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….”

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