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The Busyness Bind: How It Holds Women Back, and Why We Let It

31/05/2016 12:10 | Updated 31 May 2016

I've never met a great leader who doesn't take time to reflect. Bill Gates would give himself a whole "think week" every year when he led Microsoft.

Yet thinking time is one thing many women don't make space for in their day. We're more apt to boast about our abilities to juggle than our propensity to sit idle. We don't master one or two things, we (just about) cope with many.

The problem is, without reflection time, it's easy to get stuck in a rut, doing the same old things because they're easy, or we've never considered another way. Where's the progress?

Headhunters are trying to talk to more women about senior roles. But one recently told me that the overwhelming majority of women he approaches cannot, or will not, make time to talk. Most of the men, meanwhile, will. And we wonder why men outnumber women in leadership roles.

Who's got time to think?
Women have have plenty of reasons not to stop. Bombarded with requests, meetings, demands from colleagues, bosses, family and life in general, who has time to sit still and just be?

At work, we talk in terms of 'output'. We humblebrag about being run off our feet. Even though there's more flexibility at work, a culture of busy-ness pervades many high-powered businesses. How many managers would look favourably on one of their team apparently sitting idle? We need to be busy - or appear so - if we're to be taken seriously in our careers.

At home, women still take on the lion's share of the cleaning and caring, according to a Time Use survey.

Or we get caught up in the idea that all our free time needs to be 'productive'. I know of one working mother who organised a mindfulness course for a group of her female friends. But she hasn't once used it since. She feels guilty indulging herself when there are meals to be cooked or dogs to be walked.

Social media can make things worse, exacerbating that fear that we're not doing as much as our friends or peers.

Then there's just plain old lack of desire: talking with a group of 30-something women recently, I was surprised at how many rebuffed the idea of reflection time. Perhaps they felt that it was too 'touchy-feely', unprofessional and - worst of all -- that it played into soft stereotypes that women have sought to shed for generations.

Whatever the reason, we don't seem to want too much time to reflect. One study found that people would rather give themselves an electric shock than be left alone with their thoughts for even 15 minutes.


That jangling feeling

Working with one woman who would seem to have it all, I've seen the results first hand: every time I see her she cries. She can't just 'be' with herself, it's too uncomfortable. Another younger exec I met floored me by opening our first meeting with a jumble of negatives: "I'm not pretty enough, I don't have a partner, I'm not good enough at work..." Her solution? Fill the diary from dawn till dusk, then you'll never have to confront the issues you can't face.

Running alongside this is what I can only describe as a sense of spiritual barrenness. Unable to be alone with their thoughts, women instead preoccupy themselves with tackling small, daily stressors that actually block their progress, according to the WEF.

This creates another double bind for women. Without thinking time, women don't progress. They're so caught up in immediate demands they don't stop to allow their minds to roam free. And that's where they might find the secret sauce that might make them great leaders.

All of the qualities we value in great leaders -- empathy, creativity, decisiveness, strategic ability -- are crowded out. It's as if the dial is turned down, everything is a fog, prioritising becomes difficult. We are 'jangling' and un-present, not listening. One senior female exec I knew was so busy being busy she'd forget entire conversations with her team.


When in roam

Diversity of thinking is considered a cornerstone of creative leadership. But that calls for an open mind -- one that is capable of 'meta-thinking' and reflection.

When we feel we have time and breathing space, we're more open to ideas and experience.
You don't have to sit still to find that space. You might have those moments while running, doing yoga, at church, or, for one female barrister and board member I know, making doll's houses. Write, or record your thoughts, if that works for you.

Find something you like to do that allows you to think, or not think, if that's the problem. Retrain your system and find a way to sit with yourself, even for just a few minutes. Schedule it, lf necessary.

Consciously start to pick yourself up on any moments when you're starting to jangle, or if you know you're uncomfortable with a particular line of thinking.

Be practical, too. Time management tricks such as how you manage your email, diary, and social media activity, may free up a few minutes here and there to disengage.

Look at the wheel of life: exercise, family, nature, work. It doesn't always have to be balanced but is something completely missing? A

Maybe most important, don't be afraid of your own mind. It's OK to feel so-so sometimes.

Women are so often culturally programmed to 'fix' things, they allow their lives to become consumed by 'busyness'. I'm all for action, but what's the point if you're not learning from it? INSEAD's Herminia Ibarra counsels would-be leaders to 'act first, then think'. But she doesn't advise them not to think at all.

(Image: Pixabay, CC1.0)

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