19 June 2013

I’m the Only One Who Can Do This

Once upon a time I worked with a client named Eva, who lived with her husband, their two preschool children, her mother, and her adult sister, both of whom worked full time.  Her husband had his own service business that he ran from a home office.  

Eva would leave her office daily at 5-ish, pick up the kids at daycare and head home, where she’d prepare dinner, serve it to the whole gang, clean up, and then return to her office for evening hours with clients.  I asked her why, in a household of 4 adults, she was the only one making dinner.  She told me she was the only one who could make dinner.  In her mind, there were no other options, period. 

I worked with her to make the implicit explicit, and she ended up owning this:  “I have high standards for dinner.  It needs to be nutritionally sound.  My children have to like it.   No one else in the household would deliver to that standard except my mother and it’s not her job to make dinner.”

She and I explored the situation, her assumptions, and her beliefs.  The bottom line was that Eva was bone-tired all the time and felt like she never had a break.  She badly needed some breathing room in her schedule.  Getting some nights off from dinner duty without sacrificing quality would feel like a mini-vacation.  What had been stopping her from exploring this, until now? Her underlying beliefs, some of which she didn’t even know that she held.

She initiated conversations with the others, and together, they arrived at some interesting solutions.  Her husband knew how to make a mild chili, which the children liked.  He also knew how to cut up carrots, celery, and apples, which the kids would eat.  She thought this was an acceptable dinner.  He started doing dinner once a week. 

Her sister was willing to pick up pizza and Greek salad on the way home from work once a week.  Eva thought that would an acceptable dinner once a week.  Her mother was a good cook and was willing to take two nights a week. 

In a short time, Eva’s dinner job was cut in half, and she really enjoyed her nights off from dinner duty.  On those nights, she found herself more relaxed, more present with the family at dinner, and more refreshed when she went back to work.

While the other adults in the family had certainly enjoyed the days when Eva made dinner every night, none of them really felt burdened by the new arrangement.  It really worked out very well.  In the days and weeks that followed, Eva saw that the new arrangement really was OK with with the others, and she was able to let go of some of the guilt she felt initially.  Feeling guilty doesn’t necessarily mean you are doing anything wrong.  Sometimes it just means you are doing something new that is still out of your comfort zone. 

These were the particular underlying beliefs that had kept her from getting some very appropriate help:

  • The female head of the household should make dinner for the family.
  • I have to do it all.
  • Others are not as competent as I am.
  • I’m the only one who can do it right.
  • Once you relax your standards, it’s a very slippery slope to having no standards at all.

Do any of these beliefs sound familiar to you?  Is the refrain “I have to do it all” something you hear in your own mind sometimes?  If you answered yes to either of these questions, that is very good news!  Because that means there is great potential in your life for getting more help.  All you need to do is re-frame one of these beliefs into something more flexible, and then look for ways of getting help. 

Here are some examples:

  • Lynne decided that every time she hears herself grousing to herself, “I have to do everything myself,” she would take it as a cue to question how she could get more help with something immediate. 
  • Once he realized he was being held hostage by “Others are not as competent as I am,” Richard invested the time to train one of his direct reports to take over a particular task which had become a boring burden for him. He is thrilled to be rid of the the task.  The new owner of the task, on the other hand, finds it challenging in a good way.
  • Raised as a “good girl,” Carol was afraid that if she relaxed her standards anywhere, she would be punished (somehow), and certainly no good would come from it.  She decided to proceed very cautiously.  She started on the home front.  She allowed herself to leave home in the morning without cleaning up her breakfast dishes.  Nothing bad happened, and the dishes were waiting for her when she came home after work. 

It’s a good idea to start small, like Carol did, where the consequences will impact you and no one else.

If you could use some targeted help in learning how and where you can get more help. contact me and let’s schedule an initial consult. 


20 May 2013

Stress Management 101: Focus on Solutions

I met with a prospective client recently for an initial consultation.  She wanted help addressing her uneven professional performance: she used to do A+ work all the time, now she finds herself doing “so-so” work some of the time for no apparent reason.  She wants to go back to A+ all the time but sheer will, intention, and “positive thinking” aren’t making it happen, and it’s stressing her out. 

I asked her several questions, including, “What else is going on for you on the so-so days?”  That turned out to be the key to what needed to happen next.  She hadn’t ever really looked at that.  She decided to hire me as her coach, and her first assignment was to notice what else is going on for her on the so-so days.

[Shameless plug: a coach can ask questions that approach the problem from a wholly different perspective from the individual’s, and THAT can get things moving again.  To paraphrase a quote from Albert Einstein: We can’t solve problems using the same mindset from which the problems arose.]

The “what else” that might be going on for you in your off days can be on any level, and if you experience a similar unevenness in your work, looking at the list below might be useful to you as well.  Here are some micro-questions for looking at “what else.”  If you have other good questions to add, please leave them as a comment.

  1. What’s the content you are working when doing so-so work, and is it different from the content you’re addressing at more effective times? 
  2. What’s the process you’re engaged in, and is it different from your process on better days (or hours)?  For example, are you doing a lot of writing today, or is it a day of interacting with other people?  Is it a day with 4,672 interruptions?
  3. Who are you interacting with today?
  4. What are you wearing?  I once worked with a woman who (it turned out) had a bad day every time she wore a certain pair of shoes. She hated the shoes because she thought they made her look matronly and sexless, so she felt bad about herself the whole day. But she’d paid a lot of money for them and made herself wear them.  [When she saw how much it was costing her (in the quality of her day and her output) to wear them, she got rid of them replaced them with a new pair that she loved. Problem solved.  I kid you not.  Alas, it’s not always this simple.]
  5. A total aside: my father was a primary care physician and ace diagnostician.  Once, he cured a patient’s daily headaches by having him get all new underwear that was looser.
  6. What took place prior to your noticing your meh performance — consider everything, including what you were thinking about. Did you have a conversation earlier in the day with your spouse (or child, nanny, colleague, boss, client, doctor’s office, etc)  that’s distracting you? Are you beating yourself up for not having finished the annual report?  Are you comparing yourself with a colleague or with Marissa Meyer or Naomi Watts and coming up short? Are you worried about an upcoming interview?  Are you worrying about something else?

Having a next step to take toward solving a nagging problem can be a huge relief.  My new client was so happy to have an assignment that would move things forward, knowing we would talk about her observations in next week’s coaching call. I don’t know what she’ll observe in the coming week, but we’ll look at it together and I’m confident something useful and actionable will come out of it. 

Effective people don’t stay stuck.  For more on this, see another recent post

Feel free to add to this topic with a comment here.


26 April 2013

Enhance Your Creative Process: 5 Free Online Tools

A while back, I wrote a post about enhancing the creative process.  There is so much  more to say on the topic.  For example, there are some useful, free online free tools out there to not only enhance your creativity, but assist you at various steps along the way.

To give you an idea, I’ve gathered a list of five free online tools for the creative process.  You may already use some of them or a competitor, but take a look at these if you’re not already familiar with them.  They may be useful to you.

  1. Mind Tools http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newCT_00.htm. The site is known for helping people — from struggling students to top scientists — exercise and improve their mind.  With a special section just for creativity, they offer a ton of options including Provocation, Morphological Analysis, and a Re-framing Matrix.  They also have lower key creativity tools for those who would need to schedule extra time to work the advanced ones.  There are also loads of other related tools for those who enjoy an intellectual challenge.
  2. Creativity Toolbox http://gocreate.com/tools/index.htm.  A lite version of the above, here you can utilize some creativity tools that are both easy to find and use and can help you kick start your creative mojo.  There are options in idea generation, instant stimulation, and even the problem-solving process. This free site can help you do a range of things, from coming up with a website name to telling you how a famous person would solve your problem.
  3. The Accidental Creative http://www.accidentalcreative.com/category/podcasts. If you’d rather listen to ideas than read them, this is the website for you because it includes many excellent podcasts.  The Accidental Creative has many tools for creativity, but the podcast section alone is worth a visit.  Todd Henry and company’s podcasts address topics like inverting the creative process, lying, and other intriguing angles.  And, should you get tired of listening, they also have good articles.
  4. Creative Something http://www.creativesomething.net/. Get some creative inspiration from one of the top bloggers on the subject, Tanner Christensen.  Every day he offers an interesting and sometimes quirky idea on creativity, which can include a useful iPhone app, suggestion, or new way of approaching old problems.  You can search through the archives for something that fits your dilemma or check out the most popular entries.
  5. The Creative Mind http://blogs.psychcentral.com/creative-mind/. Ever wonder about the psychology of creativity?  So does Douglas Eby, an expert in counseling psychology and blogger for Psych Central.  He has interviewed many artists, psychologists, and others about creative expression and features the science behind creativity, along with some useful tips in this online column.

The key factor in enhancing creativity is to do what works for you.  There are many things a person can do can do to enhance creativity, but not all of them will be a good fit for you at the time that you need it.  If a mind exercise is taking up too much time, read about a possible solution to the specific problem.  If reading doesn’t help, listen to a podcast on something related.  If none of the above five websites are helping, maybe it’s time to track a colleague down for some brainstorming.

You probably already know this, but it bears repeating: 95% of the time, an awful first draft of anything is still better than nothing, because at least you have something to improve on. Sometimes the unsuccessful terrible first shot at a solution provides the impetus for a creative breakthrough.  However, if you are certain beyond a doubt that your first draft will make matters worse for you, it might be time to return to the creative process itself.  Check out some of these sites and try some of the tools they offer.  They could make a difference for you.

Full disclosure: if you’re a card-carrying procrastinator, these sites may be a danger zone for you — don’t let yourself disappear into them!

What are the resources, tools, and strategies that work for you?  What are your creative challenges? Please share your thoughts in a comment.


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.