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.

Mar 212012

This is what my desk looks like now

One thing David Allen teaches in Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity is the importance of Getting Clear. Let me tell you, I am not clear right now. Life creeps up and soon the tidal wave of “stuff” overtakes me. As you can see from the picture I took just before sitting down to write, I have a problem.

Getting Clear means to have an organized space in which to work, both physically and mentally. Clearly I am failing on the physical front. If I could take a picture of my mental space, it would probably look much like my desk. I have let things go. In their great book, Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams (Second Edition), Tom DeMarco and Timoth Lister discusses how much clear space a person needs to perform work. They say an office should have 100 square feet of clear desk space. While I have never had the luxury of 100 sq. feet, I think I am currently operating on two, just so I have a place to put my elbows while typing.

How does one get clear? The best way is to get a box or a basket. Everything goes into the box first. Even garbage. Why? The act of putting everything in the box does two things: it gets the desk clear immediately and it puts everything in a stack, a natural order for being dealt with one at a time. I remember as a kid when my mother would decide to attack her desk. She would clean for two days straight, just trying to find a few inches of clear space. If she would have moved everything to boxes (it would have taken much more than one), she could have had the space she wanted immediately and not of had to shift papers around constantly, looking for a place to put things while cleaning.

Once everything is in a box, take out the top item and decide what to do with it. Does it need action? Filing? Disposal? Do it and move on to the next. One beauty of the box is this part does not need to be done in one sitting. The box will obediently sit to the side, waiting for the next opportunity. Meanwhile, the desk is clear, inviting Great Work.

Yes, even the iPad went in the box. Better already!

Getting clear mentally works a little differently. I do a mind sweep. Get a pad of paper, a good pen or pencil and a comfortable chair. Start writing everything on the mind, every thought, to do item, commitment or random musing. Write as fast as possible and let the mind vomit up everything that is piled around. Don’t worry about order, priority or clarity. Get it down. When the ideas stop flowing, get up, stretch, take a quick walk around the house, garage, yard or office. Take the pad of paper with. Something along the way will trigger some more things. Write those down as well. Consider all the people in your life. What do you owe them? That will trigger more thoughts.

Like the desk, it may take more than one session to get totally clear. Just keep at it. No doubt there will be pages filled. Don’t despair. The more pages you have, the more clear you will be and it will feel great. The pages will be filled with the myriad of commitments floating around, clogging up the pathways of the mind, getting in the way of accomplishing the important tasks.  They will be out of your head where they can be dealt with methodically.

Once the mind is clear, the pages can be organized, prioritized and divided into task lists for getting things done. Just remember they don’t all have to be done today, tomorrow or even next week. Some of the items may never get done. I put most of these items on a Someday/Maybe list. It’s okay. They are on a list, out of the head, stored for later. When the time is right, I’ll pull them off a list and do them.

Getting Clear is one of the most refreshing experiences I have ever experienced. I have to do this exercise occasionally. I should be doing it weekly in my Weekly Review session, but that has been sliding off my plan for a few weeks. When that happens, I have to get drastic; I have to get clear. When I do, it is one of the best feelings around. Try it. I’m willing to be you’ll like it.

Mar 152012

I was cleaning out my spam folder the other day and one subject line caught my eye as I deep-sixed it to oblivion where it belonged. “Be Your Own Boss!” I believe they were offering the latest work at home scheme, guaranteed to give me the peace of mind I must be looking for while relieving me of my bank account.

Those who know me understand I have been interested in having my own business for years. I call myself a closet entrepreneur, eager for the excitement but scared of the unknown and deeply addicted to my current paycheck. While I would love to run my own show, there are certain realities I have to deal with, such as my current salary is high enough that any attempt at starting a business would require a catastrophic pay cut.

For some reason, though, when I read this piece of spam, something triggered in my mind. I am my own boss. I control my job, my career, my finances,  so many aspects of my life already. Sure, I have a manager at work who fills in quite a few details in regards to what I do for the company where I work, but ask most business owners and they will tell you their clients often stipulate such things.

On the way to work that day, I started thinking about how I would act if I were the CEO of my own company. How would I act as I worked at my client’s site? How would I attack the pile of work on my desk? Would I think differently about the decisions I have to make? I am somewhat ashamed to say that there were many things that came to mind I would do differently. The rest of that day I tried to act like a CEO. I walked confidently down the hall, greeting everyone. I approached decisions from a company standpoint instead of just my little area of focus. I worked to use every minute as effectively as possible, planning every move as if it were costing ten times my actual salary. I have to admit it was perhaps the most productive day I have had in a very long time. It was fun, too.

Since that day, I watch CxO leaders and small business owners more carefully. What do they do that I don’t? How do they act? What do they concern themselves with? Who do they talk to and what do they discuss? How do they get between meetings? How do they schedule their days? How do they manage the endless piles of work on their desks? My observations have been very telling on where I can improve as CEO of my own company.

Here is a partial list of some of the behaviors I need to improve:

  1. Delegation. These people are always handing off tasks to others. They aren’t ducking the responsibility, but they are looking for the right person to do the work at the least expense possible. Their time is at a premium. They shouldn’t be spending time making meeting reservations, document proofing and such. They know who does it better than they and assigns the work to them.
  2. Organization. Their days are filled with meetings, appointments, calls and other requirements. Yet they still have to get all their other work done. They know what has to be done and how to fit into the little cracks. This is where an administrative assistant can be very helpful. Of course, I don’t have one assigned to me, but there are tricks I have learned from David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done, that help. A weekly review can be as good as an administrative assistant for the rest of us. Identifying all the tasks to be done, prioritizing and having them on a list, ready to execute when the time allows provides a huge advantage when a meeting ends early. Pick one and go.
  3. Make a decision. I tend to dither over decisions. I always want more data, to seek consensus and advice of others. And then I want more data. Guess what? Make a decision and move on. Unless a life is at stake, the decision can be adjusted later when more data becomes available.
  4. Smile while walking. People are always watching a leader for a clue as to how things are going. When the CEO walks down the hall, eyes on the floor, brows furrowed and mouth set in a frown, no one guesses he is trying to figure out what to get his wife for her birthday. Instead, they run and polish their resume, assuming the worst. When our business owner walks around with a smile on her face, head up and eyes sparkling, likewise no one suspects she is going over the sales shortfall for the month and how to proceed without having to do a layoff. They see confidence and push harder themselves. Learn to hide emotions. Perhaps this is why poker is such a popular game.

I have tried to treat my work as if I were the boss lately. It has changed the complexion of how I look at the work. It is a little more exciting, a little more daunting and a little more rewarding. I can see there are many behaviors I have yet to learn. Some days I revert to the victim employee, just waiting for someone to tell me what to do. I work at pulling myself out of that mindset when I recognize it and head back to my lists for a next action. I’m the boss. I better start acting like one.