Five Strategies to Up Your Game This Year - Michelle Gibbings

A person standing on a set of stairs with a shadow of a superhero.

Welcome to the first Weekly Insights for 2024. I hope your year is filled with learning, adventure, friendship and kindness.

Growing up, I loved school, and I loved the back-to-school preparation even more. In the lead-up to the new school year, Mum would take me shopping to buy textbooks, which I had to wrap in brown paper and plastic (only the trendy kids had contact paper, and that wasn’t me). Occasionally, I’d get a new set of pens, pencils and a pencil case as a treat. The anticipation would build.

In adult life, the back-to-work anticipation never feels quite the same, even though, like school, I genuinely love what I do.

In chatting with people over the last couple of weeks, the going back to work sentiments have ranged from ‘resigned resignation’ (“I know I have to, but I really don’t want to“) to ‘realistic rapture’ (“I know it will be a big year, but I’m looking forward to it“).

Wherever you sit on that spectrum, it’s a good time to pause (just for a moment), look ahead at the year in front of you, and equip yourself with strategies to put you in the best position to make the most of the year.

So, here are five strategies to deploy.

Strategy 1 – Find your Why
Start by clarifying why you do what you do; that is, define your purpose.

Finding your core purpose isn’t simple, nor is it overly complex. It takes effort, time and acceptance that there’s no magic formula for discovering what it is.

People discover their core purpose in different ways. For some people it involves study, experimentation and trying new things. For other people, it involves helping others, taking risks or venturing into the unknown.

John Coleman, the author of the HBR Guide to Crafting Your Purposewrites, “Success without significance — which I define as purpose, service, and meaningful relationships — is not really success at all”.

While success means different things to different people, what I’ve seen many times is the criticality of purpose. Purpose matters. It centres you, grounds you.

People who know their purpose can more readily overcome obstacles and forge their unique path. Purpose gives them the confidence to take charge and make those critical decisions, even in the face of opposition.

Having a purpose doesn’t eradicate challenges or mean that life will be easy; instead, it gives you the strength and determination to keep going despite the roadblocks in your way.

Strategy 2 – Balance Aspirations and Realism
We are often told to set goals and not just any type – Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals – goals that push us beyond our limits.

Now, I’m all for growing, learning and setting goals. Yet, as you do this, it’s helpful to be simultaneously aspirational and realistic. As you test your limits you want to find the balance between those two forces. If you don’t, it can invite unnecessary stress into your day.

Central to this is being open to challenging ourselves. Why? Because, sadly, we are not very good at accurately assessing ourselves.

A recent study reported in the scientific publication – Personality and Individual Differences – found there may be a gap between our perceived intelligence (i.e. how we rate ourselves) and our actual cognitive ability.

Along a similar vein, the Dunning-Kruger effect, named after psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, suggests there is a cognitive bias where people with limited skills or competence in a specific domain can overestimate their abilities.

Gerald Häubl, a marketing professor from the Alberta School of Business and colleagues, found that when people assess their competence and capability, they can be biased in their self-assessment and assessment of others. They conclude that we can falsely predict how we will perform relative to others and in absolute terms.

Their research involved a mountain running race. The results revealed that the overconfident runners who predicted they would finish in a better-than-average time did so primarily because they overestimated their own performance. In contrast, the runners who expected to perform below average had a good understanding of their performance but thought their competitors would run faster. Curiously, though, people in this category tended to perform better than average. In contrast, those who were over-confident and overestimated their performance tended to perform worse than average.

Be open to challenging how you assess your capabilities with genuine feedback. That way, you can learn and grow, while setting aspirational goals that stretch you in a healthy way.

Strategy 3 – Pay Attention to What Matters
We are often told to not sweat the small stuff, and there was a best-selling book with that very title.

I agree with the author, Richard Carlson, that perspective matters, and there indeed are things that don’t matter. For example, whether I buy a cake or bake one for a friend’s party. Whether I have the latest on-trend outfit.

But some things do matter. For example, getting enough sleep, listening to the person talking to me, and spelling errors in job applications. That last one is included because it indicates that what matters to you and me may differ. And that’s perfectly fine.

You want to take the time to decide what really matters to you. When you’ve identified that, you can more easily wisely focus your attention and avoid distractions.

Strategy 4 – Reject FOMO
When you know what matters to you, it is much easier to say, ‘yes’ and ‘no’. You can more readily recognise that the so-called ‘Fear of Missing Out’ (FOMO) is a curse that doesn’t help you professionally or personally.

The key is to not get sucked in or seduced by fads, the latest trend and management speak.

You see it happen all the time. Business leaders jump on the latest management fad created by a consulting firm. It looks unique and exciting and can potentially differentiate their leadership (or organisation) from someone else’s.

However, the reality vastly differs from the original pitch and the business case. It creates churn, change and restructuring, where the business benefits that were widely touted only sometimes materialise. There are plenty of examples, and ANZ’s foray into rolling out agile across the organisation is one. Agile was a buzzword on everyone’s lips for a few years. Sure, it can work in specific contexts, but only in some.

This article in The Age neatly sums up the challenges and also failures. The article quotes: “It’s been a disaster,” says one former senior ANZ executive. “It doesn’t work and whoever becomes the next CEO, the first thing they’ll do is to get rid of agile.”

As a leader, you want to learn, test ideas, and be open to change while being acutely alert to agendas, blindspots, cognitive bias and being too easily caught up in management fads.

Strategy 5 – Find Time for Mindlessness
While there are times to focus and pay attention, on the other side of the coin, there are also times when you want to let your mind wander. Play. Explore. Sit with the quiet.

Or, in the words of Darryl Kerrigan from the iconic Australian movie The Castle, ‘Tell him he’s dreamin‘.

We need to dream.

Mind wandering is not merely a distraction. It benefits our creativity, problem-solving abilities, and well-being because it can act as a natural stress-release mechanism. Mind wandering is also closely linked to memory consolidation, the process by which your short-term memories are transformed into long-term ones.

There are also times when focusing too hard can lead a person to crack under pressure. This fabulous article, Sometimes Mindlessness Is Better Than Mindfulness, in Scientific American, highlights research showing how focusing too carefully on specific tasks can increase a person’s mistakes.

The authors suggest that this doesn’t mean we spend our life on auto-pilot; instead, we need to know when to go with the flow and let automaticity take over and when to strive for deep thinking.

I have always lived my life by the motto ‘Life’s an Adventure‘, so my question to you is – what adventures can you seek that could expand your mind, experiences and life as the year unfolds for you?

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