May 042012

Alec Stratton as Willy Wonka

A couple mornings ago, I was laying in bed, trying to convince myself to get up and go running. The problem was I felt drained of all energy, too tired to get up and do the things I wanted to do. Rather than get up, I started wondering about why I felt so drained. After starting to make a mental list, I realized why. I have been in a Life Pile Up and didn’t even know it.

What’s a Life Pile Up? For the past six weeks, I have been in constant motion, running from project to project, making choices to work on important projects, but dropping lots of others in the process. All those dropped tasks just don’t go away and now they are all coming back to haunt me. I have an overwhelming feeling of being buried in critical tasks that can no longer be ignored. Life Pile Up.

Step 1: Don’t Despair

When I get that drowning feeling, I usually respond by getting down on myself. “If only I were a little more efficient and effective, I wouldn’t be in this situation. Something must be wrong with me.” In my old age, I am finally starting to understand that kind of self-talk doesn’t help. Instead, I started listing all the things I said ‘Yes’ to over the past six weeks. Stacking the ‘Yeses’ up against the ‘No‘ to helps me realize what I accomplished as well as analyze my judgement. My list of completed projects included:

  • I built a bed that turns into a boat.
  • Took the family on a trip to San Francisco.
  • Found a contractor and had the front yard landscaped.
  • Prepared our tent trailer for sale (and received a full offer on it last night!)
  • Moved our daughter home after completion of her first year of college.
  • Made a quick trip with my brother to see our mother (recovering nicely, thank you).
  • Attended every performance of Willy Wonka, starring our son as Willy himself.
  • Finished wiring my neighbor’s basement bathroom in time for company from Australia.
  • Refocused on diet and exercise and lost 7 pounds (so far).
  • Managed to get Alec to rehearsals, performances, recitals and contests.
  • Moved several projects at work forward.
  • Kept up on the daily chores like cooking, washing, finances, and such.
Looking at the list makes me feel pretty good about everything I accomplished. I have nothing to be ashamed of. Yet, with all this in the completed column, I still have that overwhelmed feeling.
Step 2: Understand what is left to do

Clearly something is bothering me. I started by writing down everything I had floating around in my mind. Doing a mind sweep involves writing fast and furious about everything that needs to be done. No analysis, no prioritizing, just writing. It was amazing how much stuff was jammed into my subconscious. Getting it out was just what my mind needed. Getting it on paper felt like giving my mind space to breath, making room for clear thought. I know I am supposed to be doing these at least weekly, but in the rush of keeping up, weekly reviews had fallen to the side of the road.

My list didn’t take more than fifteen minutes to commit to paper. It included things like paying bills that had slipped through the cracks, following up on a couple bills where the automation I thought had set up failed, understanding why I was double paying my VISA (yikes!), fixing two broken sprinklers that were geysering, and chasing down another attempt to pfish my bank account. Pretty important stuff.

Step 3: Identify the critical

Looking at the list all laid out in front of me made it easy to identify why I was feeling anxiety. There were plenty of tasks that were time critical. Some were actually down to the wire, where inaction for one more day would have resulted in hefty consequences, like late fees or stolen identity. With everything identified, organizing the list into a prioritized order took very little time, perhaps five minutes.

I also found several items floating in my mind were not critical at all, but were just cluttering up my thought processes. I put these tasks on my normal lists where they will be addressed in due time. That is one thing to be careful of. The subconscious is not good at prioritizing when everything is jammed up.

Step 4: Action!

Finally, I was able to get started attacking the list. While it always feels good to finally be doing something, it is important to note had I not take time for the analysis in Steps 1-3, I would have probably started working on something less important that the list I now had in front of me. I would probably have started, realized something else was more critical and shifted over to work on that one, only to repeat the process over and over. A little planning can really focus efforts and accomplish tasks in their proper order.

Step 5: Evaluate

Taking the day off to work on my list was the best use of my time. I accomplished all but one of the seventeen items on the list when I started this morning, and it can easily be finished tomorrow. I have a calm feeling again. I have cleared the Life Pile Up and am once again sailing free on the freeway of life. I have learned that following these five steps can help enormously to getting myself clear. It would have been better to have been doing the mind sweeps all along, as part of a weekly review. I allowed myself to get out the habit in the heat of the battle. I have to watch that in the future. Avoiding Life Pile Ups is the best course of action, but at least I know a good way to get out should I drive straight into one again.

Feb 132012

I spent last week in California, attending training for work. I don’t travel often and I am glad for it. I am a homebody, a creature of routine and habit. I am in the middle of creating a bunch of new routines and didn’t want to be knocked off track. I end up watching too much television, often way into the wee hours of the night. It is also very difficult to eat healthy on the road, as the only options include restaurants. Last week, however, was better than most trips for me in terms of staying on track. Here are 4 tips I used to aid in my success.

  1. Don’t turn the TV on. Ever. Not even to check the weather. Look out the window instead. Once the TV goes on, I have a hard time turning it off. I put the remote control in an out of the way location as soon as I entered the room and left it there.
  2. Break down important goals into daily tasks. I have four books I am currently reading and wanted to stay on track to finish them all this month. By having a daily task to check off, I was motivated to spend even a few minutes on each. One is an audiobook, so I turned it on while I brushed my teeth and during other tasks that required moving around. Checking off the task each day kept me motivated on the little things like the daily sit-ups and pushups.
  3. Before leaving home, create some bigger tasks to do while in the hotel. I had several to work on. Even though I only worked on a couple, it felt good to move on something. Make sure all the necessary files are with you. Few things are more irritating than missing one document.
  4. Expect poor results. I don’t sleep well in hotels, so I planned on not being rested. Instead of keeping to my normal wake-up schedule, I adjusted for the situation. Since I ended up going to bed later, I allowed myself to “sleep in” a little to get enough rest. For me, the mental permission helped me put aside any guilt and just do as well as I could. As things evened out in the week, I started getting up earlier and soon was back to my normal schedule.

It wasn’t a perfect trip by any stretch. I didn’t run as I had planned and only one of the three bigger tasks saw any effort. I worked to stay on my diet and that lasted only two days. Still, I enjoyed my time more this trip than most. I spent time with my colleagues over leisurely dinners, discussing options for the future and how to leverage our training better. We even did a little sightseeing, something I don’t usually do when I’m glued to the television in the hotel room.

Okay, road warriors. What do you do? How do keep yourself productive on the road? I would love to hear your experiences.

Jan 292012

Juggling Elephants: An Easier Way to Get Your Most Important Things Done–Now!  by Jones Loflin and Todd Musig

Ah, business training parables. I have read too many of them. I guess I am more than a little cynical when I pick one up anymore. Most are contrived stories, about 100 pages of large font type, teaching some simple concept with the care and tenderness of a treasured faberge egg. While they teach the principle in an format that is easily digested, they don’t delve into the topic enough to provide much knowledge, background or depth. They tend to be like a quick sugar hit, the Krispy Kreme of the self improvement world.

Juggling Elephants follows this same format. We are told the story of a man who takes his daughter to the circus even though he is overwhelmed with everything in his life pressing down on him. He has so much to do, he feels guilt for taking time to take his daughter out for the evening, but knows he should be spending more time with her. As “luck” would have it, he ends up sitting next to a ringmaster from another circus, there to check out how a friend’s troupe is doing. The ringmaster instantly reads him and suggests that he needs to stop “juggling elephants” and get his “circus” in order. Naturally, the ringmaster invites the man back the next day to teach him the secret of being a ringmaster.

The rest of the story lays out how a ringmaster controls the show and how it applies to managing personal lives. The man quickly adopts the practices and becomes a master of controlling everything around him, becoming hyper-productive and accomplishing all his wildest dreams. He even loses all the weight he has always wanted and improves his marriage. Amazing.

The book is filled with little “pearls” of wisdom, each on its own page with a nice picture of an elephant. Some of these include:

The result of juggling elephants is that no one, including you, is thrilled with the performance.
The ringmaster cannot be in all three rings at once.
The key to the success of the circus is having quality acts in all three rings.
Every act must have a purpose.
Intermission is an essential part of creating a better circus performance.

So why did I give this short book four stars? I usually won’t give this type of parable more than two at best. Well, to my surprise, I learned a concept I find useful. I can only concentrate on one thing at a time. In order to have good performance, I should have a prioritized list of acts (multiple meanings to this word… get it?) for each ring of my life and be able to move between them with speed and ease. A ring represents an area of focus, such as career, relationships and self. GTD teaches this as well, using the weekly review as a mechanism to plan and prioritize the task lists. I like the concept of grouping the many areas of focus into three rings, though. That is a number I can keep in my head easier. Lining things up by priority puts the most important things on stage first. That is good thing to remember.

Juggling Elephants is a short read, a couple hours or so long. I think this one may be worth it.