By Anne Brackett
Chief Engagement Officer, Strengths University
Do you have WAY too much to do? Are there times when you think you’ll never get caught up? What if I told you there was a way to get more done in less time? Even more importantly, what if you could get more done with less energy, so you actually had energy to bring home at the end of the day? Seems too good to be true? Well, the good news is that you can be more productive using less time and energy.
Everyday, most of us spend our valuable time and energy on the wrong things. That means at the end of each day, you may be exhausted but not necessarily closer to reaching your objectives or goals. How? Because you aren’t focusing on the things you do best. Instead, you’re doing whatever comes across your plate regardless of whether it’s the best use of your time and energy. That includes your own professional development. I’m sure you know you’re good at some things and not so great at others, right? Typically, what happens when we come across something we’re not good at? We label it a weakness and think about how we can improve, right? The problem is, it’s not the things that you’re not good at that typically hold you back.
What is? Surprisingly, it’s the things you do best. That’s right, it’s your talents that are keeping you from achieving your goals, creating more stress in your life, and making you work harder while achieving less. Perhaps you’re skeptical, “But how can that be, Anne?!? I mean, aren’t my talents the things I’m best at? That obviously means getting better results, right?”
Excellent question. Let’s start by breaking down what a talent is. We typically use talent and strength pretty interchangeably in the English language, but I want to talk about the difference. I’m a Gallup Certified Strengths Coach, so let’s use Gallup’s definition, “A talent is a naturally recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied.” What does that mean? Usually when we think of talent, we imagine folks doing things. Like someone who’s talented at a sport, we picture them playing soccer or tennis. When someone is talented at singing, we picture them singing. When folks are talented at math, we picture them solving complex equations. But per the definition, talent goes way beyond doing – aka behavior. It impacts the way you see the world. That means your values, beliefs, ways of thinking, and even your emotions are connected to your talents. As you’re reading this article, you’re looking at it through the lens of your talents. That means other readers are going to walk away with a slightly different perspective than you are.
The other thing I want to focus on in our definition is the last few words, “that can be productively applied.” First, let me clarify that when I talk about productivity, I’m not necessarily talking about doing more. Productivity is just about how efficiently you’re achieving your goals. If your goal is to see more students per day, then sure, that’s doing more. But if your goal is more self-care or leaving by 5PM every day, then being more productive looks like doing less. So, as you’re trying to achieve your goals, your talents CAN help you be productive – aka achieving your goals. When they do, they’re showing up as a strength. Huzzah!
The flip side of this, is that if they CAN be productive then there’s a possibility that they might not be productive. When that happens, your talents are showing up as weaknesses. Gallup’s definition of weakness is, “a shortage or misapplication of talent, skill, or knowledge that causes problems for you or others.” So yes, a weakness MIGHT be a shortage of talent – aka the stuff you’re not good at. However, the things that are getting in your way is when your over or under using your talents OR when you just don’t have the right skills or knowledge to adequately support them. Take bowling, for example. Are you a shitty bowler? I know I am. If you are, is not being a good bowler actually get in the way of achieving your goals? Probably not, unless you’re trying to become a professional bowler. Just not being good at something, doesn’t mean it’s problematic – UNLESS you believe you SHOULD be good at everything. But even then, your lack of ability isn’t getting in your way. Your stories about it are getting in the way.
Your talents are running on autopilot all of the time. Think of your talents as the tools you use every day. They are your first instinct and first go-to whether you’re working on a project, interacting with others, or just thinking about stuff. That means they automatically show up and do what they do, even if it’s not the best tool for the job at hand. For example, I have Input in my Top 5. If you’re not familiar, Input is about finding and collecting things that would be useful to me or others. That means I love to research. I do collect some physical things, but it mostly shows up as collecting information. If I had to do a paper, the part I loved most was finding all those great sources. That’s perfect, right? Yes, except I would keep researching way past getting enough to actually write the paper, which was the goal. I would research for weeks and then go, “Oh BLEEP! That’s due tomorrow?!? Guess I’m staying up all night again.” Basically, gathering that useful information was my comfort zone. My brain likes doing it. But at a certain point, that’s not what I needed to do to be productive. Once I had a decent amount of information, Input wasn’t helping me. It was getting in my way.
Your talents can bring you out at your best, but they’re also your comfort zone which can keep you from noticing that talent is no longer working in the situation. When you’re in a meeting and someone says, “Okay, we need to do ___. How should we proceed?” You’ll immediately come up with a game plan that’s based on your talents. Oh, and if you’re thinking, “Nothing is immediate for me, Anne. I need to think about things first.” That’s ALSO your talents at work. Either way, you’re going to come up with a list of what makes the most sense for that project. But then, some other person will inevitably open their mouth and say you should do something completely different. WTF?!? Your first instinct is most likely [hopefully in your head], “Um, no idiot.” You’re not trying to be mean, but OBVIOUSLY that’s not what you need to do. The reason you think you’re right and other people are wrong most of the time, is because you’ve come up with a solution based on your talents – the things YOU do best. You’re always going to default to them, even when they may not be the best talent for the job. You’re limited in how you see situations and the world because you have limited talents. And again, that isn’t a weakness UNLESS you aren’t willing to admit that you might not be seeing the whole picture or that other people might be better at some things.
Here’s another real example of how talents can get in your way. I have a close friend and former coworker who has Activator. Activators are the folks in the room who get tired of talking about things and want to get going. They push people into action, so things get done. Again, this certainly sounds like a good thing, and it CAN be. I mean, we’ve all been in those meetings where people just keep going on and on and nothing gets done. An Activator is an asset in those groups. However, my friend wants things to move forward so much that she frequently volunteers to do that thing just so we can move on. She’s constantly adding things to her plate and wondering why people keep giving her so much to do. Hey lady, YOU did most of that to yourself. I can remember one meeting we were in and the thing that needed to be done was definitely something I didn’t want to do. I just looked her way and counted down from 5 and by the time I hit one, she said she’d do it. Lol. So again, Activator CAN be productive, but it isn’t always.
Whether you’ve taken the CliftonStrengths assessment or not, your talents are constantly showing up and pushing you in directions that aren’t always helping you get where we want to go. I don’t want to get too off track, but we have a conscious and subconscious mind. Most of us think the subconscious part is just working behind the scenes keeping our heart beating and such. In reality, your subconscious is driving what you think, feel, and do 95-99% of the time. That includes your talents. It’s easy to see things we aren’t good at and think, “Gee, maybe I should be better at ____.” It’s more challenging to start to pay attention to how our talents are showing up in ways that aren’t helpful, because you’re almost always in autopilot. That means you’re getting in your way all the time and you don’t know it. If you ever feel stuck, whether it be with a project, another person, or yourself, step back and look at how your talents are showing up.
The absolute best use of your energy (and time) is when you’re using your talents as strengths. That means you’re getting where you need to go as effectively and efficiently as possible. Think about a time you were working on a project or doing something with others when you felt “in the zone.” Time seemed to fly by but also stand still. You were able to easily focus. And even the challenging things about the situation were resolved easily. That’s you in your Strengths Zone. To be more productive, you need to be in your Strengths Zone more often. And in order to do that, you have to start paying attention to where your talents are getting away, because that’s a huge waste of your energy. Plus, of course, it’s often accompanied by more work that you probably never needed to do. Remember me doing research for that extra week? Completely unnecessary! Besides wasting my time looking for more information, that was also time and energy I wasn’t putting into writing the damn paper. Plus, of course, it’s often accompanied by more work that you probably never needed to do.
When you over use your talents, like in my previous examples, you can get yourself in trouble. But not having the necessary knowledge or skills to support your talents, can also be a weakness. My classic example is if you’re someone who has Analytical talents, not knowing how to use Excel is holding you back. But when folks think about professional development, they usually choose something that answers the following questions “what can I do to improve ____ since I’m no good at it” or “how can I better serve the students?” When we spend our energy trying to become not bad at things, it’s a long and tedious process that at best results in us being less bad at that thing. In other words, we have to use a lot of energy to get a little progress. When we wind up doing another workshop, webinar, or online course about retention, diversity, etc., we might gain new information about that topic, but we don’t increase our ability to put things into practice in a productive way.
A better use of your time and energy is to identify how your talents are getting in your way and create a game plan to tweak those habits OR to get the skills and knowledge you need to properly support your talents. What could you learn or practice that would allow you to be in your Strengths Zone more of the time? It might seem unnecessary to invest in the things you’re already good at, but when you remember those things also can be your biggest obstacle to success it makes sense. So, what might some examples of this look like? Folks with Responsibility often take on too much, because they allow their sense of responsibility to spread to anything somewhat related to what they do. A great way to invest in this talent, would be to learn to establish healthy boundaries. I have Adaptability. I had to learn how to be more assertive, so I wouldn’t constantly be pivoting and disrupting my own goals because someone else wanted to go another direction. When you invest in your talents instead of your weaknesses, you get exponential results. I love the quote by Maya Angelou, “If you’re always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.” The way to be more productive is by investing in your talents.
You may be thinking, “But if everyone just does what they do best, who’s going to take care of the things everyone’s bad at doing?” One of the tenets of the Strengths framework is that we need other people. Focus on what you do best, then surround yourself with other people who excel at other things. You don’t need to be well-rounded; your team does. When you have a well-rounded team, everyone gets the easy job. Why? Because all the things you’re talented at doing, you find easy, right? In fact, they’re so easy, you might be taking your talents for granted because you assume they’re just as easy for other folks. But they’re not. The same thing goes for other people. The things they’re good at are easy. When I say everyone gets the “easy job,” I don’t mean objectively easy. I mean that’s the easiest thing for each team member to do, because that’s where their talents lie.
So to sum up, want to get more done with less time and energy? Find out what your talents are, then start paying attention to how they’re showing up for you. Stop investing in becoming better at things you’re straight up not talented at. Instead, invest in your talents so you can start living in your Strengths Zone. Then delegate and find complementary partners around campus to fill in the gaps in your talents. When everyone has the easy job, you and your team are going to achieve your goals more efficiently.
About the Author
Anne Brackett is the Chief Engagement Officer for Strengths University. Anne has worked in Higher Education for over 25 years. Most of that experience was in Residence Life until she left campus to start Strengths University in 2017. She is a Gallup Certified Strengths Coach and Engagement Champion and currently uses that expertise to help supervisors in Higher Education get the training and support they need to be successful. Strengths University is currently partnering with ACPA on the Supervisor Strengths Institute.