A Simple Ritual for Harried Managers (and Popes)

Harvard Business Review

Pope Francis and I have something common. He was a Jesuit seminarian; so was I. He eventually became a Jesuit superior, bishop, and now Pope. I eventually discerned that my path in life was not the priesthood, and, after six years of seminary, I traded in my priestly garb for pinstripes and entered JP Morgan's training program. During seventeen subsequent years there, I was lucky enough to serve as a Managing Director on three continents.

To be sure, my head was often spinning during early days at Morgan. The Jesuit Constitutions didn't equip me to do present value calculations. Nor did I know about managing my career by clever networking; Jesuits are constantly cautioned against pursuing self-interested ambition. (I smiled with approval upon learning that after reportedly finishing second in the last papal conclave, then-Cardinal Bergoglio had not hung around Rome to build his network for the next conclave; instead, he beat a hasty retreat back home to work with Argentina's poor, who don't get to vote for Pope.)

Still, if much of Jesuit life doesn't much prepare one for the corporate arena, a few of the most foundational Jesuit practices turned out to be quite relevant. One discipline in particular proved far more valuable than anything I learned in JP Morgan's superb training program. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, called it the "examen." It would be equally useful to anyone else who must engage a complex, fast-paced world each day. (I think that means all of us, right?)

The English word examine roughly conveys the concept: to examine your day and take stock. With apologies to my spiritual father Ignatius, I often refer to it more colloquially as a "mental pit stop." I recommend two of them daily — one at midday, for example, and one at the end of the day — completely dedicating at least five minutes to each one. (Sorry, multi-taskers — listening to sports radio, texting, or listening to cell phone messages would not qualify for completely dedicated.)

During those few minutes, do three things. First, remind yourself why you are grateful as a human being. Second, lift your horizon for a moment. Call to mind some crucial personal objective, or your deepest sense of purpose, or the values you stand for. Third, mentally review the last few hours and extract some insight that might help in the next few hours. If you were agitated, what was going on inside you? If you were distracted and unproductive, why? Those who are spiritually inclined might also reflect on how God (or a higher power) was present in the people and challenges you encountered over the last few hours.

The genius of this simple practice becomes obvious when we consider the environments that executives (or Popes, or parents) must navigate every day: we surf a tide of emails, texts, meetings, calls, day-to-day problems, and distractions. We never find time to step back. The fallout is obvious: I'm stressed about a bad meeting an hour ago and end up lashing out at a subordinate who had nothing to do with it; I finish the work day without attacking my number one priority, because I was swept along by lesser day-to-day concerns; I never focus my best thinking in a concentrated fashion on any one issue, because three or four issues are always rambling around my head; or, we slowly drift into an ethical mess of a transaction because I never stopped along the way to ask myself, "Hang on, is this the kind of thing we really should be doing?" The Jesuit tradition is giving us (and the Pope) a very simple tool to cope with these varied business problems, which all happen to be rooted in self-awareness lapses.

A final word: don't overlook the first step of this simple, three-step examen: gratitude. I suspect most of those reading this post happen to be "Type A's." We're good at tackling problems and multi-tasking. That's why we get ahead, and that's why we spend downtime reading journals like Harvard Business Review. That intensity makes us productive but also can drive us and everyone around us nuts. The research field of positive psychology is demonstrating, however, that people who take time to be grateful are more productive and physically healthier than the general populace.

So, we Type A's can become even more productive by spending a few daily minutes in quiet reflection instead of banging through to-do lists. Popes, Jesuits, and JP Morgan executives have lots on their plates each day. We might cope better with our 21st challenges by adopting a best practice from a 16th century saint.

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