A Ritual to Help You Keep Your Focus and Your Temper

John McCaffrey* is a great guy. The CEO of a professional services firm, he’s been successful by any measure. He’s financially secure. He’s happily married with several children. He’s active in his religious community. He’s smart, well read, reasonable, and likable. He’s the kind of guy you’d enjoy talking with at a dinner party.

Then again, the other day, in anger, he threw a telephone across the room, nearly hitting someone.

“That’s not who I am,” he told me. And it’s true. I know him well and I’ve never seen him act anything like that way.

Now, throwing a telephone is pretty extreme. But, if you take it down a notch, John is not alone. Jane Pennelton is another incredibly successful leader in a different company — someone who I like and respect tremendously. She’s recently been receiving feedback that she’s rude, abrupt, uncommunicative, and harsh. When I discussed it with her she said the same thing: “That’s not who I am.”

John and Jane are mostly right. It’s not who they are. Usually, anyway. And it’s certainly not who they want to be.

But under the wrong conditions, it is who they are sometimes.

While most of us would resist the temptation to throw a phone, many of us still lose our tempers more easily than we’d like. This morning, I yelled at my kids for fighting with each other at the breakfast table. And then a little later, I was on the line with an AT&T representative, and after 45 minutes of getting nowhere, I lost it again.

Anger isn’t the only problem. We blow people off. Don’t return phone calls. Don’t pay attention when they’re telling us something important. Many of us, at times, act in ways we don’t like and don’t recognize as ourselves.

And I think I’ve figured out what’s causing it: we’re overwhelmed.

We have too much to do and not enough time to do it, which results in two problems:

  1. Things fall through the cracks. We don’t answer all our emails. We don’t return all our calls. We don’t really listen. And this insults and disappoints others.
  2. We live in a constant state of dissatisfaction. We feel ineffective and insufficient. And so we disappoint ourselves.

In both cases our tempers get short. There’s nothing more frustrating than having good intentions and not living up to them. It feels unjust. Like a child who spills something and then cries, “But I didn’t mean to do it,” we don’t mean to be mean. But we lose all tolerance for anything that slows us down. Or that makes demands on us that we can’t fulfill. And we get angry at others for our own feelings of inadequacy.

I wasn’t angry at the AT&T guy for wasting my 45 minutes. I was angry at myself for having stayed on the call that long. And I wasn’t angry at my kids for fighting as much as I was overwhelmed with cooking waffles and pancakes and oatmeal and setting the table and getting the syrup and the orange juice and making a nice breakfast. But I was so intent on making a nice breakfast that I ruined it.

Managing our time better, doing less, and resisting the temptation of multitasking are all good — and important — long-term solutions. But we need something more. We need a discipline — a ritual — that can help us stay centered and grounded throughout the day. We need something to remind us who we really are and who we want to be.

For me, that something is a beep.

In An 18-Minute Plan for Managing Your Day, I suggested setting a watch, phone, or computer to ring every hour and at the sound of the chime, taking one minute to ask yourself if the last hour had been productive. Then, during that pause, deliberately committing to how you are going to use the next hour. It’s a way to keep yourself focused on doing what you committed to doing.

But there’s another way to use that minute as well. Take that deep breath and ask yourself if, in the last hour, you’ve been the person you want to be. And then, during that pause, deliberately recommit — not just to what you are going to do but also to who you are going to be during the next hour. It’s a way of staying recognizable to yourself. And to others.

If we’re going to reverse the momentum, we need an interruption. When I yelled at my kids I immediately regretted it, which interrupted my self-defeating behavior. That interruption was all I needed to remind myself that I was not that kind of father. I stopped everything I was doing, sat and held them, and apologized for raising my voice.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the interruption were a chime rather than a yell? And if it came before I lost my temper?

But, most likely, your chime won’t come at exactly the right time. How many of us lose it exactly on the hour?

It doesn’t matter. Losing control, becoming someone you’re not, happens over time. It builds throughout several hours. That once-an-hour reminder, that one deep breath, that question about who you want to be, keeps you stable. It keeps you you.

Ask yourself if you’re trying to accomplish too much or focusing on the wrong things. In other words, disrupt the source that destabilizes you. Reduce your feeling of being overwhelmed. Reconnect with the outcome you’re trying to achieve, not just the things you’re doing. Then you’ll react less and achieve more.

When John threw the phone he immediately regretted it. And he’s still working to make up for it. Because, unfortunately, one dramatic disruptive act outside the norm quickly becomes a story that defines the norm.

There is a way to change that story, but it’s not dramatic. It’s deliberate and steady, and it takes time.

We need to remind ourselves who we really are, and then we need to act that way. Consistently, predictably, minute by minute and hour by hour.

*Names and some details changed to protect people’s privacy.