Get Real

You are lying.

Okay, now that I have your attention maybe I should say that there’s a really good chance you are lying. No offense. It’s just that in my work I’ve noticed  a large-scale self-deception going on.

What are we lying about? We’re lying to ourselves about how much we’ve committed to. We’re lying about how much we’ve piled on our plates. While we do have an unnerving sense that it’s probably a lot, we avoid getting up close and personal with it. It’s just too uncomfortable.

The most crucial thing I promote with my clients is becoming an expert definer of work. And by “work” I mean all the commitments, big and small, professional and personal, significant and less so. Becoming an expert definer of work means not only have you identified what you are committed to, you are clear about what you’re going to do next about it. So we’re not talking about simply writing down the ABC Project and calling it a day. We want to get to what you are actually, physically, specifically, really going to do about it (ala David Allen’s Getting Things Done  approach).

What usually happens  in the early stages of my workflow coaching with someone sounds  something like this:

(The client picks up a sheet of paper on the desk or opens an email.)

Me: So what’s this?
Client: Oh, it’s something I have to do related to Peru.
Me: Is it a project – is it going to take 2 or more steps?
Client: No – I just have to review and send comments on this document.
Me: Okay, so let’s get that on your list.
Client: Well, this thing isn’t really that important. I don’t want it on my list.
Me: So you don’t really want to do anything about it?
Client: No, I do – it’s just not that important. It’s going to overwhelm me to see all those little things on my list.

Here’s the deal. Defining your work doesn’t increase the amount you have. It just makes you face the truth. I see this all the time: so many hidden commitments, tasks, wishes, resolutions that we don’t want to acknowedge, or get rid of. So, we secretly lug them around. Each thing may seem small and insigificant in and of itself. Yet, when combined, they weigh heavy on the shoulders.

Why do we routinely deceive ourselves about how much we’ve committed to? Maybe it’s because if you really looked at what you’ve committed to, you might see it’s actually not possible. And then there goes your neatly-kept, idealized vision of yourself.  Perhaps you’re afraid of disappointing people. Or of dissappointing yourself. Of not living up to some I-can-do-everything self-concept. Or I’m-a-helpful-person mantra. Or I’m-a-team-player ethic. Or an all-things-to-all people MO. Or an I-love-being-needed secret motive.

This may seem obvious, but it bears saying: simply avoiding knowing whether you are over-committed is never going to change reality. If you have too much – regardless of whether you’ve acknowledged it or not, the ship is going down.

There’s a phrase I use all the time in my work ~ and it applies here:

The truth will set you free.

When you can look at everything you’ve committed to straight in the face, when you understand the practical implications in terms of your time and energy, when you can be honest with yourself: that’s when you have power. That’s when you are in a position to do something about it. You have the power to choose – whether it’s to rearrange your schedule, make choices to skip some meetings, see if there is someone who can help you, delay something, let go of something, or renegotiate with your boss.

On the other side, if you aren’t honest about everything you’ve committed to – an uncomfortable sense of overwhelm, anxiety and doom will perpetually pursue you. And, ironically, in that effort to not dissappoint others or yourself, you probably will.

So dissolve avoidance with awareness. Get clear about every single, little and big thing on your plate. Don’t hold back and don’t hide anything, even if it makes you temporarily break out in a sweat. Get it all out there and spell out  the next actions.  Then, step back and ask yourself: Is this realistic? Have I overpromised? Can I do all this in the timeframes I’ve committed to? If not, do I need to rearrange things? Or talk to my boss? Or my family? Am I doing anything that really isn’t mine to do? Is there someone else in a better position to do it? Is there someone who can help me with parts of it? Are there things here that actually don’t matter? Or that I’m actually never going to do? Do I need to renegotiate with anyone?

It’s true:  honesty is the best policy. Honesty gives us power. It puts us back in the driver’s seat and takes those energy sappers of overwhelm, anxiety, and doom, off the road.

So, c’mon, let’s get real.

PICTURE THIS ~ Sometimes It Rains

photo by Lindsay Satterfield

 “The best thing one can do when it’s raining is to let it rain.” 

~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

OmmWriter: You Had Me At Hello

by Lindsay Satterfield

In our multi-functional, there’s-an-app-for-that world, where your iPhone can practically make dinner for you and help you meditate, OmmWriter stands out in its bold simplicity – in its counter-culture, unapologetic single-mindedness. OmmWriter is about one thing and one thing only:  writing.

OmmWriter is a text editing program that may just surprise you with it’s alluring ability to bring pleasure back to something you may have blocks about, or dread, or feel  you just don’t have time for. And it may wow you with the uncanny and understated way it carves out a creative oasis to compose your thoughts – whether in a plane, a train, a Starbucks, a cube, or a busy day.

Instead of a thousand bells and whistles, it has just a few – just enough to create a productive ambiance without becoming distracting or the center of attention. The spotlight is on writing. Everything in its design is there to support your ability to focus and put your thoughts on the page. I bumped into OmmWriter on a blog post by Leo Babauta, author of the blog Zen Habits.  He mentioned it in passing. And in my part-curious, part-distracted way, I clicked on the link. Intrigued, I watched this video (Click here to view on separate (read: bigger) screen.)

And, honestly, I still didn’t get it entirely. But I was captivated.   And so, I downloaded the free software, and took it for a test drive. Then, I understood what all those gushing testimonials were about.

OmmWriter clears the deck of your computer screen of all those competing windows, and tabs, and buttons and noisy email notifications with a choice of a few backgrounds. The backgrounds become a visually pleasing and calming backdrop for the main feature: your words. A  few soundscape options build an invisible soundstage, creating a gentle barrier to the outside distractions, mayhem, and general busy-ness that can pull focus. There are a few choices for the sound of the typing itself, which, surprisingly, sets up a kind of pleasurable feedback loop while you write. More writing, more of that cool sound.

This video gives you a little more about the genesis and purpose of OmmWriter,  (Click here to open separate screen):

OmmWriter confirms what I see again and again with my clients and me: an environment of beauty and simplicity promotes focus and productivity.  Of course, this tool is great if writing is your main gig or hobby.  It’s also perfect for anyone that  has to string a few sentences together from time to time.  

Use it to compose that email that has to be concise, while addressing a complicated or senstive subject. Or for that paper.  Or for brainstrorming. Or for journaling. Or for making lists.  Or for your blog post.  Or for the simple fun of writing. 

And good news: they just came out with a version for all us Windows PC users. I have it pinned to my task bar and any time I’m going to write more than a few words, I enter the refreshing world of OmmWriter with one click. You can save your documents as text files. I just copy and paste into whatever medium they need to land in – such as Outlook email or Word.

Never mind what I say. Ultimately, the only way to truly get what the fuss is about is to download OmmWriter and give it a whirl.

A Little Help for the Time Change

It’s time to change time. In most locations in the US, we move our clocks ahead one hour tomorrow, Sunday, March 13, 2011.  Daylight Saving Time.  Seems pretty straightforward.  But for our finely tuned, light-calibrated bodies, it’s enough to throw off your game for several days – or longer.   It’s like flying in place.  Jet lag without going anywhere.   

Studies have shown  increases in heart attacks, traffic and workplace accidents, depression, and suicides when we move to daylight saving time – though it is not clear if there is a direct correlation.   Whatever the studies say, most of us have firsthand experience with what a shift in our sleep pattern can do to our mood, cognitive ability, performance and productivity. 

Here are some practical tips to cushion the shock of that “spring forward” and help your body adjust to its new local time zone:

Spend some time outdoors in natural light – especially in the morning – on Saturday, Sunday and, if possible, for the first few days after the change.   Apparently, this helps the circadian rhythm of the body acclimate to the shift in time.

Exercise, which releases serotonin and other hormones involved with regulating sleep.

Drink plenty of water and stay hydrated.   Always a good idea, especially when the body is adapting.

Eat lighter meals for a few days – to let digestion adjust more easily. 

Go to sleep 15 minutes earlier for a few days to make up for the potential sleep deficit of possibly waking up earlier.  Some suggest keeping your same bedtime.

Change your clocks the night before so you start getting used to the new time before it happens, instead of after.  

Avoid over-scheduling yourself.  Again, always a good idea, especially when in transition.

An Aerial State of Mind

Ever feel like you’re in a maze, blindfolded, slamming into walls, trying to figure your way through it?  Or out of it?  You’re stuck in the maze of too much happening, too many emails, and too many competing demands. You’re at everyone’s beck and call (except your own); that quick to-do list you wrote in a panic is hijacked by 9:30 am;  and when the day ends you feel you have nothing to show for it. 

Yesterday, I spoke with my client Jennifer. I had been working with her to set up some simple organizing routines when all of a sudden she went MIA.  She didn’t respond to my emails or phone calls – for eight months. Given what I know of her and our working relationship, I was pretty sure it wasn’t anything I said. I suspected that she got lost in the maze. 

Jennifer has a new, very big job. She travels a lot.  She is married, and has three kids under the age of 5.  She’s teetering on a steep learning curve, while juggling a-million-and-one unexpected things that get in the way of “the real work.” Oh, and did I mention? She has very high standards for herself.

I sent out a friendly check-in email  and, this time, she replied within 5 minutes. She had had enough.  When we spoke yesterday she confirmed:  She’s deep in the maze.   Her work routines have gone bye-bye.  She said, “Every night when I go home, my husband asks me, ‘How was your day?’ And I just answer, ‘I didn’t get anything done.’”    That’s the problem with being blindfolded in the maze: You can’t even see what you are doing.  Or how it fits into the scheme of things. Defeat replaces motivation. Or as she put it simply: “I’m overwhelmed.”

And for those of you who might be inclined to be hard on yourself,  let me say this:  Entropy happens.   No need to waste precious time feeling bad about it.  The secret is having the skill to quickly pull it back together. 

So, what do you do when you are stuck in the maze? You need the aerial perspective.  Fast.

I have to warn you. When you are stuck in the maze, the last thing you want to do is “get the aerial perspective.”  Why?  Because it requires you to stop what you are doing, pause, and take account of your situation.  Most likely, you will hear a thousand inner voices telling you that you don’t have the luxury to stop, there is so much to do, time is of the essence, etc., etc.   The anxiety that seems to go with everything in the maze is temporarily soothed by just getting busy.   The only problem is:  getting busy without the aerial perspective is only going to lead you deeper into the maze.  Trust me.

So here are the steps to the aerial perspective:

Preparation Step: Stop what you are doing.  

Step 1: Download your mind.   If, like me, you’re a fan of David Allen’s system Getting Things Done (GTD), he calls this a Mind Sweep.   Get everything that is in your mind out of it and onto the paper. Do it stream-of-consciousness style – meaning, don’t organize what’s in your mind.   Simply write down everything you need to do – in whatever form it comes to mind.  You can have big, huge things like “end world hunger,” next to tiny things like “email John for budget figures.”  Just get it out of your mind.

It’s important to set a time limit for this step. Something like 20 minutes. Jennifer asked, “What if I don’t have it done by then?” I told her that when 20 minutes is done, reassess and then decide if you need and/or want to devote more time to this step. If so, determine how much time and when the time is up, reassess, and so on.   This is what you might call a mind game.  The time limit is important because it helps the mind cooperate. Many of us, when we’re deep into the maze, resist taking time out to write down all the stuff.  We feel we’ll be there for days writing it all down and, by then, the house will have burned down (catastrophic thinking is another sign you are in the maze).  A time limit is a concession to the mind’s concerns. The mind appreciates a time limit (“okay, 20 minutes, I can do that”), and you’ll be surprised how relatively little time is needed to write it all down. 

A time limit is most crucial for this first step. After this step, you will probably start to feel better and be motivated to continue.

Step 2: Identify Projects.   Now, review your Mind Download list and identify all of the projects that are contained in it.  Word the projects as nouns. I do this to distinguish them from actions (which I language with verbs).    These projects are essentially outcomes/deliverables.  In the GTD system, a project is defined as anything with two or more steps. 

Let’s say you have something on your Mind Download list like “email John for the budget numbers.” This is related to the department budget you are creating. So on this project list, you write, “FY12 Budget.” Other items on your Mind Download list might already be projects, such as “Summer Vacation.”

Step 3: Refine Project List.   In Jennifer’s case, she realized  she was doing things that someone else could and should be doing. In this step, note any projects that belong to someone else and highlight the projects that are truly yours.  Also note those that are of highest priority, as well as any projects that could be done at a later date.  In this step, your Project List will be segmented into the following:

  • Projects that Belong to Others
  • Priority Projects
  • Other Projects
  • Later Projects

Step 4: Identify Next Actions.   For each of the projects that you are currently working on (priority and other), come up with the next steps that need to be done in the next 1 to 2 weeks.  Include a verb in these action steps, such as “email,” “talk to,” “revise,” “draft,” etc.   Many of the actions for your projects may already be on the Mind Download list from Step 1. 

Welcome to the aerial perspective.  You’ve lifted yourself out of the maze. You’ve created some distance between you and all the demands. You’re not feeling your way in the dark, jumping at every little sound. You are now in a position to be more strategic, intentional, and agile. 

This does not mean that there will be no more emergencies. (I wasn’t born yesterday.) But you will be able to address them seeing the bigger picture, and decide for yourself how you want to proceed.

The blindfold is off.  You can see the terrain.  And you can choose the best way to fly.

Shortly after I sopke with Jennifer, she sent me this brief email: “I think I’ve finished my list and I feel a lot better. I worked on it about 45 minutes and my mind feels clearer and, in a way, more free to focus. Yea. On to Step 2….”

PICTURE THIS ~ Let’s Make a Toast to Love

Start with love and you’ll be surprised how productive you’ll be. 

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Tunisia On My Mind

Last March I traveled to Tunis to offer my productivity training and coaching for a client who is headquartered there.    With the recent events in Tunisia, I’m thinking about the lovely people I met there.  I was just in the process of planning a return trip in March, as well as to Cairo for another client.   

I’m sending my good wishes and offering prayers for the people of Tunisia – for their safety, well-being, prosperity, and peace.     And the same goes for the people of Egypt.   

One day when I was in Tunis, I took a very fast walk around the city at lunchtime and snapped as many photos as I could.  To see some of what I saw, click on the photo below.

Click this photo to see more from Tunis