Park downhill.

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As I wrote about here, I worked with a coach during my last six months as a doctoral student at Cornell.

My coach taught me many things. One of the most useful tools she gave me was also the simplest:  park downhill at the end of every workday. 

My coach wasn't talking about driving. She wanted me to get into the habit of consciously noting my next steps. This is what she called 'parking downhill.'

I've been following her advice for nearly a decade and it's made a big difference in my workflow.

When I park downhill, I can jump right back into productive mode. I simply release the handbrake and start rolling. 

You know….

…instead of sitting there, not remembering where I left off…

…and then checking Facebook, LinkedIn, and my emails in an attempt to “warm-up” my brain….

… until I realize I’ve lost (at least) an hour of my best working time to online distractions.

Sound familiar? 

That’s why consciously and deliberately ending my work session has been such a powerful practice for me.

It creates a buffer against distractions.  

It builds a direct onramp to productive mode (pardon the driving pun, I couldn’t resist).

And I get the added benefit of establishing a clear boundary between work and rest, which is great for my mental health. (For more on this topic click here).

In the past few years, I've taken it to the next level by also establishing a short ‘warm-up’ ritual. I now start my day by identifying my goals and making a rough schedule for the hours ahead.

Want to try it out? Check out my PLAN YOUR DAY WORKSHEET. It guides you through a series of simple questions that will help you deliberately start and end your workday.

Try it out and let me know what you think. 

Happy Fall!

Djahane

Want to be more productive? Think like a mountaineer.

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I recently went on a 5-day mountaineering adventure in the Swiss Alps. The trip kicked my butt. When I got home, I had giant bruises on my legs and a rib blockage. Everything hurt. And yet, I was beaming. Like other significant endeavors we undertake--writing a book, developing a new business model--mountaineering is as rewarding as it is painful.

With my recent trip fresh in mind, today's post is about what mountaineering can teach us about productivity.
 

1. Purge the excess

In his book "Extreme Alpinism: Climbing Light, Fast and High," Mark Twight recounts how he and his climbing buddies learned to whittle down what they carried to the bare minimum. Unlike mountain tourists who pay others to take their stuff, cutting-edge climbers carry everything on their backs as they ascend steep and remote cliffs and glaciers. Twight recounts trimming handles off toothbrushes and foregoing bowls (instead, eating out of helmets). Mountains will not tolerate flotsam, jetsam, or the Sunday paper. In mountaineering, streamlining is the key to attaining great heights and breathing rarefied air. 
 

Similarly, when you start on a big project, be it finishing your book, making a movie or designing a new product, it's essential to focus on the task at hand and purge the non-essentials from your calendar. It's not forever. Just until you get the job done. I teach my clients to regularly ask themselves the 3 Ds:

  • What can I delete?

  • What can I delay?

  • What can I delegate?

Asking yourself these three questions trims the fat off your calendar. It clears the space and time you need to make substantial progress on your important projects.


2. Keep your eye off the prize (mostly)

Obviously, you need to decide which mountain you want to climb. And sure, every once in a while, you'll need to take stock of how far you've come and how much further you still need to go. Sometimes you even need to readjust your goal. But a glance at the summit and the map from time to time is enough. Mountaineers will tell you that for the most part, you should just focus on your next move or step. 


When it comes to work, productivity experts talk about focusing on the lead measure versus the lag measure. The lag measure is the outcome (the mountaineer's summit); the lead measure refers to the tasks required to get there (each step or climbing maneuver). To use the example of an illustrator: Her lag measure is to finish the illustrations for her book. Her lead measure is to do four hours of concentrated, distraction-free drawing a day. Her focus on drawing (and not on finishing the book), will keep her on track and help her bypass any doubts and anxiety she might have regarding the magnitude of her project and the looming deadline. 
 

3. Master the art of the break

Mountaineering days last anywhere between 12 and 18 hours. Consequently, climbers have to be experts at managing their energy.  Breaks are essential to getting through a long and arduous climb.  

But there is an art to the break. Take a break too early, and you'll lose momentum. Take a break too late, and you'll risk depleting your energy stores. If your break is too short, you won't adequately recover. But if it's too long, you'll waste precious time and have a hard time starting up again. Turns out, a deliberate break routine is as essential for success as the output you achieve in your moments of activity.
 

Analogously, my clients do well when they engage in spurts of concentrated effort and then take nourishing breaks. A good break is one in which you move your body, eat, drink, and redirect your focus. Watching videos on YouTube or checking Facebook may feel like a nice break, but it's actually nothing of the sort. And you also want to experiment with how much time you need to feel replenished without losing too much momentum. A well-executed 5 to 15- minute break can do wonders. And like with mountaineering, once you hit your target for the day, it's time to relax and recuperate, so you're ready for the next day's challenge.
 

Are you ready to finish your thesis, movie, book, or business plan? Do you have some other big project on the horizon? Try out these three simple tricks and let me know how it goes!


Try tinkering for a change

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There is no doubt that the Industrial Revolution propelled England and subsequently the rest of the world toward unprecedented social, cultural, economic, and environmental transformation. What prompted such dramatic upheaval? When most of us think of the Industrial Revolution we think of it as a sudden break; a series of rapid, sweeping changes triggered by a combination of new energy sources, new scientific discoveries and new technologies.

But the Industrial Revolution didn’t happen in a day, and it wasn’t based solely on new discoveries that immediately upended everything that came before. As my historian husband recently pointed out to me, the insights achieved by Kepler, Boyle, Newton, and other scientific geniuses had limited direct impact. The real "geniuses" of the Industrial Revolution were tinkerers—men and women who made incremental improvements on existing technologies based on a trial-and-error approach.

My husband mentioned this because I've got tinkering on my mind.

I keep getting the sense that we live in a culture that's infatuated with extreme, all-encompassing changes. Whether it's in our organizations, businesses or our lives, as soon as we get the feeling that something needs to shift, our minds quickly jump to grand ideas of disrupting the status quo in some major way. It's as if there is only one kind of meaningful change --  the dramatic kind that tries to annihilate the “old” by installing the “new.”

The problem, however, is that significant changes often require a considerable investment of time and energy. They also often create a lot of additional work and waste, and they present daunting obstacles. And while occasionally a radical change is precisely what is needed, I'm convinced that, in the vast majority of cases, such overhauls merely displace old dissatisfactions onto novel situations, rather than generating genuinely new outcomes.

Many years ago, while I was conducting field research on what happens to cell phones and laptops when we throw them away, I found myself interviewing a man who worked on repairing such devices in a poor neighborhood of Accra, Ghana. As I watched him work, he suddenly turned to me and said, "You Westerners. You always want the next new thing. You have no patience with repairing. You don't even know how to repair things anymore. "

This comment struck me, and I have subsequently heard this sentiment repeated all over the world. I read up on the idea that we have stopped repairing our things and found that cell phone repairman’s observations were absolutely right on. Globally, our ability and willingness to tinker is rapidly dwindling. We’re addicted to an “out with the old and in with the new” way of thinking and living.

This tossing out and starting over is problematic enough with "stuff. "But what about in our lives? Is it sustainable and efficient to keep looking for the next new radical thing? And do grand gestures actually move us closer to what we want?

I have my doubts.

I think we need to be more selective and cautious when it comes to big change.

Instead, I propose we try tinkering more.

It works for kids—just watch them. My kids are always working on something, trying out this and then that, adjusting when they see something doesn't work and moving on to what does. It's like biological evolution in miniature.

And it works for designers. A colleague who is a professor of design recently told me, "This is what you need to understand about us designers. We tinker. We take things into our hands, and we work on them, play around with them. We do this again and again until we get it right."

His comment prompted me to think that it might just work for my clients as well, as they try to change their lives or their companies.

So next time the desire for a major change strikes you, take some time to zoom in on the specific area you are dissatisfied with. If you're itching to quit your job, try carefully parsing your work into those elements that you enjoy and those that you hate.

If you long to move, try figuring out exactly what you want more of in your new place of residence.

If you want to overhaul your company or organization, analyze precisely what is driving this urge.

Sometimes you think you need to entirely throw out your old life and go live in a cabin in the woods. Yet when you break it down, you might realize that adding some more plants to your home, committing to going for a walk in the park during your lunch break, and signing up for some weekend trips might meet your needs instead. These are things you can tinker with and try out before you throw the baby out with the bath water.

In another case, you might be convinced that you want to quit the board of an organization, even though that organization means a lot to you. Yet when you take a closer look, you see that it's just that one, mansplaining, manpeating colleague that you need to shield yourself from. Again, this is a need that you can address in various ways. You can experiment to find out what might work, before giving up on something that actually means a great deal to you.

Tinkering involves incremental, low-cost changes that often give you immediate feedback on their effectiveness. And even if that feedback is negative, you've still gained something: you've found what doesn't work, and this knowledge often propels you toward what does. 

What are some areas in your life or work that you could tinker with?



Want to feel calmer? Don't paint while you eat breakfast.

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The great painter Balthus (otherwise known as Count Balthus Klossowski de Rola) was a very creative man. His paintings have been exhibited at major shows at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Tate Gallery, the Museum of Modern Art, and countless other of the world’s most prestigious museums. He was one of few living artists to have ever been represented in the Louvre, which bought his painting the Children from the private collection of Pablo Picasso.

I have been reading about Balthus lately. And while I am deeply troubled by this relationship to his subjects (to the point that I considered not using him as an example for this post), I couldn’t help but be struck by Balthus’ creative process. Below is a description of his daily routine.

Balthus breakfasts and reads his mail at 9:30. He then studies the light conditions of the morning. “This is the one way to know if you will paint today, ifthe progress into the painting’s mystery will be intense,” he says. Either in the late morning or after lunch, he makes his way to his studio, which is located on the outskirts of the village. He begins his painting day with a prayer, and follows the prayer with hours of meditation in front of the canvas. Sometimes this is it—he does not add a single brush stroke to the canvas.
 

It seems clear that Balthus does not use a time management app. And yet his days are structured. What I find striking is that Bathus’ time is made up of qualities rather than quantities—the quality of the light, of the meditation, of the prayer, of the canvas.
 

I am not suggesting, at all, that your day should look like Balthus’s. After all, you’re probably not a world-famous painter, and you’re almost certainly not a Count.   What I am suggesting, instead, is that you start differentiating between different qualities of time.
 

Notice that Balthus distinguishes between shallow time and deep time. Balthus does not read the mail in front of his canvas. He does not paint while eating breakfast. He reserves parts of the day for doing shallow things, things that do not require his utmost concentration, feeling and creativity—like reading the mail—and parts of the day for deep things, when he is in front of his canvas, meditating, praying or painting.

Most of us try to cram in something extra here and there to make it all fit in. This is an invitation to ineffective and unhealthy multitasking. However, distinguishing between qualities of time, as Balthus does, has the opposite effect. It keeps things out. 

This keeping out works in two ways. It keeps the shallow away from the deep, and the deep away from the shallow. The effect of this is to render the qualities of your day distinct—in fact, it is only this that makes different qualities even possible.
 

If you are working on an important project—be it a manuscript or an illustration or a quilt—you would probably like some time like Balthus’s afternoon: deep time. You do not want to be interrupted. This time is reserved, sacred.

Conversely, almost everyone will always have shallow stuff to do. Keep up with your correspondence, send out bills, work the till, book a hotel, attend a meeting, do the laundry. I am not disparaging this quality of time by calling it shallow—I am merely noting that it does not require you to dive in deep in the same way that your deep work does. In fact, shallow time can be a relief—somewhat mindless tasks that you can float through, paying attention to whatever distracts you, ticking off your to-dos on a list, perhaps listening to music or a podcast.
 

Shallow time also does not want to be interrupted by deep time. It is hard to enjoy the lighter quality of attention that can be so pleasant during shallow time if your deep work is barging in, demanding that you pay attention to it.

Instead of trying to go at everything you have to do in one undifferentiated blur of activity this approach lets you enjoy the experience of the different qualities of time that make up your day while at the same time allowing you to work more effectively and get more done—both more deep work and more shallow work. The Overwhelm is the product of not doing so—it is the experience of a single, mixed, noisy, frenetic quality throughout the day, something like static on a radio.


So, if you’re longing for more calm and clarity during your day, experiment with eating breakfast when you eat breakfast and painting when you paint.

Prep like a French chef.

Prep like a French Chef.

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Fancy chefs prep before they start cooking. They chop vegetables, slice cuts of meat, mix sauces and sometimes even par-cook select ingredients. They also take out the tools and spices they will need. This preparation is essential for handling the mealtime rush. It’s so vital, in fact, that there is even a special phrase for this practice: it’s called mise en place.

Literally translated, mise en place means ‘putting into place.’ The chef puts everything she needs into place so that, once she begins to cook, she is free to engage in her creative work with single-pointed concentration.

I have done this at home a couple of times—got everything ready before I started cooking. It was awesome. (I included pouring myself a glass of wine and finding a great playlist as two essential steps in my prepping protocol).

But mise en place goes beyond mere logistics.  It’s also a state of mind. It means you value preparedness. It means you acknowledge that setting up the conditions for creativity—be it in the kitchen, the lab, the studio or the office—has value in and of itself.

No matter what you do, chances are you will do it better with a little mise en place.

Let’s use a documentary filmmaker as an example. For a filmmaker to create a new film, she has to set up her working space. She has to order supplies. She has to schedule and coordinate filming, make travel plans, book a studio for editing, and pay her bills.

You could even take this idea a step further. Presumably, the filmmaker lives in a house or apartment. That means, she has to clean, do laundry, and take care of maintenance issues as they arise.

And let's not forget that the filmmaker lives in a physical body. She needs to eat, exercise, and find inspiration. (After all, she's not a robot! She needs to regularly cultivate her creativity and energy). And she needs to clear out the physical, emotional and mental space so that she can actually think.

Whether she likes it or not, whether she acknowledges it or not, these activities are prerequisites for her creative work.

Unfortunately, we tend to chronically undervalue or downright neglect the value of such tasks.  

It makes sense. We’re busy.  We feel overwhelmed. We’re struggling to just get through the week. We're convinced we can't afford to clear out time in our precious schedules for such basic things. Instead, we tell ourselves we’ll squeeze in the prep work whenever we can. Stuff it in the margins of our already overloaded work week.

The thing is, this way of thinking generates a lot of unnecessary stress and anxiety. This is because there is no way around the fact that we need to prepare and that preparation takes a certain amount of time. (Usually, a lot more time than we'd like to admit). Ignoring this reality makes us feel like we’re always playing catch up.

We need to switch things around.  We need to take our cues from chefs and intentionally reclaim time for mise en place.

I’ve experimented with doing just that. I reserve some time on Sunday or Monday to shop for food and supplies, tidy my desk, pay my bills, schedule appointments and meetings, send out invoices and respond to emails.

Once in a while, when things inevitably pile up and I start to feel overwhelmed, I even schedule a ‘misen place retreat week’. I spend 5 days decluttering my office, computer, and mind. During these retreats, I also focus on setting up systems and structures that facilitate productive work during the rest of the year.

I’ve found that this practice makes me feel calmer and more focused. I get to clear out all the little tasks that are nagging at the back of my mind. I then have the rest of the week to zoom in on my productive work.

I’ve also discovered that there is something incredibly dignified and self-caring about acknowledging the fact that I need time to set up before I can create.

Inspired to try it out?  Schedule half a day or even a full day every week (ideally on Sunday or Monday) for mise en place.  If you feel like you can't afford that much time, even a dedicated hour or two at the start of the week will make a big difference.

What would you include in your mise en place protocol?
Do you need to start with a mise en place retreat?

Let me know if you try it out.

Overwhelmed? Choice overload might be part of your problem.

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What is truly unique about the age we live in? Social media, being able to order things online, or the low cost of travel? I think what sets this era apart is the number of choices we are faced with. Peter Drucker, the preeminent management thinker of the 20th century speculated that when historians look back on our age, they will remark that, “for the first time--literally--substantial and rapidly growing numbers of people have choices. For the first time, they will have to manage themselves.”

Are we ready to manage ourselves? Most people, I would say--including myself--are not. The sheer number of options, competing deadlines and irreconcilable priorities, coupled with the never-ending external distractions has most of us floating in a condition Brigit Schulte has dubbed “the Overwhelm.” One of the causes of the Overwhelm is the widespread, yet highly problematic, belief that you can and should strive to have it all.

Let me tell you about a client I had:

Let’s call her Lucy.

Lucy contacted me because she was feeling utterly overwhelmed, so overwhelmed in fact, that she’d basically stop doing anything at all. She’d sit down in the morning, look at her growing to-do list, and not knowing where to even start, she’d ‘warm up’ by surfing the web. By the time she’d look up from her screen, she’d wasted yet another day.

Finishing her book was at the very top of Lucy's to-do list. Lucy was an assistant professor and having her book out was critical for her tenure review. She had been struggling to finish the manuscript for over a year now. That’s why she contacted me. Things were getting down to the wire.During our first meeting, Lucy kept mentioning in passing other projects she was working on in addition to her book. After a while, I started to get curious. Exactly how much did Lucy have on her plate?

On a hunch, I had her list every commitment she had. I took notes:

  • She was working on the book (and to finish the book she still had to do a bunch of additional research).

  • She had her usual teaching and administrative duties.

  • She was advising a number of bachelor and masters students on their theses.

  • She was translating work for some colleagues in Finland.

  • She was preparing a photo exhibit related to her research for a local museum.

  • She had been awarded a competitive grant to do a service-learning project with her students. 

  • She was applying for another grant to work on a new, totally fascinating research project.

  • She was trying to learn Italian to be able to better communicate with her fiance’s family.

  • Oh, and did I forget to mention? She was getting married and had to plan a wedding with about 200 guests in a city across the country.

No wonder Lucy felt overwhelmed!

Lucy is not alone. She’s an interested and interesting person, curious about the world, dynamic, talented, and open to new experiences. And always a little worried about missing out. This, of course, is wonderful. And it’s also a very privileged position to be in, let’s not forget that either. But it also has a dark side: the Overwhelm.

The first step in resolving this is recognizing how taxing it is to have so many  choices weigh on us. We need to see and seeing the false promise that the abundance of choices entails. Whether explicitly or implicitly, we are constantly bombarded with the message that we can and should have it all. The result: choice overload.

Consider this: until the 1900s the word priority was only used in the singular form. We spoke of a priority (singular). It was only after the industrial revolution that we started speaking of priorities (multiple). The notion of priorities is a modern invention and one that gets us in trouble.

The thing is, you can’t have it all. You have to figure out what’s essential for you to (at least for now). 

How do you get clear on what’s essential? One way is to take the time to consider the big picture, figure out what's important to you, what your values are, where you want to go. There are a lot of great exercises out there that can help you get a sense of your compass or North Star. 

Personally, I prefer this simple, yet powerful exercise:

  • Start by writing down everything you’ve got going on on a separate note card or post-it note. Often, the mere act of putting everything down on paper and seeing it all in front of you leads to powerful insights. 

  • Now try to categorize or group the cards in various ways. Play around. Come up with categories/labels.

  • What do you notice? Do any insights come up? Any questions arise?

  • Next, systematically ask yourself:

  • What’s essential?  

  • What can you eliminate?

  • What can you delegate?

  • What can you delay? (Experiment with creating a timeline with your cards). 

  • What can you automate/systematize?

Given the realities of modern life, most of us can’t get down to one priority. Perhaps not even the great Peter Drucker managed that. But  getting a little more pointed and focused in our daily life is a good first step on the road to taming the Overwhelm.



Why A Good Idea is (Almost) Never Enough

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Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate a good idea as much as the next person.

In fact, I think of my life as punctuated by a series of pivots triggered by powerful ideas:

  • The time before and after I learned how to appreciate my non-toothache rather than take the invisible good in my life for granted (the trigger: meeting Thich Nhat Hanh).

  • The time before and after I understood my life as situated at the intersection of biography and history (the trigger: reading this article by C. Wright Mills)

  • Or, the time before and after I appreciated the power of thinking in terms of ‘incidental movement’ and a ‘nutrition GPA’ rather than playing the health boom and bust thing (the triggers: listening to Brock Armstrong and Monica Reinagel’s podcasts).

The list goes and on and on.

No doubt: a good idea can be a powerful catalyst. As author Mark Dunn writes:

“Most of the lasting change that has been forged in the history of this world came not from a wielding of the swift and bloody sword of battle but from the shaping scalpel of ideas.”

And if you’re anything like me, you’re always on the prowl for an exciting new idea- be it in the form of words (think: articles, podcasts, Ted Talks, books) or a new product or service (think: iPod and internet banking). A new idea has the allure of a shiny, new Christmas present.

And yet, I have come to realize something important through working with people and organizations that want to make a change.

A good idea is (almost) never enough.

A good idea is a good start, but can only take you so far. And this, it seems to me, is an important point to keep in mind as we start a new year filled with resolutions for meaningful change.

A little detour into the history of automotive development will help me explain what I mean. The electric starter motor (pictured above) was invented around the turn of the 19th century. Before the electric starter came on the scene, most people started their cars using a hand crank (though there were other ways to start a car such as wind-up springs and gunpowder cylinders). The hand crank was far from optimal. It often made the driver dirty. It required considerable physical effort, and worst of all, it was dangerous.

And then the electric starter motor burst onto the scene. It solved all these problems. It made it possible to effortlessly start a car from the comfort and safety of the driver’s seat. A true innovation. However, according to historian Virginia Scharff’s fascinating book, it took years for automakers to adopt the electric starter motor. The significant delay between invention and implementation goes against our intuitive sense of technological development. There was a problem. Someone invented a technology that solved the problem cheaply and effectively. And yet, companies refused to use it; they continued to make cars with cranks for many years.

How could this be?

The problem was that at that time, people believed that cars were machines used by men. The electric starter engine, on the other hand, was considered to be a technology for women. Like the electric car, the electric starter was targeted towards the “weaker sex” that couldn’t handle the hand crank. Consequently, integrating the electric starter technology in regular cars, would, in the minds of car manufacturers, demasculinize the car and its driver. In the end, car manufacturers did adopt the electric starter motor. And men continued to buy cars. And the electric starter didn’t fundamentally transform notions of masculinity (unfortunately). But it took a lot longer than it should have.

Why am I telling you about the history of the electric starter engine? There’s a lesson here. In fact, there are multiple lessons to be learned.

The first lesson-- and this one warms my sociologist’s heart-- is that innovation and the adoption of an innovative technology do not happen in a vacuum (if you want a good joke on this theme click here). The specific historical, cultural, and social context within which technological change takes place is critical to the change process. In the case of the starter engine, cultural beliefs about masculinity and femininity inhibited manufacturers from adopting a technology that would serve their customers better and give their companies an edge over the competition.

Sure that’s interesting, but that’s not precisely applicable to those of us trying to become more effective, efficient and healthier in the new year. Or is it?

I propose that there is another, related lesson to be learned from the history of the electric starter motor: when it comes to personal development, it is rarely a lack of good ideas that holds us back. We’ve all got plenty of “starter motor” ideas up our sleeves. Most of us can recite a litany of principles, techniques, systems, and apps that should help us become happier, healthier, and more productive. But given how abundant good ideas are in the realm of personal development yet how few of us actually make any real changes, I suspect we’re focusing on the wrong thing.

Because as the history of the starter motor shows us, to change you need to think deeply and widely about the problem you're trying to solve and the broader context in which you’re trying to effect change.

How do you do this?

I’ve come up with a two-step process through my work coaching people and teams that want to make a change. And because I am an avid organic gardener in my free time, I like to use an agro-metaphor whenever I can, so please bear with me.

The first thing you need to do is to identify and uproot the weeds. In this case, the weeds are dysfunctional beliefs. Stanford Professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans coined the term ‘dysfunctional beliefs’ in their excellent book “Designing Your Life.” Burnett and Evans use the term to refer to beliefs that we’ve inherited through society that are neither true nor particularly helpful.

A historical example of a dysfunctional belief is that if you use an electric starter engine, you won’t be a real man. Clearly, this belief is a thing of the past. But there are many other dysfunctional beliefs lurking around pretty much every corner, including the personal development world.

And these dysfunctional beliefs limit our understanding of the problem and consequently constrain our ability to come up with new solutions.

In terms of making a change in your personal and professional life, here are the top two dysfunctional beliefs many of my clients have :

If I find that ready-made perfect app, method, book, idea, system, notebook, etc., I’ll stop feeling overwhelmed, and everything will fall into place.

Time management is enough. I just need to plan my week and then stick to the plan. That way, I’ll become a productivity machine.

These two dysfunctional beliefs are at the core of many of my clients’ struggles. 9 out of 10 times, the excellent app or color-coded time management program doesn’t actually translate into real progress. And unfortunately, most people react to this failure by blaming themselves and/or losing hope. Few stop and think systematically about WHY the fancy new gadget or program isn’t working in the first place. *

And this brings me to the second step in making a lasting change: the loosening of the soil. How do you loosen the soil? You loosen the soil by applying what designers call the “cycle of the iterative design process” to your life.

Instead of squeezing yourself into a standardized method or system, you start by taking the time to go through the cyclic process of prototyping, testing, analyzing, and refining a possible solution to a problem you're struggling with. So for instance, if bullet journal isn’t solving all of your problems, then think about what is actually going on and why you can’t seem to make any progress on that report/manuscript/illustration/health goal that you’ve identified as important.

And to do this, you need to take a few steps. First, take the time to figure out who you are right now (because this always changes), what you want (also, obviously, a moving target), your particular circumstances (again always in motion) and finally think systematically about your unique schedule and work process.

And based on this collection of data you analyze what’s working and where you need to make adjustments. You do what designers call prototyping or what entrepreneurs call build-measure-learn. Put simply, you try things out-- simple, inexpensive, easy to implement changes that allow you to collect more data on yourself. And when you inevitably don’t solve everything in one fell swoop, you don’t lose hope. Instead, you get curious, curious like a scientist without judgment. And then you refine your understanding of the problem, and you adjust your plan and try again.

You go through this over and over again until you find something that works (for now).To get back to my agricultural metaphor, you need to constantly till your soil. This keeps things loose and agile, and this way sets the conditions for a new idea to take root and grow into something substantial.

The beauty of taking this approach is that it’s dynamic (just like you and your circumstances are) and it’s individually-tailored to your needs. And it is precisely for this reason, that this approach works.

Sounds intriguing but you don't exactly know how to implement what I’m talking about? In my next article, I will outline a series of exercises that will help you apply the cycle of the iterative design process to your life.

So whatever you do, don’t get too hung up on finding the perfect new idea that will change everything in 2019. Instead, start identifying in what areas of your personal and professional life you’re still using the hand crank. And then be curious, try stuff, collect data and be kind to yourself. And maybe something new will take hold.

Wishing you a happy and healthy 2019!

*You may have other dysfunctional beliefs. Figuring them out is a crucial step before implementing any type of fix. And keep in mind that dysfunctional beliefs are unique to you. Just like in gardening, one person’s weed is another person’s delicacy (think purslane).

Minimum Viable Progress

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I’ve been struggling to get started on two big projects: I want to write a book on the Align Method--a method I developed to help creatives/knowledge workers maximize their output. And I want to organize and clean every room in my house. 

Every day I tell myself, today is the day! I’m going to start! It’s going to feel so great to have that manuscript in hand. I will feel so much calmer once I’ve gone through the house. And then I invariably get distracted and make zero progress. 

Sound familiar?

And then it occurred to me: I am letting myself be distracted by other, less essential work because I feel overwhelmed. I should be following the advice I give my clients: apply the idea of minimum viable progress. 

Coined by Greg McKeown, the idea plays on the concept of a minimum viable product. A minimum viable product is what entrepreneurs use to describe the simplest iteration of their product that can be tested by potential customers. Analogously, thinking in terms of minimum viable progress is a way to break down big goals into bite-size do-able tasks.

I have decided to launch my own 30-day minimum viable progress challenge starting tomorrow. Here are the rules I have developed for myself, based on what I know as a coach:

  • I will write for only 30 minutes a day on my book and then spend 30 minutes working on my house.
  • I will do these two 30-minute sessions first thing in the morning, back-to-back.
  • I will take a 10-minute break between the two sessions.
  • Though it’s tempting to add on more goals, I am going to stick to these two projects.
  • I am also going to be disciplined about cutting myself off after 30 minutes, even if I want to keep going.
  • At the end of my sessions, I will take a few seconds to jot down in my notebook my plan for the next day.
  • I am going to keep a visual record of my progress using the Seinfeld Method.
  • Finally, I ’m going to reward myself by scheduling a fun activity after my work sessions.

Do you have a big project you’ve been putting off? Want to join me on a 30-day MVP challenge? If so, send me a message with your goal, and we’ll keep each other accountable!

 

 

 

Protect the Asset

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I knew a guy in graduate school. Let’s call him Tom. Tom ruffled his hair every time he walked down the hallway in our department. When Tom saw a professor, he made a conscious effort to move quickly, look down and exasperatedly mumble something under his breath. He mastered the art of appearing busy and overwhelmed, sometimes to the point of being rude. Why? Because Tom was convinced that our professors would assume he was working hard. And he was right. Tom had a reputation among the faculty as a hard worker, a serious scholar. [I'm pretty sure Tom got this idea from this Seinfeld episode].

Tom was ridiculous. But he was also on to something. He was tapping into, and subsequently gaming, a ubiquitous belief that imbues busyness with virtue. He was harnessing the power of the wide-held conviction that serious and ambitious people put themselves last. That the real winners, the ones who get ahead, put work first and squeeze everything else in—be it their health, relationships, and recreation—whenever they can. In fact, as this article argues, we live in a time when people have taken to flaunting their busy schedules much like their wealth. 

Leadership guru, Michael Hyatt, calls this belief “the hustle fallacy.” He argues that many of us believe we only have two choices: either work 100+ hours and be a winner or give up on our ambitions and engage in self-care. If we prioritize our needs—be it the need for nutrition, movement, rest, or, God forbid, play and creativity—we’ll be losers at work. But this is faulty thinking. To excel, we need time to recharge.

I knew this other guy in graduate school. Let’s call him Marc. (And just for fun, let’s say I married him years later). He was incredibly disciplined. He woke up every morning at the same time. He was religious about getting 8 hours of sleep. He’d wake up, make his coffee and sit down and write for 4-5 hours. Every morning, right after he woke up. He spent the rest of the day exercising, reading, attending talks, going to meetings, and catching up with friends. Marc seemed to breeze through graduate school. He had fun and was fun to be around. There was a certain lightness to him. 

Marc also finished his dissertation in record time, got a few prestigious, highly competitive grants and scored an awesome job. Marc intuitively understood that he was his biggest asset and that running himself into the ground would be counterproductive. He knew that to succeed at his work, he needed to take care of himself—that he was at the center of everything that mattered to him.

What if you woke up every morning and took care of yourself first? What if you took the time to prepare and then mindfully eat a nutritious and delicious meal? What if you made sure you could exercise every morning, or meditate or engage in some other activity that recharged you? What if you vehemently protected your eight hours of sleep every night, no matter what? And what if you decided that having some fun every day was more important than doing the dishes, folding the laundry or staying up all night to redo that report?

Of course, this is not always possible. There are projects to deliver. Meetings to attend. Appointments to be scheduled, and so on. But what if you flipped things around? What if you came first? And then you scheduled everything else around your need for self-care? Would you be embarrassed? Would you feel guilty? Would you worry about what other people thought? 

The thing is, if we take care of ourselves--if we are selfish--we have more to give.

And the most recent research on productivity and efficiency is saying pretty much the same thing. It’s telling us to do just that. Be selfish. Flip things around. “Protect the asset.” What's the asset, you ask? It’s not the stuff you own. It's you. It’s pretty simple, really. If you are not well, everything else suffers along with you--your work, your relationships, and your community.

Still having a hard time seeing why you need to protect the asset? Try this: Make a list of your top 5 goals in life. What’s important to you? Maintaining a happy relationship with your partner? Spending lots of quality time with your kids? Excelling at work? Effecting social change? Growing spiritually and emotionally? List them in order. Now identify your “push goal.” The idea of a push goal comes from Chalene Johnson. It refers to a goal that makes all the other goals possible. 

When it comes to the big picture, when you think about your top 5 priorities, then your “push goal” will inevitably be your well-being. Think about it. How can you enjoy your relationship with your loved ones to the fullest, if you're not feeling well? How can you generate new ideas and excellent products, if you feel run down, exhausted and unhappy? What will come of your social activism if you’re too run-down to get out of bed? 

You. Come. First. Protect the asset.

Want more food for thought? Here are some articles and podcasts on the theme of self-care that I found particularly interesting:

On why self care isn't selfish.

On why people in leadership positions should take care of themselves.

On how being happy makes you more productive.

On the importance of rest and reflection for boosting creativity.

 

 

 

Why I love my 'stupid' phone.

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I am not a Luddite. I'll be the first to admit that I love Spotify, WhatsApp, and my Seconds Pro exercise app. But I am also a big proponent of being disciplined and deliberate when it comes to digital technologies.

In fact, as a productivity coach, I'll frequently start by getting my clients "digitally unhooked." We'll spend a few sessions creating distance between my new client and his/her phone through various personalized systems and habits. Time and time again, the results are astounding: no matter what my client does for a living, once the phone has been tamed, productivity goes up and anxiety melts away.

This HBR article confirms my experience. Silent mode is not enough. The key is to put your phone in a different room when you're trying to do real, substantive work.

I've even taken it a step further. For about two years now, I have been using an old-school cell phone (or what I lovingly refer to as my "stupid phone"). It's the kind of phone where you have to type each individual letter for each individual word. Needless to say, my reflexive messaging has done down dramatically. I keep my smartphone for music, messaging, and my favorite apps, but I store it in a drawer upstairs in a different room. I only use it for a specific task (and I get some exercise to boot since I have to walk up the stairs to get it). On top of that, I got an alarm clock, so I don't need my phone next to my bed any longer. And I've started using a spiral notebook and a pen to keep track of my ideas and my to-do lists. Recently, I resurrected my digital camera.

Reverting back to paper and pen, having two separate cell phones, an alarm clock and a camera might seem a little excessive to some, but in my case, these slight modifications have had a profound impact on my personal and professional life. I am way more focused, present and mindful  I've been in a long time.

Do you have any hacks or techniques that have helped you free yourself from the grip of your smartphone? I'd love to hear them!

5 Steps to Taking Charge of Your Time

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After graduating from college in 2002, I enrolled in a contemporary dance BFA program in Montreal. My favorite instructor was a petite and dynamic member of the Marie Chouinard Dance Company. Annabelle’s mother tongue was French, but she taught in English. Her class started at 8:00 AM sharp every day, 5 days a week. We did our best to follow her, but it was early, and we were tired.  One particularly sluggish morning, Annabelle started impatiently shaking her head. She then proceeded to jump up and down and yell,

“You must grab the beast by its corns!”

Um. What?

Annabelle was trying to say “take the bull by its horns.” She wanted us to understand that to move forward we needed to squeeze everything out of the time we had. Every day. No exceptions.  Her phrasing was off (and invariably caused us to chuckle) but her admonition to show up ready to focus stuck with me.

I stopped dancing a long time ago, but I still often think of Annabelle and her insistence that we fiercely grab every moment by the horns (or corns as it may be). I think of Annabelle when I spend half of my productive working hours mindlessly cycling through all my social media accounts. Annabelle pops into my mind when I allow my morning to be fractured by the urge to respond to every email and text message on the spot (rather than batching them). I see Annabelle’s frustrated face when I forget to take a moment to assess if that “urgent matter” at work can wait until later.  

Grabbing the beast by its corns means using my time deliberately. Not because I am a productivity freak and workaholic. On the contrary.  I focus intensely on my work precisely so that I have time for other things I love: going for a walk in the woods, reading a novel on the couch, or weeding my prized Hokkaido squash plants. In short, I tightly grab hold of the corns during short intense bursts of productivity, so I can fully let go the rest of the time.

Proactively planning my week is the most effective way I have found to judiciously use my time.  Here are the steps I take so I don't get lost in the whirl of busy-ness:

  1. Every Monday morning I take ten to fifteen minutes to review my larger goals. I then fill out my weekly schedule.

  2. I always start by protecting the asset. This means the first thing I do is block off times for exercise, meditation, meal preparation and mindful eating.

  3. Next, I make sure to block off time for the important people in my life.

  4. Now comes the tricky part: I schedule large chunks of time for my productive work, the kind of work that requires concentrated effort. Productive work is the work that will move me forward in my career. In my case, it’s writing articles and conceptualizing new classes and workshops. For others, this might be drawing new illustrations or editing their films. I get the best results when I schedule my productive work session at the start of the day, ideally before I’ve even checked my email. During my productive work sessions, I commit to switching off my phone and logging off my email and social media accounts.

  5. Finally, I schedule time at the end of my productive work sessions and in the evenings (times when my brain is too tired for productive work) for what I call mindless tasks. Mindless tasks include answering emails, formatting my articles, looking up citations, paying bills and so forth.

Without a plan and a clear sense of what is important, it’s easy to waste time mindlessly reacting to other people’s agendas or compulsively checking your Instagram account.

Try planning out your week this way and see if it helps you grab the beast by its corns.

There is no way around it:  if you don’t take charge of your time, someone or something else will.

Have you found other useful strategies to help you manage your workflow? I’d love to hear about them.

 

 

From Detour To Deliberate (Inside Higher Ed, 1 May 2018)

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The problem of post-Ph.D. employment, particularly for arts and humanities graduates, has become a mainstay topic of higher education blogs, conferences and other discussion forums. Diagnosing the problem’s underlying causes and recommending strategies to solve it -- both on institutional and individual levels -- has become a movement in its own right, as illustrated by the widely used term “alt-ac,” meaning alternative academic careers.

A common theme among commentators is that Ph.D. job seekers should highlight their competencies rather than the content of their field. But a closer look at hiring practices among major nonuniversity employers reveals a serious flaw in this strategy.

The competency approach to Ph.D. studies has gained a lot of traction in recent years. It proposes that departments strengthen non-field-specific training and that graduating Ph.D.s learn to market themselves better to potential employers. Thus, rather than emphasizing an expertise in medieval literature or Italian art history, the job seeker’s résumé should highlight transferable skills like creative thinking, writing, project management or data analysis. This recommendation is based on two assumptions: first, that the skill set that Ph.D.s bring to the table is broader than first meets the eye, and, second, that employers in nonacademic sectors are looking for professionals with such a broad palette of skills. Neither assumption is wrong. Yet the equation still doesn’t hold up.

We have spent the past several years working intensively on the alt-ac problem. One of us specializes in coaching academically trained young professionals -- both those remaining within academe and those transitioning out -- in professional strategies. The other works with organizations to train their emerging leaders. Thus, we have one foot in academe and the other on the outside. That gives us insight into both sides of the equation: the job seekers and the organization that may hire them. We have seen repeatedly in our work that the most successful alt-ac transitions occur when applicants can sell themselves as experts, rather than all-arounders. It’s depth, not breadth, that employers are looking for in Ph.D.s.

A variety of organizations are, in fact, keenly interested in attracting professionals with breadth and intellectual agility. The big consulting firms need their associates to be able to advise an airline on streamlining its ground operations one day, while detecting shortcomings in the business model of an online retailer the next. Moreover, they need their consultants to be able to produce clear and compelling prose. Public-sector organizations require workers who can untangle the complex, interdisciplinary nature of key policy domains, such as education, energy or environmental regulation. For for-profit businesses, from small start-ups to global corporations, professionals who can adapt and learn on the job are valued assets. Most doctoral programs do indeed prepare candidates well for these professional challenges. Those that do not are under increasing pressure to do so.

Despite all that, the odds of a Ph.D. graduate landing one of these jobs is small, which has to do with institutionalized hiring practices. Nonacademic organizations fill their all-rounder positions -- the analysts, associates or other jobs where a candidate’s well-rounded portfolio of abilities trumps a lack of sector-specific knowledge -- with younger applicants, those in their 20s. People in their 30s are hired for their proven expertise, either in management or in a specific domain, and they serve different functions in the organizations. Ph.D.s, especially those who took a few extra years to finish, don’t fit into this hiring schema: they’re often too old for the jobs they’re most suited for but lack the established expertise for the ones that fit their age.

This trend is not rigid; there are exceptions. Yet for entry-level jobs in many sectors, much as in academe, human resources departments can be flooded with applications. Just as many a university hiring committee would rather choose from one of the dozens of applicants with the perfect CV -- top-tier university, famous adviser, competitive grant recipient and the like -- than take a chance on a wild card, most hiring managers play it safe and hire from within the pool of those that fit the ideal profile.

Take, for example, a growing field within large corporations: talent management. Talent management involves identifying, training and retaining the right personnel within an organization. There is hardly a job for which a graduate student with a strong record as a teaching assistant could be better suited. Much of the work involves assessing individuals, identifying strengths and weaknesses, and developing corresponding learning programs.

Because no specific degree prepares a person for such work, the ranks of major talent management divisions are filled with a broad array of undergraduate majors: music, history, engineering, business sciences, psychology and so on. Despite that, we have not seen a single successful case of someone pursuing talent management as an alt-ac career. Young people fill the ranks of the talent-management offices, while the heads of team are promoted internally or hired based on direct talent-management experience at another organization.

With that in mind, strategizing doctoral students should be wary of spending too much energy diversifying their competency base. Instead, a smarter strategy involves establishing a strategic depth. That involves identifying a marketable expertise that is closely related to one’s doctoral research.

For example, a historian researching Nazi perpetrators could build her parallel expertise in political extremism; a sociologist working on the materiality of waste could make his in environmental policy. Establishing a track record of expertise does not have to be time intensive: attending a few choice conferences, authoring a white paper or publishing in newspapers would do the trick. Such small steps are transformative for a nonacademic résumé.

Hiring managers like logical career trajectories, ones in which everything a candidate has done points them toward the job in question. With a few of the aforementioned boxes ticked off, the Ph.D. degree suddenly reads like an expertise-building endeavor rather than a detour. When it comes time to apply for nonacademic jobs, the doctoral student can enter at the age-appropriate “expert” level.

In the case of a consulting firm, for example, rather than being hired as an entry-level associate who is expected to work on a broad range of business problems, the Ph.D. graduate can start as a legitimate expert in energy or education policy. And besides, if she decides to stay in academe after all, she will have that increasingly important element of “public outreach” already ticked off.