Category Archives: Everything Else

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.

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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….”

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

Resolution? What resolution?

It’s the end of January.  Do you know where your resolutions are? 

Yes, your resolution.  You know, the one you were so excited about on January 1 when you said, “This is the year.  This year is going to be different.  This year, I’m really going to do it.  I can really, really feel it.”   Oh, that sweet, optimistic energy of January 1.  Hope springs eternal.

And now, it’s the end of January and, if you’re living in the Northern Hemisphere, the days are dark and cold and, very likely, the fire for your resolution is dwindling.  Wherever you live, if you’re like the majority of good-intentioned resolution-makers, by the end of January that resolution seems more like a vague dream.   Resolution?  What resolution?

If that’s the case, or if you are hanging onto your resolution by a mere thread, or just want to give it a little umph, I have an idea for you.   It’s a no-brainer:  A resolution checklist.

This is the first year that on the cusp of February, my resolution is still alive and well, and I attribute that to the checklist I made.  Here’s how it works. 

Often resolutions fail because they are too general or too vague.  We want to develop a quality like patience.  Or resilience.  Or confidence.  Or we want to drop the extra weight or stop smoking.  We want to have a more balanced life.  Or better health.  The experts warn about making your resolution too big, bold, ambitious or ambiguous.  They say that for success your resolution should be simple, specific, doable. 

But here’s the deal:  Maybe I do want to be more resilient, or confident, or balanced, or healthy, or lose weight.  It may sound general, but that is what I want.  Does this mean it shouldn’t be my resolution?

Not necessarily.  It just means I can’t stop there.  I need to put some legs on it.  I need tangible actions to walk me to my goal. 

So this year, I decided to create a resolution checklist. I brainstormed a list of specific, simple (read: easy) actions that will support resolution success.  I identified some as daily actions.  Others are what you might consider “add-ins” – ones I can select and add into my day.   It took me about 20 minutes to do it.   I asked, what things can I do to help me achieve this resolution?  And, bam!  There was my list. 

For example, let’s say you’ve been feeling stressed and that all you do is work.  You feel like you are neglecting other parts of life that are important to you.  And you see that working 24/7 is not, in fact,  enhancing your productivity.  Quite the opposite.  So, let’s say it’s your New Year’s resolution to have more balance in your life.  For your resolution checklist, you might come up with daily actions like:

  • Go to bed by 11 pm
  • Do not check emails after 7 pm
  • Wake up before everyone else and sit quietly for 5 precious minutes
  • Walk at least 15 minutes
  • Take 3 5 -minute breaks during the day to look out the window, stretch, or breathe deeply
  • Include protein in every meal
  • Have a maximum of 1 cup of coffee

You might create add-in actions like:

  • Turn off the TV from 5-8 pm
  • Do not bring work home
  • Play a game with the kids
  • Have a family meal without distractions (tv, text messaging, etc.)
  • Play the piano for 30 minutes

You get the idea.

At the start of my day, I glance at my checklist, select the actions I’ll include that day and when I’ll do them. 

Why is this working?  Mostly because I don’t have to think so much.  It really is a no-brainer.  All the possible actions are already figured out.  All I have to do is pick and choose.  It’s a buffet of resolution actions.  There are actions to suit any day, any schedule, any mood.  So, I can be sure I’ll be doing something to keep with the program.  Also, reviewing the list at the beginning of the day just takes a second and keeps my resolution at the forefront of my mind. 

So I encourage you:  Before you throw this year’s resolution on the pile of abandoned dreams, give it a shot.  Brainstorm a list of really simple things you can do to put your resolution into action (the more the merrier).   Use a resolution checklist and you’ll increase the odds that at the end of the year you’ll be saying, “Resolution for 2011?  Check!”

Get Your Edge Back

The Junk Drawer.   It’s that catch-all place (often found in the kitchen) for various and sundry things that don’t seem to have any other home.  The drawer for the homeless things.  

I’ve noticed that these days the junk drawer is no longer limited to a drawer. (Do you see where I’m going with this?) It has overflowed its sides and now many of us find that we are living and working in it.  The desk, the office, the dining room table, the chair, the kitchen – they’re looking a lot like the junk drawer. 

Here’s the deal:  For energy to flow smoothly and efficiently, it needs to be contained.  It has to have edges so that it flows purposefully in the direction it’s intended and doesn’t leak out all over the place. Look at the design of nature.  Blood doesn’t just pour through your body.  It’s carried with efficiency to the places it needs to go through a structure of blood vessels and veins.  If your blood vessels and veins did not have good “edges,” you’d be in serious trouble.

Look at plants and animals.  Look at rivers and streams.   When the banks of a river cannot contain the water anymore, there is flooding, and that water once en route to the ocean is going to take a lot longer to get there.   When our work and life has no clear containers, it “leaks” out and our energy and attention gets dispersed. 

Why do containers help us preserve our energy?  For one thing, containers create meaning.  The brain is a meaning maker – perpetually identifying, sorting, grouping, organizing, defining.  These skills operate beneath our awareness to help us know and navigate the world with ease.  We don’t have to learn what a tree or a road or a car is every day.   So it stands to reason that we support the mind and it’s activities when we create organizing structures in our environment.  By creating containers for similar things, we distinguish them and give them meaning.  It is the simplest trick that gives an immediate pay-off in efficiency, energy, clarity, ease, and even money.   

Before I had this container for my office supplies, they were tucked in several different places with no real rhyme or reason.  When I finally contained them in one place, I was able to see that I actually had 7 rolls of double-sided tape.  When things don’t have a clear home, it’s easy to waste and to overbuy.   

When the stuff of our work gets splattered together, the mind works overtime to refigure out what is what.  Unconsciously, a part of our brain is sorting, separating, organizing the proverbial junk drawer we are working in.  We spend more time than necessary looking for things, relooking at things, reprinting things, re-remembering things, and sometimes, re-buying things.  Our energy, time, and attention gets drained.  It subtly leaks out without our realizing it. 

Don’t let things steal your energy.  Free your energy by containing things. 

There are basically two types of containers – Home Containers and Action Containers:

Home Containers:   “Home” here doesn’t refer to containers you use at home, as such.  “Home” here refers to containers that are the home for the things they contain.  This is where these things live. Their home address. Some examples of Home Containers include:

  • Project and reference files/folders (electronic and paper)
  • Binders related to projects or topics
  • Baskets, bins, boxes for similar materials, e.g., office supplies, stationery, journals

Action Containers:  Unlike home containers, the things in these containers don’t permanently reside here.   These containers temporarily house things that require the same action.  They are more like weigh stations or a stop-over on the way the home.  Here are some examples of Action Containers:

  • In-box (physical and email) for things that you haven’t looked at, figured out, and processed yet
  • Out-box for things that are going out of your office or home – e.g., to home, to office, to be mailed, to a colleague
  • Mailbox
  • Folder or box for “Bills to Pay”
  • Reading folder for documents you want to read
  • Batch folders for any process that you consistently do related to documents eg., for signature, for approval, input into a system, to scan, etc.

So here’s my advice.  If you’re noticing that your _____________ (office, desk, dining room table, kitchen counter, home – you fill in the blank) is looking alarmingly like a junk drawer, if your stuff is mingling without meaning, try this: start small with a container or two.  There is no need to overwhelm yourself with a shopping spree at the Container Store.  Start small:  Put your tape, scissors, and stapler in a basket or box.  Or put the materials related to the project that has taken over your desk and your life in a binder or folder.  Try it out.  See how you feel when you give meaning to the stuff by giving it boundaries, edges.  

And while a trip to Container Store is great if and when you’re ready, you can also recycle containers.  I reuse glass jars from salsa or other food for paperclips, rubber bands, pens, etc.  I use a basket I received with a food gift for my envelopes, stamps, and return address labels.

Think edges.  Think containers.  Think boundaries.  If you do this, you’ll spend less time thinking about your things.  Learn to contain yourself and your energy by containing the things in your world – step by step.   Give your things a home and get your edge back.

Some easy containers: 

Perfect for Magazines & Journals

This magazine, Everyday Food, used to be scattered around my home. Now, I can easily find them here.

My In-box

Binders can keep project materials together, organized, and portable

What has lost it’s edge in your world? What can you do to contain it?

Have Spark, Will Travel

I went running for the first time in weeks.  In anything, it’s hard to start again. And while I can’t run as far, I notice I’m a little stronger than the last time I started again.   And something made me smile as I ran:  I felt that little spark inside that sooner or later rises up and gets me back on track. I love that little spark.  I bow to that little spark.  That little spark is going to take me to my goal. 

Starting again.  A true life skill if ever there was one.  Again and again, we start again.  Who knows what takes us off our forward progression to our goals. It may be as simple as travel, a hectic schedule, lack of sleep, or laziness; or as difficult as a big fat mistake, an unforeseen set-back, or a tragedy.  It’s humbling to start again.  But I realize I better get used to it.  So far it seems like the name of the game.   The Japanese proverb, “Fall seven times, stand up eight” says it all.

And today when I ran, I was reminded of the secret agent of starting again:  that little spark.  That thing inside that gets up again, that doesn’t take no for an answer, and rises (eventually, at least) to the occasion. 

“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.'”  – Mary Anne Radmacher

Believe me, there are times when I can barely find that spark and I’d swear it has taken a permanent vacation.  But lo and behold, it eventually walks in the door on its own mysterious timetable.  People have lots of names for that spark:  desire, will, aspiration, instinct, endorphins, intention, inspiration.  Some call it the soul, grace, or even God.  Whatever the name,  it’s the thing that inspires me when I see someone overcome a challenge – small or large, or as simple as starting to run again.  Or begin a diet again.  Or try again. 

Since that little spark seems to be rather important, I’ve been thinking about how to  find it when it seems all but snuffed out.  Here are some ideas:
 
Curl up:  While this isn’t always recommended, there are times when it seems the fetal position is all I got.  Sometimes I just need to be with myself, curl up, be quiet, and wait it out a bit.  Maybe the little spark needs a little rest and recovery.
 
Move:  The opposite of “curl up,”  move is a good prescription.  As the days passed, I became evermore resistant to starting my running routine again.  So, I thought about taking a walk instead.  And then, one day, I did it.  And after a few days, I thought about running.  And then, one day, I did it.  And there was that little spark.  Movement helps me break out of paralysis.
 
Be Quiet and Listen:   The little spark can’t always compete with the chorus of inside and outside talk.  Like many, I rely on my spiritual practices to help me become quiet.  But if that isn’t your style, just take a breath or two.  Have a cup of tea (or two).    Take a little time out and listen.  That little spark may have something important to say. 
 
Accept:  You know that expression, “What you resist persists”?   I’ve found that I’m stalled until I can  accept it – whatever it is:  a mistake, out-of control email, a lost relationship or job, a bad habit.  This could also be called, “Go with the flow.”  Sometimes reality sucks, but once I accept it, it’s possible to move on. 
 
Lower Expectations:  It’s easy to get frozen in the disappointment about  where I think I should be versus where I actually am.   It’s frustrating to  get back in shape (again), lose the weight (again), kick the habit (again),  or begin a good one (again).  Here’s when I have to lower expectations.  And so, right now, I only go 1 mile, instead of two.  Or walk, instead of run.  I’ll make it up in time.  
 
Do Something.    When I’m stuck, I just need to take one small step.  Do something.  Do anything.  Send an email.  Say a prayer.  Brainstorm a list.  Research.  Ask a question.  Make a call.  It’s like moving.  It gets me out of paralysis and might just get some sparks flying.
 
Phone a Friend:   I have friends who know my goals.  Sometimes when I forget, they remind me.  They can be a lifeline back to the little spark. 
 
Love:  I think the little spark loves love.   Who knows, maybe the little spark is love.  Sometimes, it’s just a  matter of pausing, taking a breath, and focusing on that love for my goal.  “Love conquers all.”  Not to go all sentimental on you, but so far, it’s panned out that way.   And if you can’t recover that love for the goal (maybe it’s a bit fogged over), do anything you love.  Look at your baby’s face.  Dance (which also covers the “Move” suggestion).   Have hot chocolate.  Watch your favorite movie.  Watch your favorite sport.  Anything.  Just make sure you reallly, really love it.

 

And on that note, here’s a little video I saw the other day.   Enjoy!   Happy 2011.  Here’s to starting again.  And the little spark. 

What do you do to find the spark?