26 November 2012

Enhancing The Creative Process

I recently emailed a client to ask how she was doing with her upcoming deadline.  She replied by sending the following image:



The source for this image and many other original graphics that reflect a similar sensibility and dark humor is http://www.ToothpasteForDinner.com.  This image is used with their permission.  I think the image brilliantly captures a very real experience.    

The creative process — whether invoked to write a grant, solve an engineering problem, or deal with a difficult person —  is an excitable beast.  It uses different parts of our brain than the usual task-list, taking-care-of-business mode does, and requires a different kind of care.  If you treat your orchid plant the same way you treat your schefflera, at least one of them will not flourish.  Same with the creative process — it needs to be handled in a way that’s specific to IT.  It’s much more of a diva than our workhorse routines are.  It’s  temperamental, easily dissed, and will shut itself down in a heartbeat if it’s mistreated.  But with proper care, it can flourish.  

ONE element of care that can enhance your creative process is to free up some bandwidth: make some space for it.  That means getting some things off your plate.  Here are some classic ways to get items off your to-do list:

  • DO.  Find the short and simple items and just get them done.  Get your car inspected, tell Ed you won’t be at his meeting, do your backup.
  • DELEGATE.  Outsource some of the tasks: find someone else to do them.  Cajole, beg, barter, influence, hire, call in favors, leverage your authority, whatever it takes.
  • DELAY.  Schedule the item into your calendar for a month from now, at which time you will consider doing it.  Note: this is not the same as procrastinating.
  • DITCH.  Admit that it’s not happening, get over it, and cross it off the list.  For example: re-organizing your PowerPoint slides.

The key thing in freeing up bandwidth is to not get so caught up in it that you never get around to addressing the original creative challenge!  I have learned this about myself: I’m much more in my comfort zone when I’m in work-horse mode: do do do do do.  I am easily hijacked by my all-important to-do list and my big bold brassy bossy executive function.  I have to remind myself that my working-dog mentality reports to me, not vice-versa — I am its boss!  Once I get some tasks off my list and some bandwidth freed up, it’s time to return to the creative process.

There are many other things you can do to support your creative process, but this is a crucial one.

Do you think Einstein did his own taxes?

As  life coach, I help professionals and entrepreneurs tap into their creativity and brilliance.  Curious?  Contact me and get your questions answered.


19 November 2012

Productivity Tips

Here’s an interesting blog post that offers 6 excellent productivity tips.  While I think all of these tips are great ideas, the one that seems the most elusive to people is the one about setting boundaries.

Many of us have segments of our jobs that can only be done effectively in large blocks of uninterrupted time.  When I was a database designer and developer, I did my best designing and coding work alone in my office with the door closed.  (Yes I had an office with a door — it was a long time ago.)  In my current job as a life coach, I write a newsletter, I write this blog, and I do other writing as well.  I can only write in uninterrupted blocks of time.  If I take phone calls and read email while I’m trying to write something — it doesn’t get written.

It turns out that uninterrupted is also the most satisfying way to do this kind of work.  Nice, huh?  Another good reason for good boundaries.


10 October 2012

A Word About Delegating

Delegating is not about thinking you’re too good for certain tasks.  It’s not about being a snob.  In fact it’s not about you at all.

It’s all about the work. If other people can take some things off your plate and that frees you up to do more of the work that only you can do, that moves everything forward in an efficient manner.

Most organizations housed in office buildings pay a cleaning company to handle the heavy housekeeping for the site.  Why?  So that the people who work there can focus on the mission of the organization and not have their time taken up with housekeeping tasks that are better handled by a cleaning company.  Meanwhile, the cleaning company has a valued, steady customer.  It’s a win-win.

That’s why delegation succeeds.  No matter what kind of work you do, you can’t also do everything else.  As you become more skilled and experienced, you become capable of higher level functions.  It’s a no-brainer, right?  But you can’t actually DO that higher level work if you’re still doing all your own collating.

Yes, the people more junior to you also have full plates, so you feel guilty.  But keep the focus ON THE WORK.  It’s not about you, and it’s not about them.  It’s about getting the job done.

And if there’s a staff shortage, then that needs to be addressed directly, for what it is.  And not buried under guilt and ambivalence.   

Need to delegate more effectively?  Need better guilt-management skills?  Consider getting some focused, customized coaching on this.   Coaching is what I do best.  Contact me.


27 September 2012

Don’t Let Regrets Limit Your Personal Productivity

Regrets. We all have them. Even the most successful and confident people have made plenty of mistakes or bad judgment calls in their life. In fact, most of us have probably made a few in the past week.

If you have trouble letting go of past mistakes or bad judgment calls, it can have a detrimental effect on your self image, as well as your personal productivity. Do you lie awake at night rehashing scenes and imagining what you could have done or said differently? Are you letting negative thoughts affect your self-confidence and hold you back from accomplishing more in life?

When you’re plagued by negative thoughts about mistakes you’ve made, it’s tempting to either indulge them or ignore them. However, neither of these strategies is very helpful. Wallowing in negativity will only make you feel worse and waste your time. And although you might be able to distract yourself in the short term by getting very busy with another task or project (or maybe a glass or two of wine), if you don’t deal with these negative thoughts, sooner or later they’ll return.

So how do you deal with those nagging regrets and reminders of past mistakes? Here are a few strategies that can help you deal with them and move on.

Clean it up. The first thing to do is ask yourself if there is some action you need to take in order to resolve the issue. Is this hanging over your head because something has been left undone? If so, get it done.  Do you need to apologize or initiate a conversation with someone in order to bring some closure to the problem?  If so, do it.  It can enable you to let it go.

Talk to someone. This can be a counselor, a life coach, or a trusted friend. Sometimes just saying the words out loud can help you realize your mistake wasn’t so horrendous after all. And if you’re being too hard on yourself, an outside point of view can help you gain some perspective.

Face the accusations head on. Imagine another person criticizing you in the same way you are criticizing yourself. Now defend yourself to this imaginary person. Say, “I’m not perfect. Everybody makes mistakes.” Explain what you learned from the experience. Then tell your accuser, “Now, leave me alone!”

Push the thoughts away. Once you’ve acknowledged and dealt with the feelings the best you can, if those persistent little buggers come back, it might be time to simply push them away. Imagine yourself hanging up a phone on the thoughts, or putting them in a boat and watching them drift off to sea. You know they might be back, but you have nothing else to say to them, so next time they return you can just push them away once again.

Replace the negative with positive. Research shows that you can’t feel stress and gratitude at the same time. So try some positive thinking. Focus on the blessings in your life, the things you are grateful for. Those negative ruminations can’t coexist in the same space with all that gratitude. You can even begin your day by writing a list of ten things you are grateful for. Surround yourself with reminders of the blessings in your life. The more you train your mind to focus on the positive, the more optimistic you will feel, and those negative thoughts will be crowded out.

As a life coach, I have helped many people learn to stop beating up on themselves and adopt more constructive behaviors. Contact me to schedule a no-fee initial meeting (by phone or in person) to learn more about my services and determine whether coaching might be helpful for you.


25 June 2012

Soccer Rules: Being Effective in Different Contexts

At a high school reunion recently, my older daughter had a conversation with one of her old soccer buddies whose young daughter just started playing the game.

After one of the first games, the mom said to her daughter, “I noticed that when the other team had the ball you didn’t try to get the ball away from them. Why not?” Her daughter was surprised by the question, and responded that when another girl had the ball – it was her turn with the ball – and “you’re just not supposed to take stuff away from other people. It’s not nice, Mommy!” The daughter also shared that she was very surprised that during the game people pushed each other. She said, “People aren’t supposed to push other people.”

The mom seized the opportunity to have a great conversation with her daughter about how to be effective in different contexts: different rules apply. In soccer you’re supposed to take the ball from a player on the other team if you possibly can. And pushing (within certain limits) is also part of the game. If your team is not using these strategies, you’re not going to be effective at playing the game.

Off the soccer field, in the world of adults, how does this play out? In so many ways. I see people understating their accomplishments, impacts, and results on their resumes because “you’re not supposed to brag,” or for fear of even being accused of overstating the case. The job market is just another playing field where the competition is fierce, people play to win, and if your resume is lukewarm, you’re not going to make the cut.

Or perhaps you’re now in a staff position in the organization where you did your fellowship. Are you making the transition fully into being part of the staff or is there still part of you that’s following the rules of the fellowship, where you were more of a student than an expert in your own right, more of an underling than a voting member of the A-Team?

Another example is the consultant who subcontracts out pieces of large projects with only a very minimal signed agreement with her subs. She chooses to apply her rules for friendship (“trust, trust, trust”) to the business arena where trust is commonly reinforced and spelled out by a strong and detailed contract that protects both parties. Without a contract, when a dispute arises with a sub, or the sub takes the client with her at the end of a project, the consultant is shocked and outraged by this “bad behavior.” The consultant is playing by the rules of personal friendship. The sub is playing by the rules of business: if there’s not a non-compete clause, she can walk away with the client. From her perspective, she’s the one who earned the client’s trust and did the work. It may not be “nice,” but in the marketplace, that’s how some people play the game.

How might this apply to you in your life? Is there some part of your life where you are playing by rules that do not apply? Are you holding others to a standard of behavior that is not universally accepted in that environment? When disputes or bad feelings arise, this is one dynamic to check for. Sometimes a short round of effectiveness coaching can help you to identify and engage with the appropriate set of rules.

Do you have a story to tell about learning how to be effective in a given context? Share it in the comments below, or email it to me at sharon@stcoach.com. When you email, let me know whether it’s OK for me to tell your story in a later post or newsletter. I will change some of the specifics to preserve your anonymity. I can run it by you before publishing it, if you’d like.


25 July 2010

Just Ignore That Hilltop

I learned how to cycle long distances few years ago when I was training for a charity ride that covered 170 miles over 2 days. 

One of the most powerful strategies I learned pertained to hill climbing.  Here’s what I learned.  While riding up a steep hill, don’t look at the top of the hill: it will overwhelm, frighten, and discourage you.  Stay focused on the immediate challenge: this pedal stroke, followed by the next pedal stroke, and so forth.  And notice the very local scenery: “Huh, that looks like wild Morning Glories growing there” or “Looks like gravel up ahead.”

This Hilltop Rule applies off the road as well.

When you’re working your way out of a demoralizing work backlog, stay focused on the tasks and goals for this week.  Don’t keep looking at the whole heartbraking list – ignore that hilltop – and stay focused on the immediate work at hand. 

If you’re managing a project that has 3000 moving parts and you become paralyzed every time you think about all that still lies ahead, stop thinking about all that lies ahead: think about this week’s work.  

This is not to say don’t step back regularly and survey the big picture.  You certainly want to be sure you’re going up the right hill.  You also need to revisit your time line and resource projections on a regular basis. But not every hour.  Not even every day. 

Some people need to view the hilltop regularly to get re-inspired: “It’s not about doing the (lengthy and ho-hum) calculations for this proposal, it’s about landing this contract and taking the kids to Disney World this year!”  “Yeah, the road is rough but this reasearch is making a difference in how  lymphoma is treated.”

But mostly, stick with the pedal strikes.  That’s how work gets done.   Cumulatively, the pedal strokes add up.  Miles are covered.  And every now and then there’s a downhill segment – enjoy it when you get one! 

The downhill road can be very bumpy, and the dappled sunlight makes it hard to see the potholes too far ahead.  So slow down enough to stay safe.  Keep your wits about you.  Don’t stop doing your due diligence.  You can still enjoy a downhill ride even with your brakes lightly engaged. 

Here’s the Hilltop Rule:
  • When riding up a steep hill, ignore the hilltop.
  • Stay focused on the road immediately in front of you.


11 June 2010

Unhook From What Doesn’t Deliver

There’s a very interesting post by Jeff Flemmings at  http://the3six5.posterous.com/may-12-2010-jeff-flemings.  He says his main New Year’s resolution this year is to “invest emotional energy only where it will be reciprocated and multiplied.  Vigorously sticking to this resolution so far has made my life a lot better.”

He writes:
“I finally realized I was investing myself in people and activities that are incapable of repaying me. Hell, they couldn’t even acknowledge my contribution. I embraced this insight and put all that thankless stuff on the proverbial back burner. That burner is now on a tiny Sterno stove located in a thicket not yet mapped by Google.”

Focusing time and attention ONLY where there is positive payback is a powerful idea.  Even just paying attention to what does and does not deliver can be a game-changer.  I’m not suggesting you jettison every relationship and project that doesn’t  “adequately” pay you back; this is not an organizing principle for every corner of your life. 

But even just asking the question, “Is this a good investment of my time and energy?” can support you in being more intentional and effective with your time, that most precious of resources.     

Eliminating even one non-productive focus can provide a powerful boost. 
One arena where this can be extremely powerful is in how you manage your thoughts: what you allow yourself to dwell on.  Here are some examples.

  • One of my clients was stuck in the mindset of “I haven’t accomplished enough in my life.” She felt so flattened by this all-pervasive, self-imposed verdict that she was unable to work effectively or to enjoy doing any of the other activities that nourish her.   When she temporarily allowed herself to focus on her next step as an amateur musician, deciding what to play in an upcoming group concert, the very act of engagement dispelled the black cloud and she was once again an active participant in her life.  She had unhooked, for now, from this particular negativity.
  • Recently, I did something that inadvertently offended someone and made her angry with me.  I was horrified and appalled.  I apologized and did the best I could to clean it up.  I made mental notes about what I’d learned.  My old pattern would have been to obsess over this for days and weeks, to berate myself for my bad judgment, and so on.  Or to use Jeff’s terms, to invest emotional energy where no good would come of it.   But this time I handled myself differently.  I asked myself if there was anything else I needed to do to make it right with this person.  The answer: no.   SO . . . I worked with myself to focus elsewhere whenever my mind brought me back to the topic.  It wasn’t perfect, but I suffered less than I usually do in similar situations.  Which gave me more energy and opportunity to focus in more positive directions and be more effective in my life. 

Looking for a way to apply this idea?  Try this: 

1. Notice when you are investing emotional energy in a project, person, or thought  that drains you rather than energizes you or leaves you neutral.  How would you recognize it?  When engaged with this project, person, or thought, you might feel sluggish, paralyzed,  discouraged, or angry, as distinct from how you feel with other projects/people/thoughts.

2.  Ask yourself is there’s any action you need to take.  If so, take the action as soon as you can.  If not, go directly to step 3.

3. As soon as possible, make yourself focus elsewhere.  If it’s an obsessive thought, find something else just as intense but not so negative.  If it’s a project or person, tear yourself away asap and engage with another person or project that’s more positive. 

Don’t expect yourself to have world-class skills in this arena right away.  Be patient with your own learning curve.  Small victories are the way to go.  

If this is an entrenched pattern for you that you would like some help with, consider a short round of focused coaching.   Contact me to investigate this option.


27 January 2010

Notes From a Recovering Perfectionist

Even working slowly gets things done.  Sometimes, I’m unable to work at the pace that meets my standards.  Like right now.  I’m developing the content for an upcoming interview by a radio show host.  The taping is in 2 days, for an early February broadcast. 

I’m working very, very, very slowly.  Did I mention the going was slow?  My inner perfectionist (IP) has a high bar for how quickly I should draft this content, and I am big time failing to meet that standard.  My IP wants me to quit working on it, do something else, and return to this work when I can work at a pace that meets her majesty’s quality control standards.

But I have tried a few iterations of that strategy and I’m running out of time.  I now risk not being ready for the interview, which would be a foolish waste of an excellent opportunity for increased professional visibility.

So, faced with a choice between working slowly or not working on it all, I’m choosing to work on it slowly.  I’m overriding my IP’s great discomfort with the terrible imperfection of the situation.  She’s saying, “Hey listen, at this pace, you could be working on it from now until the interview starts in 48 hours: that’s not just unacceptable, but ludicrous.

To which I’m responding, “Look, I can’t DEPEND on being able to crank up my production speed between now and then.  So, better to work on it slowly and get it done than wait for efficiency to show up and risk not getting it done at all.”

Here’s a remarkable secret.  Moving forward one micron at a time still moves you forward.  It is far, far better to be in action than to be paralyzed.   Here it is in mathematical terms (I have license to do this because my daughter was an applied math major (magna cum laude, Columbia)): the distance between paralysis and motion is FAR GREATER than the distance between slow motion and fast motion.  

That said, there are also times when you just need a break.  You can sometimes return from a real break with your batteries re-charged or a mental course correction, and then you just plow forward with much greater effectiveness.   Only you can make the call, of course, whether to take a break or continue slogging through.    

I’m calling this one: better to move slowly than not at all.  I know from past experience that a slow start can pick up momentum and energy, and at some point you cross some threshhold and you’re in flow.  But even if that doesn’t happen, left-right-left-right slog slog slog does get things done.

I also know that sometimes only C+ work energy is available, and sometimes C+ results are better than an incomplete.   I might not graduate magna cum laude, but I still want my degree.  

One of the most powerful things I have been learning in the last 30 years is that the more I am able to tolerate (or risk) the C-pluses, the more rich and full and satisfying my life is.  How completely bizarre and unexpected!


22 November 2009

Toes to Nose






IN the opening chapter of The Art of Possibility, Roz Zander writes about a life lesson she learned on a white water rafting trip.

The rafting company put people through substantial training before going out on the water.  One key element of the training was “Toes to Nose.”  When you fall out of the raft into the thrashing water, they were taught, bring your toes to your nose and look for the boat.

Toes to nose keeps your feet from getting caught in the rocks below and brings you to the surface, where you can grab an oar or rope from the boat closest to you.  The trainer drummed this mantra into people’s heads til they rolled their eyes.  It had to be completely automatic, he said.

During the actual rafting trip, Roz was thrown into the roiling water.  The sudden shock of cold water, the absolute roar in her ears, the darkness of being submerged!  In the midst of massive sensory overload and the adrenaline rush of mortal crisis, she remembered and executed toes to nose.  Presto!  She was suddenly at the surface, visible to the instructor on the sweeper raft, who pulled her out of the water.

There is great value in having a survival mantra such as this for your everyday life. When crises and demands pile up and you are suddenly underwater . . . it can be a lifesaver to have an automatic instruction for yourself.   The instruction has to be simple enough that you remember it when you’re completely overloaded.

For a software engineer with a work crunch at work and approaching finals in her MBA program, the mantra she finds most useful is “‘Good enough’ is good enough.”  This simple slogan helps her manage her shrill inner perfectionist, who wants perfect results on all fronts, 24/7.  In real life, that’s neither an option nor a requirement.  For example, she doesn’t really need to ace her finals.

An executive director I know recently recognized how drained, miserable, and resentful she is of all the other people she takes such good care of: her staff, clients, board, and husband.   Her new survival instruction is, “Take care of yourself too!”

For an investment banker who takes work home every night but doesn’t do it, much to her own growing panic, the directive that makes a difference is, “Do what you have to do first.  Then do what you want.”

In a post-event interview, Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was asked, “How did you feel after you doubled the triple axel?”  She responded (and I paraphrase), “I’m trained to go right on to the next move.  I don’t have the luxury of thinking about what I just did.  I just moved on.”

I personally am benefitting from “Just move on.”  There is always time for analysis later, if that’s appropriate.

So . . . what’s your life-saving mantra, and in what situations does it serve you?  Consider drafting a candidate or two to test over the next 6 weeks: simple instructions which could offer you some safety when you get bounced out of the raft.  See if you can come up with your own “toes to nose” to deploy into the New Year.