leaders there spent too much time chasing the next squirrel, lacking focus and follow-through. By following a few simple principles, they could have stayed on task and reaped the fruit of a project carried to completion.
Where are you lacking commitment and chasing squirrels?
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