Work-Life Sanity Blog

Productivity

27 February 2013

Boundary-Setting for Good Girls

Revised 4/17/13.

Setting or strengthening boundaries is very difficult for a lot of people. In my experience, it’s most difficult for people who grew up as “good girls” in a context where goodness (and even worthiness itself!) was about helping others

This context is established at home, in school, at church and synagogue, and in activities.  For example, the Girl Scout promise includes the pledge “to help people at all times” (emphasis mine).  An impressionable girl might take this quite literally.

As good girls become adult women, this training can translate into a sense of obligation to say YES to every request that comes in.  It can also mean that when they see an opportunity to help someone, they don’t even see it as a choice — they just jump in.  I had a client whose neighbor mentioned she was having difficulty deciding among three bids for renovating a bathroom.  My client immediately jumped in and spent the evening at the neighbor’s house helping her decipher the proposals.  My client didn’t have the time to spare and suffered as a result.

This automatic focus on helping others is not a recipe for a good life. It’s also not a recipe for a life of selfless service, because it’s not sustainable.  Living by a policy of always saying yes and always jumping in to help leads directly to burnout. 

What’s missing is the counterbalance: the responsible and appropriately self-reflective voice that asks, “What can I afford to do in this situation, if anything? What do I want to do?”

Whether or not you were ever a good girl or a good boy, you may feel guilty saying no to requests for your time, money, focus, or any other resource. But feeling guilty doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing anything wrong. It often means you’re doing something out of your comfort zone, or something new.

Saying YES to every request or always jumping in to help doesn’t lead to your doing your best work, however you define it.  Whatever you choose to DO with your life, you can’t also DO everything else. That’s what setting boundaries is all about.

When you say “no” to collaborating on yet another project, or when you resist the temptation to put on your superwoman cape and dash in to help someone, you’re not  saying you don’t value those people or initiatives. Rather, you’re saying you currently have other priorities and you are fully deployed with those priorities. That boundary allows you to remain in service to your chosen priorities. Having weak boundaries is functionally equivalent to having no priorities. Anything and anyone can come in and get some of your time (or focus, money, staff, etc).

Many people who are disappointed with their results and accomplishments (or lack thereof) are actually suffering from weak boundaries. They don’t accomplish what they want because they don’t protect their ability to focus intensely on creating those results and accomplishments.  They were being “good” and “nice” and helping other people instead. But think about it — your priorities and commitments ALSO help other people, don’t they?

Making your best positive contribution in the world requires that you protect your ability to stay focused on what you are doing. Strong boundaries allow you to bring your best energy to those commitments, whatever they are.

You may be managing a department, doing oncology research, growing your own vegetables, running a university, doing marketing consulting, working in your town’s recycling center, or any of a million other kinds of valuable, productive work. Whatever short list of commitments are closest to your heart right now, you can’t give them your best shot if you aren’t also prepared to resist the infinite number of other “opportunities” competing for your time and attention.

Becoming skilled at this requires that you make your peace with missed opportunities. You can’t do everything right now. I’m sorry, but that’s just the truth. But with strong boundaries, you can do some things very, very effectively. And when you want, you can choose your next set of priorities.   For more on this topic, check out one of my blog posts from earlier this year.

What’s your best boundary-setting strategy?  Please share your experience in a comment below.

Short term coaching for strengthening boundaries is one of my specialties.  Contact me if you’re interested in exploring this.

 

8 January 2013

Managing the Stress of Feeling Overwhelmed

I spent 9 days out of the office during the Christmas-thru-New-Years period.  Although I wrote a blog post and answered a few coaching-related emails during that time, I was 99% “out” on family time.  And it was delightful.

When I got back to work that first week of January, there was some catching up to do, including some end-of-year processes that I hadn’t gotten to before I left because my daughter’s new baby arrived a week early.  The work of closing out 2012 actually would have been enough to keep me plenty busy upon return.  But there was much, much more. 

There’s a ton of deferred maintenance that my coaching business needs: renovations to my website, expansion in my use of social media, upgrades in other infrastructure, to name a few.  And each of these has about a gazillion sub-tasks, or at least that’s how it looked when I started making lists of what was needed. I felt overwhelmed. I started doing triage and felt my stress level rise.

The more anxious I felt, the more scattered and speedy I became.  You may be familiar with this cycle.  Not a pretty sight, no fun, and not much work actually gets done — all that hyperventilating creates a lot of distraction. After a day or two of frantic rushing from one task to the next, it’s not just “I have this huge mountain to climb” but also “and I’ll never get there at this rate!” 

And then I recognized what was going on. I’ve only been through this cycle about ten thousand times before, so at this point I’m able to read the signs before too much damage is done. The real culprit is not the mountain, but the un-managed stress. The antidote is to calm that freaking-out voice in my head (the cortisol-crazed voice-over from my fight-or-flight response). And to bring back the more grounded voice that usually narrates my daily life.

I have a bag of tricks I collect for just such a need, so I pulled it out and started deploying its contents. The first day I listened to 20 minutes of Pema Chodron’s Smile at Fear, and the next day another 20 minutes. That helped me feel more “unconditionally friendly” toward myself, calmer, and more neutral (less blaming) about what was going on.   The third day I went to yoga, where I gratefully absorbed the teaching of my yoga instructor, Diana Cullum-Dugan, who said (to paraphrase), “Let go of blaming yourself and others. Unhook from the story of your history.”  That allowed me to be much more present and expansive.  And then today I listened to about 15 minutes of Tara Brach, who helped me let go of the energy of striving, which enabled me to simply do the work in front of me without the edge.  Tomorrow I’ll watch a Brene Brown video. 

These teachers calm my racing head and engage a whole other part of me.  In the great open space this creates, I have plenty of time to do everything I want and need to do.  Without the insanity. 

What’s the best tool in your bag of tricks?  When do you use it?  Leave a comment.

21 December 2012

Stress Management: Have That Difficult Conversation with Your Boss

Imagine this. You’re utterly flat out at work, painfully aware of how close you’ve come lately to dropping balls (or maybe you’ve dropped a few). You’re stressed from what seems like working all the time, but you don’t know any other way to address all that’s on your plate. Then you get another big assignment that puts you over the edge: now this really is impossible, even for you (with your hard core work ethic and ability to muscle through whatever-it-takes). Sound plausible? Familiar?

Here’s what productivity guru David Allen writes about this in a recent newsletter:

The good news about this overwhelm is that it’s forcing people to make executive decisions that they never felt like they had to make before. “I need to do everything that comes my way.” No, you can’t anymore, sorry. You are going to have to do triage. That means you are going to have to have a conversation with your boss. You are going to have to show up with a list of everything he or she has given you and have a conversation. “Gee, thanks for these new things, can we talk? Because I am not going to be able to do them all.” It’s forcing those kinds of conversations.     Read more. . . .        

For years I’ve helped clients have conversations like these with their bosses (and with their own direct reports when they initiate it). Most find it helpful to talk through how to position the conversation, how to language what they need to say, and how to sustain a constructive dialog without complicating it by getting defensive, lashing out, or feeling bad about themselves.

Here are my top 5 recommendations:

  1. If this is your first time having a conversation like this, don’t wing it.You stand to benefit hugely from doing some preparation.
  2. Keep the conversation about the work.  It’s not about you, and it’s not about your boss. Assume the mindset that you and your boss are on the same team whose mission is to get the work done. 
  3. Keep the language neutral. Don’t paint yourself as wrong, bad, or ineffective. Don’t paint your boss as wrong, unreasonable, or mean (even if you think she or he is).
  4. Ask for clarification about priorities. “I thought you wanted me to keep A as my absolute top priority because it has such a tight schedule and so much is riding on it. Now you’re asking me to also work on B. Please help me understand — has the priority changed? Do you want me to let some of the A deadlines slide?” “Would you help me re-prioritize what’s on my plate, given the new assignment?”
  5. Go into the conversation with a written bullet list of what’s on your plate. This can be a strategic visual to have with you, particularly if you’re going to ask for help in re-prioritizing. It takes the pressure off you (and your boss) to remember everything that’s on your list.
  6. Anticipate the emotions (defensiveness, low self-esteem, anger, frustration) you might experience, and have a plan for how to deal with them so that they don’t sabotage your conversation. For example, if you’re likely to feel defensive about not being able to do everything, be prepared to recognize it in real time and deploy a tactic to restore your levelheadedness, such as anchoring or a silent affirmation.  

On a related note, if you suspect that your work habits are truly inefficient, address this issue.  For example, consider taking one of David Allen’s seminars. Many highly effective people swear by them.  

In short, if your to-do list has really become an impossible list, either get some help in optimizing your performance, or get some help from your boss. Or both. Either one is likely to reduce your work stress in the short term and lead to an all-around better situation for you in the long term. 

13 December 2012

Take a Break

“If you think working overtime, skipping your lunch hour and staying chained to your desk will make you more productive, you need to cut yourself some slack and take a break.  Working non-stop without taking a break can increase your chances of weight gain, heart disease and worse.”   So begins a powerful infographic the creative folks at Learnstuff.com developed.   Check it out here: http://www.learnstuff.com/take-a-break/.  In fine print at the bottom, they include the data sources for their bold statements and strong suggestions

They offer disturbing statistics about how many hours most of us SIT at work (guilty as charged), how bad it is for us, AND how easily we could turn it around.  For example, getting away from sitting at the computer even for 5 minutes at a time can make a difference.  Standing for 1/2 hour burns 50% more calories than sitting

I recently had a pinched nerve in my neck that produced numbness, tingling, and pain in my right arm.  It didn’t get better on its own and started keeping me up at night. I consulted my chiropractor who did some work on me that helped, but he said the main cause of the problem was that my posture was terrible: I didn’t sit or stand straight.  He said my poor posture was causing premature wear and tear on my cervical vertebrae, and I would continue to see pinched nerves and the like unless I improved my posture.  Who knew? 

So I started paying attention and was appalled at the collapsed, crumpled-up way I frequently found myself sitting in front of my computer.  But when I noticed it, I could pretty easily straighten up.  After 2 weeks of my noticing and straightening, the chiropractor actually saw changes in my neck from better posture.  That was so encouraging and motivating!  Small changes can have big impact, I thought.  How lucky is that?

Between the chiropractor and the information from Learnstuff.com, I also find myself making other changes.  This was my week to send out holiday gifts and cards to my clients and colleagues.  I usually do this sitting at a desk with everything I need in front of me.  But this year I did it while taking a break from sitting.  I walked around my office to assemble each person’s card and/or gift and wrote out the card and label while standing.  As I finished up each one and stamped it, I walked it to the growing stack of items outside my office door.  I actually felt energized by it.   

My big challenge going forward is to remember these things.  I printed out the graphic (it’s long but looks great) and hung it where I’ll see it daily. 

So what about you?  I encourage you to find ways to take breaks from sitting, and to find other ways to heed the warnings about being chained to the computer.  Make some changes.  Apparently a little can go a long way.     

 

7 December 2012

Arianna Huffington: Sleep Deprivation Serves No One

At yesterday’s Massachusetts Conference for Women in Boston, Arianna Huffington gave a terrific keynote in which she focused on how important it is for women to get enough sleep, and to more frequently and regularly take a break.  In our culture of perfectionism and overwork, she said, too many women literally work non-stop.  Between their paid work and their family and community work, they are always on — not taking breaks to recharge their batteries, never resting, and not sleeping nearly enough.

Arianna Huffington at MA Conference for Women, 12/6/12

Huffington is a passionate believer in sleep, and actually has “nap rooms” at the Huffington Post, which she encourages people to use (they do).  She said that no one can do their best work or be their best self if they aren’t getting enough rest.  When people start getting enough sleep, it inevitably has a huge positive impact on their work.  She said getting more sleep helps you advance in your work and quipped, “I call this sleeping your way to the top.” 

Even mild sleep deprivation negatively impacts cognitive function.

As a life coach, I know that people are infinitely more willing to consider regularly taking a break or getting more sleep when they think it could improve their effectiveness on the job.  They are resistant to the idea if they think it would “only” make them feel better or be happier.  Of course your body and mind don’t really care why you decide to change your behavior — they just leverage your new behavior for all it’s worth.  And then you start performing better in your professional life and being more effective in your private life.

Have you ever had the experience of being in the shower, or mindlessly walking your dog, or otherwise just being relaxed and not focused on work of any kind, and suddenly, out of the blue you get an amazing idea that pertains to work?  Or an insight into a personal relationship that’s been challenging you?  Or some other creative thought about something you were not directly thinking about?

Neuroscientist and high performance coach David Rock explains that this happens when the big roaring engine of our pre-frontal cortex (think task-list driver) has punched out and we are able to hear the whispered messages from other parts of our brain.  These other parts of our brain are the locus of creativity, intuition, insight, inspiration, and other such non-linear and visionary functions which are key to higher level work of any kind.  It’s a fabulous recommendation for time off, don’t you think?

Whether or not you experience your edge ebbing — consider getting more sleep and taking more time off in the New Year.  If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for the work that you do.

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.

12 November 2012

Success Strategy: Give Yourself Permission to Fail

One of the biggest secrets to success is knowing that you have to fail sometimes. You have to fail forward in order to move forward and succeed. It sounds counter-intuitive, and it generally doesn’t feel wonderful, but failure is a necessary part of personal development.

Making mistakes or doing the wrong things helps you clarify your path and helps you learn the ropes.  You can’t move into new territory already knowing everything you need to know about that territory.  You have to learn it.  And that involves making mistakes and learning from them.  The mental challenge for many of us is giving ourselves permission to mess up rather than beating ourselves up mercilessly.

As a coach for professionals and entrepreneurs since 1995, I’ve now worked one-to-one with hundreds of of effective people who wanted to become MORE effective, busy people who wanted to streamline and improve their process in order to be more successful.  Many, many people get great value from re-framing this whole experience of “failure.”

If you are not making any mistakes, then that means that you are not making any progress. Progress and success require risk and significant investment, not just once but ongoingly. There is no way to get what you want if you are not willing to step out on a limb to make it happen. If you start a business, there is a chance that you will not succeed, but you will never know if you do not try.  Even if the business is a flop you will learn from your mistakes, and you will own that learning no matter what you do next.

The real reason people struggle with failure is that they think that it means that this is the end.  They take it as a sign that they shouldn’t even BE in this game (whatever game it is).  The truth is that failure is not the end unless you make it the end. Failure is never utter personal failure unless you personally let it define you and stop trying. Making mistakes is not an issue as long as you can do better in the future regardless of how badly you messed up.

Giving yourself permission to fail may be your most difficult learning edge.  Learning how to forgive yourself and move on is a crucial success strategy, right along with learning what the failure has to teach you.  Once you’ve harvested the learning, do your best and let it go.  The good news is there will be opportunities in the future for you to apply what you’ve learned.  The bad news  is there will be opportunities in your future to flounder in new ways.  The central task is to identify what there is to learn, recover emotionally as quickly as you can, and move forward.

Please contact me for more information about how to be more successful in your personal and professional life.

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.