Taking the Highway

One high-school summer, my mom announced that she had found a job for me. (I hadn’t been looking for a job but what people actually want has never stopped any mom.) For a month, I drove into town, picked up a four-year old and carried him out to his dad’s farm near Ferndale (about 20 miles away), and transplanted sprouts into individual pots all day. Aside from it having been my mom’s idea and the farmer’s hours, it wasn’t a bad job. I kind of enjoyed the freshness of the early morning, having my hands in the dark, rich soil, and giving each baby plant the space to grow to maturity. (Which they would do, since my brown thumb had nothing more to do with them.) And the owner’s kid and I made a game out of getting to the farm each morning. I’d take the wrong exit off the freeway and each time we hit a corner, he’d say left, right, or straight, and we’d try to get lost. Getting lost between Bellingham and Ferndale is a real challenge – there’s not much there – but this experience engendered in me the love of randomly taking roads to see where they went.

This habit of getting off highways to see what’s around makes my husband crazy, even though it has led to the discovery of at least three of our favorite roads in Hawaii and one on the way to North Carolina (and only put us in the ditch twice, so I think I’m ahead).

“Where are we?” He’ll demand, sticking a map under my nose, “And how is this getting us where we want to go?”  My counter-argument is that when you’re on vacation and don’t have a timetable, you should get off the highway and explore the countryside.

When I’m in a hurry or need to get somewhere directly, I take the highway.

This is a great approach to achieving goals at work, too. It’s easy to get distracted at the office. Email, phone calls, drop-in’s, last minute meetings, emergency assignments, all conspire to keep you from achieving your main objective.

It can help to think of your time at work as a road trip. Your main objective is a destination where you need to arrive by a specific time. So, you get on the highway and you stay on the highway. Maybe you need to take a brief stop to refill the tank, take an emergency phone call, grab a bite to eat – if you do them all at once, it’s one interruption instead of three. And then it’s back on the highway – don’t stop at that outlet mall next to the gas station, explore the helicopter museum, or start surfing the web, because you’ll never arrive. Remember: you’ve got to get to your destination.

On Mondays, I ask myself, what’s my destination this week? Then I get in the car, turn off my email and browser, and start driving. When I get to a good stretching point, I make a rest stop, refill my water glass, catch up with folks, and then get back on the freeway and head towards my destination. Maybe I get a flat tire – some emergency that requires me to pull over and act right away – but after I change the tire, I don’t hang out on the shoulder or pull off at the next exit to take in the sights. This metaphor helps me if I start to feel unfocused, like I’m not accomplishing anything, I can recognize that I’ve wandered off the main road and tell myself to get back on the highway. I’ve also found it helpful when coaching younger team members who haven’t had to manage their own time before, or newer managers who are struggling with the conflicting demands partners in other departments make of them.

There are times that it makes sense to wander the backroads and admire the scenery – when you’re building relationships, brainstorming, taking the temperature, or recharging your batteries. There’s a time and a place for it.

But when I need to get somewhere fast, I take the highway.

What do you do to stay focused on your goals?

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