Load a manager down with a number of important assignments and, almost automatically, he will sort them out, delegate certain jobs to others and devote his new energies to the most demanding tasks.
Hand the same manager some free time and, in all likelihood, he will fall into the trivia trap, filling up the time with "busy work": jobs that may keep his mind and hands occupied and even lead him to believe he is accomplishing something, but that—in reality—aren't very important.
When you are truly busy, you necessarily concentrate on what is important. Less demanding details you leave to others. But when you find yourself with that most precious of commodities, free time, you are likely to lower your guard. It's natural to feel mildly frustrated and useless when you suddenly find yourself idle after a spell of fast paced activity. In an effort to make yourself feel useful again, you channel your energies into almost any activity that promises to restore your feelings of productivity.
That's the pitfall. Instead of using your free time to think—to evaluate, to measure, to assess—you are tempted to turn, almost with relief, to petty details.
Here, with no claims as to their exhaustiveness, are some of the more productive things you can do with those lulls in your workweek:
When you're busy, you don't have time to innovate. Routine procedures have the lure of the familiar and we feel most comfortable with what we know.
Change merely for the sake of change is pointless, of course, but during those rare times when you can sit back and think, search for ways to improve your own performance.
For instance, you may not be delegating enough—or too much. Now is the time to take a long, critical look at how you spread out the workload.
Then there is your management of time. Some managers bounce from crisis to crisis, putting out a fire here, rescuing a project there, never really in control. Ever find yourself in that predicament? If you do, you can profit from a careful examination of how projects are handled in your department—and instituting whatever changes may be necessary.
It's a first-rate opportunity to examine methods, too. How many procedures or systems do you use that have not been changed in the last 12 months? Are the original conditions that caused the procedure to be established all still operative? What procedures or methods seem to have the greatest inefficiencies in them? Can they be simplified? Combined? Eliminated?
It's a rare department that is clicking along on all cylinders. In fact, there probably isn't one anywhere that could not be improved with some thought. Now is the time to zero in on weaknesses and to consider ways and means to set things right.
People problems, for example, are often postponed during periods of peak activity. If there is lack of cooperation among your people…poor morale…slipshod work…absenteeism…tardiness, these may be symptomatic of a deeper, more pervasive problem. See if you can figure out what it may be (e.g., lack of job definition, insufficient lateral or upward mobility, etc.) and what you can do about it.
Or, your department may be the victim of internally generated red tape. Here is a chance to review and revise current methods. How many people are copied on a typical internal memo or bulletin that you issue? What is your justification for each person on the list? Try this test: call your department from an outside phone with a vague request for information on one of your products and without requesting any specific individual. Note how long it took before you reached a qualified person who could handle your inquiry. See if you can uncover any other problem areas in your internal communications.
A good time to give some thought to your department's overall efficiency, too. Are work measurement standards realistic and consistent? What areas of your department are not now subject to work measurement? Why? How do you personally measure the value of work performed by your people? Are your standards fair and objective?
Free time can also be an opportunity to see how you can best take care of the future. Problems in the making can frequently be anticipated—and shortstopped—with some planning.
What, for example, will you have to do differently three years from now? What are your responsibilities likely to be in 2010? And what can you do to prepare yourself for them? What are your company's growth prospects? Will you need more people? New skills? New equipment?
How about research? One new product or a breakthrough in technology can change the whole ball game. Find out, if possible, therefore, what significant research is being done in your company and your industry. If the research pays off, changes will undoubtedly be required in your products, methods and techniques. What, finally, can you do to avoid becoming obsolete?
Why can you hand the same problem to two different people and get a solitary, pedestrian solution from A and a dozen dazzlers from B? Because A is a clod and B is brilliant?
Maybe. But more likely, the answer resides in A's inability to overcome the forces that inhibit creative thought, while B has learned to leap over them and unleash his imagination.
Let's consider some of these barriers and see what can be done to overcome them.
Insufficient self-confidence is one of the most serious blocks to creativity. You can tell if this is your problem by answering these questions: Does criticism or disapproval upset you? Are you afraid of appearing different?
The first step on the road to greater creative output is a willingness to do something "different" or out of the ordinary. This doesn't mean wearing house slippers to the office, but it does imply a conscious change in your approach to ideas; let your mind wander. It's not difficult to come up with alternative solutions, once you decide to search beyond your conditioned reflexes. Few people can rebuild their self-confidence overnight. Success with simple problems often provides a springboard to tougher problems and greater self-confidence.
But such confidence is frequently undermined by certain basic fears … fundamental needs … or unrecognized shortcomings. For example, the more original an idea is, the more open it is to criticism. Your creative abilities may be hampered because you are unwilling to face resistance and possible discouragement. But remember that you are not unusual if you feel criticism is directed toward you personally when, actually, the only thing being criticized is your idea.
Nothing hampers the creative process so much as critical judgment applied to an idea too soon. The premature weighing of "bits and pieces" of an idea should be avoided. The longer you can linger with an idea, the better chance you have of fully exploiting it.
Persistence plays an important role in creative achievement, too. You need a capacity for seeing a job through, no matter what the frustrations.
In the course of pursuing an idea, persistence sometimes dwindles. This is frequently due to repeated failures. And it could be a signal for you to get away from a problem and relax, providing you are not fighting a deadline.
When you feel persistence shrinking, get away from the problem at hand—but return to it shortly. Don't close your mind to it or give it up.
The final shortcoming is an inability to con-centrate. The creative manager has learned to maintain his concentration even when working in the middle of many distractions. He shuts his mind to outside distractions and buries himself in what he's doing.
How can you boost your ability to concentrate? Start with smaller or simpler problems first. While working on them, try shutting your mind to all thoughts except the problem on which you are working. Not only will this enable you to concentrate better, but the solution to the problem at hand is apt to be better, too.
After you have experienced success with the smaller problems, you will find yourself better able to concentrate on the larger problems. Remove the blocks and barriers to your creative potential and you will find an immediate up-surge in your ability to solve problems creatively.