Understanding what is within our span of control and how to prioritize thing important things is a large part of being productive and making a life that matters. In this latest episode of our 2021 Productive Living series, Navy fighter pilot Carey Lohrenz and I talk about formulating a plan for success, avoiding multi-tasking, and coping with task overload.
Leadership, span of control, and productivity
Carey Lohrenz is a highly sought-after leadership speaker, business consultant, military aviation pioneer, and Wall Street Journal bestselling author who’s been featured in notable media outlets such as NPR, Time, CNN, NBC, and CBS. She’s also a wife and a mom to 4 kids! At one time, Carey was one of the U.S. Navy’s first female F-14 Tomcat fighter pilots. (For people who are not familiar with aviation, an F-14 is the same plane that Tom Cruise flew in the movie Top Gun.)
The cockpit of an F-14 is one of the most demanding environments on earth and where Carey learned some of her most unforgettable lessons, not just in flying, but also in life and leadership. When Carey was in the Navy, she was fortunate to work with outstanding teammates and had lots of opportunities for coaching and improvement. For the last 15 years, Carey has worked with Fortune One through Fortune Fifteen companies helping leaders, executives, entrepreneurs, and even athletes not only build their own leadership skills but build and grow high-performing teams as well. While doing this, she is also a mom and business owner–similar to many other women in the TPW community. She is always juggling several glass balls, hoping to not drop the most important one.
What is a span of control?
Carey has written about leadership in the past, but her new book, Span of Control, is about navigating stressful times by focusing on what you can control.
To Carey, the phrase “span of control” refers to an idea, mantra, or framework that is determined by the number of things you can and should control at any given time, with the understanding that everything else is just a distraction. The biggest challenge and opportunity is for us to learn how to overcome our circumstances instead of being overwhelmed by them. In Carey’s book, she shares her “span of control” framework as a tool and a resource for helping us to determine what we can and should control and to help us solve the problems caused by chaos and uncertainty. Her goal is to help us meet our commitments and accomplish our goals and dreams.
The way forward to being productive in any situation or circumstance is to focus on the things you can control.
There is so much going on in the world right now that we can’t control. Focusing on what we can control can really make a big difference. Although we may never find ourselves in the cockpit of a fighter jet or leading a business, or even consider ourselves to be a “leader”, we are all living in an age of overwhelming chaos and the uncertainty can take a toll on us. Most of us are facing more demands than we can handle. Task overload happens when the number of things we are being asked to pay attention to outpaces the information processing capacity of our brain. This can lead to overwhelm and burnout.
The good news though, is that if we take a second to understand that our goal should be to do anything possible to prevent task overload, we will still be able to function at a high level where we’re present and serve ourselves and others. There is a path forward and that’s the important thing to know.
Carey’s advice for handling task overload
When it comes to handling task overload, Carey feels the most important thing is prioritizing and focusing on the things that are within your span of control, which she learned from her fighter pilot training. You have to learn to intentionally prioritize and then shift your focus. Even if a particular situation is chaotic, our responses and our actions remain the same. Carey advises her clients during these times to set aside all the different tools and steps, grab some sticky notes and a marker, and at the beginning of every day, write down your top 3 most important things you need to focus on. This list isn’t about what time during the day you will accomplish things, but rather just a list of what will influence your performance and productivity throughout the day. This list also allows you to move through your day with intentionality and remove obstacles that can affect your success.
Span of Control framework:
- Focus on what matters most–identify your top three things, and remove distractions.
- Formulate a flight plan for success–prepare, perform, prevail: never leave success to chance.
- Communicate what’s possible–make it concise, precise, clear, and consistent.
“Your Span of Control is determined by the things you can, and should, control at any given time. Everything else is just a distraction.”
Learning how to manage task overload and focus on our span of control is something any of us can learn by developing coping mechanisms and different tips and tricks. It’s possible to work through high tasks loads even while under extreme stress. What Carey teaches is a practice of relentless repetition to help her clients be their most productive. She also advises her clients to keep their goals and objectives right in front of them–print them out and tape them to your wall or even get a tattoo (Carey did)! Having your goals in front of you will act as a reminder during times of overwhelm to switch your focus to what matters most.
Carey also says that switching our attention back and forth between different tasks (or apps) can cause a drop in our productivity and even IQ–about the equivalent of missing a night of sleep! Thinking we can multi-task our way to a better situation is just a myth and the quickest way to derail our solid performance.
Carey’s experience with multi-tasking and how she learned to balance her life
When Carey’s children were very young, the family had moved to a new town where they didn’t know anyone and their family wasn’t nearby. Carey had a lot on her plate: 4 children under the age of 7, a new business she was running, a house on the market in a difficult economy, and her dad had been critically injured. All of these things were happening at the same time and she thought she was handling everything well–after all, she was a fighter pilot!
And she was handling it to a certain extent. She wasn’t having any stressful outbursts or taking things out on her children, and she was getting the tasks done. But on the inside, she was keeping things in and grinding through it all.
Eventually it all became too much, though, and started to affect her health. She was multi-tasking like crazy and it was taxing her physical and emotional capacity. Her heart began racing and she had to wear a heart monitor, indicating that her stress level had become almost deadly and something had to change.
Once she realized how her multi-tasking and stress levels were affecting her, she was able to turn the awareness into action. She got back to the basics: she put away her to-do list and prioritized the most important things she had to do that day and what would she have to say no to. Rediscovering her ability to say no helped her reprioritize herself and her kids. She was able to find a way to still be of service to other people, be a good mom, and run a successful business, but without damaging her health. This wasn’t easy for Carey to do but it was necessary.
Growing your potential and reframing challenges
Carey says that a lot of this has to do with our own mindset, which we haven’t had a lot of training on. Understanding how you respond to stress and adversity is important. Adversity is going to introduce you to yourself. Take the time to learn and understand how you will and do respond to worst-case scenarios. This will give you a better sense of agency and help you to stop obsessing over the bad stuff. You will never be able to control the bad stuff, so accept it and move on.
This is about finding the opportunity and learning how our brains are wired. We have to be intentional about not obsessing on the negative, but focusing on the positive. Carey calls this Positive Reappraisal–acknowledge the positive and think about what’s working and what’s not working and then do the most useful thing you can at that moment.
When you are able to do this, momentum happens and progress comes from being able to move forward. Action conquers fear.
“When you cut out all the distractions and focus on only the things you can control right now, your perception of your own potential grows.”
What does “making a life that matters” mean to Carey?
For Carey, it’s about doing something that is a service to others. At the end of the day, if she is able to help her family and friends and harness what is possible for them, then that is what success looks like for her. That purpose is her anchor. Having a sense of purpose is essential, especially during hard times.
What do you think? Questions? Comments?
Do you have questions for Carey or me? Please share them in the comments section below or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group, or send me an email.
Connect with Carey
- on her website
- on Instagram
- on Facebook
- on Twitter
- on LinkedIn
- on YouTube
- Buy Carey’s books–Fearless Leadership and Span of Control
- Take Carey’s Span of Control test
- Book Carey as a speaker at your next event
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