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.