focus

There’s no such thing as free time

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Last week, I left work on Friday and shoved a few things in my bag with my computer. They included information for a memo I needed to write, a publication I’ve been meaning to read for several weeks, an article from a colleague, and several half completed to-do lists that I intended to consolidate. I figured I’d get those done during some of my free time that weekend.

Monday morning, I got to my office and pulled all those things – untouched since Friday – out of my bag.

Why?

Because there’s no such thing as free time.

My weekend is just a full as my work-week, the content is just different.

This led me to think about why I was bringing things home on the weekend in the first place. They all had something in common – they weren’t preventing me from getting the essentials done, but they were all activities I planned to “get to” during the work week when I had a moment of free time. Which meant I didn’t get to them because….there’s no such thing as free time.

If you’re familiar with the Meyers-Briggs test, you’ve heard of the P-J categories. Perceiving vs. Judging. In brief (and forgive me if you’re a MBTI expert who craves greater nuance in this description) Perceivers go with the flow, Judging types tend to organize and stick to their plan. I sit right on the border between these two categories, which gives me a peek into both.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with some amazing J types over the years. Their ability to sit down, think through all their tasks, get them done in order and on time is what keeps complicated projects clocking right along. They’re the reasons we ever accomplish anything on time.

And I’ve loved working with some of my favorite P’s, too. They bring a spark of creativity – what if we tried this? – and when everyone’s in crisis mode, they’re the ones who lighten the load with humor and a helping hand at the last minute.

For a P, all time is free time, waiting to be programmed in the moment. For a J, free time is planned, down to the minute.

I’m using the ends of the spectrum to make a point:

If there’s something you intend to get done, you have to actually make a decision to do it.

Unless something you’d planned falls through, free time won’t just pop up out of nowhere, like an oasis of relaxation waiting for you to kick back and get those long-delayed tasks done. And, when you do get an unplanned moment, will you spend it reading work materials or going for a walk?

The P may decide late in the day, the J may decide three days in advance, but they’ve both decided – that’s when the magic happens.

There are several tricks borrowed from the world of time-management that can help make this happen for you, whether you’re a P, a J, or something in-between.

  1. Use a schedule for everything, including those things you’re going to “get to when there’s time”. This includes returning phone calls, sending an email, that errand to the post-office to mail the package you were going to drop off when you had time.
  2. Decide not to do something. That article you’ve been carrying around for three weeks. Will you really read it? Let’s be honest and get rid of some of the should-do’s that aren’t must-do’s.
  3. Schedule some quality time. Don’t let your to-do list become your life. Use it to manage your time, including the time you spend with family, friends, and on yourself. After all, all work and no play makes….well, you know.
  4. When something falls through, use that moment to do something meaningful with your “free time” – that could be focusing on an important work project earlier than you planned, or it could mean going for a walk and refreshing your thoughts. Either way, having a better handle on how you’re spending your time will help you make the most of it.

When we begin to master our time, we’re not dependent on that elusive prey: free time.

For a related post, with additional resources on time management, click here.

Tired of all those must-do’s? Try asking this question

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Do you recognize this day?

Wake up (snooze button, anyone?), stumble into the shower, throw some breakfast together (if there’s time), hustle everyone else out the door, dash off to work, forget something halfway down the steps, run through your list of things you must-not-forget-today while you drive to work, dash from meeting to meeting, realize you forgot your lunch on the kitchen counter (probably next to a kid’s homework or a library book you’ve been meaning to return for at least a week now), accumulate three new post-it-notes next to the ones left from yesterday, leave feeling like you’re even further behind than you were when you started.

Dinner? After-school activities? Family? Laundry? Dishes? Bills? Answer your sister’s phone call? Bed? Repeat?

That clutter of must-do’s quickly translates into a heaping serving of resentment topped with fatigue sauce and a sleepless cherry on top, doesn’t it?

But you can’t get out of it. Because you must eat, you must work, you must make sure the kids are okay (and they are, really).

Must. Must. Must.

Or must you?

When we feel put-upon by a lot of external obligations, we feel powerless. Our time is not our own. Our decisions are not our own. That perception of our situation is very strong and very difficult to manage at busy times or moments of transition.

That’s when you can ask this question: Must I? Or can I choose?

There are external forces at work in our lives. Yet we usually have more choices than we realize. The problem is that by the time you arrive at this over-stressed point, you don’t feel like you have the chance to stop and ask. You feel like you don’t have a choice.

There are a lot of choices though. Start with some small ones and build up you choosing muscles. Through practice, you can change your perspective from put-upon to making-decisions.

How?

Start small.

A colleague told me he sits in his car for one minute when he leaves the office. He just sits there. He breathes. It’s a minute of reset.

I tend to stay until the last moment, dash out the door, turn the key, pull out, and drive all in a matter of moments.

His way is better. He’s choosing to regain control over that moment and says it makes a clean break between work and home.

That’s a small step with big payoffs.

Pay attention.

How often do you scarf down your lunch giving it hardly a thought? When your child or partner asks what you ate for lunch and you can’t really remember, that’s a sign that you’re not choosing to eat lunch, you’re just letting it happen. (hopefully!)

Take a moment. Eat lunch. Choose to pay attention.

Focus.

Your mind is scrambling along at a million miles, generating anxious to-do’s while you’re supposedly watching your kid’s sports team. You’re surfing the phone, trying to do something that would take you a fraction of the time on a computer, but you’ve got to multi-task and get that last email out.  Really? Or are you choosing to be absorbed in something that might get a few kudos from people who (you hope) notice how dedicated you are?

Your choice.

Manage your time.

Time management isn’t something you’re born with. Some people have a gift, yes. The rest of us learn it.

Too busy to learn?

Your choice.

The bottom line is, when you start seeing your time as something you choose to use, and seeing yourself as an active participant in your life, your ability to choose well goes way up. Your perspective changes.

That’s a great choice.

Want some more information on time management? Check out these resources:

Why you should do your worst task first today

Psychology Today articles on time management

Make your working hours work for you – Entrepreneur article

Manage your energy, not your time – HBR article

Are you ready to take it to the next level?

Should you love your job?

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The words “love” and “job” right there, side by side. An unlikely couple. A job is, well, a job. And love? That’s what we reserve for soul-mates and family members. Except we salt our everyday language with it.  We love our new shoes, we love our car, our pets, our vacation, and our friends’ photos on Facebook (even when we’re really just tired of their endless selfies).

Love it!

But are we supposed to love our jobs?

The answer shouted from the electronic hilltops seems to be love it or quit!

And if you don’t? Well, you’re obviously missing out because it’s easy, there are five steps to get you there, two things you need to know, one program that will show you how. etc. etc. These messages, in total, potentially undermine our happiness at work because they ignore one basic truth: nobody loves their job all-the-way-all-the-time.

We’ve gotten used to the idea that when we love something, it’s easy. Even the profiles and stories about people who have sunk their heart and soul into creating a company from scratch or pursuing a lifelong dream tend to have a gloss of “meant to be” applied over the intense work of getting there.

When we read the story, we already know the ending. We know they’ve made millions and are living the dream in their beachside house full of windows that someone else wipes clean each morning. It seems inevitable.

But it wasn’t. They probably didn’t love every moment of the stress, the risk, the uncertainty along the way. But they kept going. It wasn’t love, it was something else.

No matter what you’re devoting your time to, there’s a level of uncertainty. We don’t know what our choices will yield. We don’t know how our story will turn out.

To look at someone else’s polished-for-print story and wonder why we don’t have the same trajectory is to overlook the life we’re living.

What does it mean to love your job? 

Sometimes, a day goes like this:

Get to work, find six angry emails in your inbox, meeting 1 falls apart, someone quits, there’s a personnel issue that pops up, two key players on your project are fighting, and the contract you thought had been approved and finalized is sitting on someone else’s desk and you can’t start that project which sinks your entire schedule, and you still have all the work you’d been planning to do this week piling up.

Can you have a day like that and still love your job?

Sure.

If you’re lucky, you have a job where the satisfaction of  doing, learning and growing outweighs the annoyances and friction that are part of any job. Any life, really.

Does the overall satisfaction I get from my job outweigh the minor annoyances?

Are you spending your time on something that matters to you? This is a question that only you can answer. It’s your time and once it’s spent, it’s gone. Are you doing something that makes you feel good about that time? Maybe you love the challenge of the job itself. Maybe the job is the stable way you support your family and maintain some freedom for your personal pursuits when you’re off. Either way, you’re the only one who can judge your satisfaction.

Using someone else’s measure won’t help. So put down that smart phone for a moment and think it over.

What if I really do hate my job?

If you have a job you hate, should you stay? Probably not. When the grinding weight of showing up day after day is wearing you down and sapping your ability to function as a decent human being, you should find something different to do. Your unhappiness is probably having a negative impact on the people around you, not to mention the horrible things it’s doing to you.

But if you’re on the fence, and some days are okay and others aren’t, I think you have a more difficult but potentially more rewarding option: work it out.

Work it out

When your partner is tired of hearing you grumble (or when you’re tired of hearing yourself grumble) it’s time to work it out.

What would boost your satisfaction level at work?

Are there things you can do for yourself, instead of looking to others to fix them?

Are there things you need someone else to open up for you?

  • Ask for a new assignment?
  • Offer to show you’re ready for a new responsibility?

There is a great deal of satisfaction in doing something instead of suffering though it. By taking thoughtful action, you may be able to turn the job your’e currently in into one that satisfies you.

Making it better for yourself? That’s something to love.

Seven things that actually mattered

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Pick a Puddle.

At my freshman orientation for college (year omitted!) the university’s president said “Don’t be like ducks, with opportunity rolling off your backs like raindrops. Take advantage.” I thought I got it. I wasn’t going to be that duck. I chased a lot of rain, which was great. For a while.

Looking back, I realized he forgot a key point: Don’t forget to pick a puddle.

If you find your puddle and fill it with the things you care about most, you get the good out of it. Puddles don’t have to be small and limiting. They should have room for the things you’re focused on – family, key career ambitions, personal growth – and they should’t overflow with things that distract you from your integral purpose.

Picking a puddle brings focus. It also means saying “no” to the distractions. The nice-to-have resume builder that you don’t really care about? No, thank you. The I-really-should obligation? Maybe there’s someone out there who actually wants to do that one.

This idea really hit home for me when my kids were little. There were other moms in their preschools who volunteered in the mornings and put together events. I worked. I scrabbled time off to go to the early-afternoon cupcake party or the holiday parade, but every time I passed on the sign-up list I felt like I was letting my kids down or somehow being a second-rate mom. I realized that I had to make peace with this situation or drive myself batty.

So I focused on what I could do. I took good care of my kids. I provided supplies. I attended the events the other parents organized. And I let got of feeling like I wasn’t doing enough to pitch in. Much  of my work has been community-focused, taking time and energy during evenings and weekends. That’s my puddle. My kids’ well-being is my puddle. They didn’t care whether I was being a super-mom in everyone else’s eyes. They just wanted to know that I came to their event and that I cared about them. That was enough.

Be purposeful in your career.

Purposeful is not the same as ambitious. Ambition is great. Positive ambition moves us forward, gives us direction, and helps make the world a better place. Ambition alone can be directionless. It can propel us through choices, through jobs, through decisions yet still leave us hunting for the next gold star or seal of approval.

Purpose depends on understanding what’s important to you and making your decisions with both your short-term satisfaction and your long-term interests in mind.

Purpose helps you shape decisions, see opportunities, and follow a path that may not always be direct or clear, but brings you meaning along the way.

I’ve had friends who went for the higher salary and better title with each promotion only to find themselves making a lot of money, living in a nice house, and wondering how they’d ended up there. They could tell their story – they’d been ambitious and collected all the prizes – but they ended up saying things like “I never thought I’d work in a company that doesn’t really do anything.” or “I just make lots of money for other people and they let me keep some.”

Other people I’ve known have been deliberate about taking only opportunities that delighted them at the moment and are left wondering where all the time and money went.

I’ve done both. Taken jobs because they were safe or necessary. Taken risks because I felt cornered. It wasn’t until I started to develop a better sense of my puddle and my purpose that I could begin to make decisions with some long-term meaning.

For some people, this appears to be easy. They seem to know their purpose and pursue it with great intention. When I listen to my friends, co-workers and family though, I believe that most of us don’t have this kind of singular drive. In a world of endless opportunities and choices, this part of career management is a learned art.

Learning yourself is a good place to start.

Don’t stay in bad relationships.

We’ve all gossiped about someone in a bad relationship. Why doesn’t she leave him? Can’t he see what’s wrong with this situation? Most of us know that it’s really hard to see from the inside what we clearly see (or think we see) from the outside.

We stay for many reasons. We fear failure and loss. We rationalize, we make excuses, we don’t question our story about how we arrived here and why we stay. But our story is just that. It’s a story we tell ourselves about the path we’ve followed, the choices we’ve made, and how they all hang together. The thing to remember is that we are writing that story all the time. When you find yourself stuck, wondering where the love went, it’s time to put on your best-friend-perspective and try to see your situation from the outside.

If a co-worker is consistently egging you into situations you’re not comfortable with, maybe it’s time for a new relationship.

If you’re not feeling fulfilled by the choices you’re making about your time, maybe it’s time to choose differently.

Sometimes we stay because we “owe it to them.” Loyalty is good. But be sure you’re being honest. Loyalty that’s a cover for fear, insecurity, or failure to reflect is not good. It’s fine – admirable – to be loyal, and, like with any good relationship, you will change, you will grow, and you can participate in the relationship to make sure you’re getting what you need out of it. That’s when everybody comes out stronger.

Focus on your strengths and fill in your gaps

There are a lot of people out there who are willing to tell you what your weaknesses are and how to fix them. It’s easy to get sidetracked into a self-bending case of triple-i: Insecurity, inadequacy, inferiority. Don’t go there.

You’re not perfect.

But you already knew that.

I remember a favorite teacher telling our class that her job was to help us learn to think. “You need to know how to think and how to find information. You don’t need to memorize the dictionary.”

Find out what you’re really good at and focus on that first. Great with numbers? Master everything you can about budgets, financing, and software. Good at people? Get some experience mediating, leading discussions, and public speaking. Shine.

When you realize you’re not good at something, don’t obsess, just fill in the gaps

You’re the numbers guru but not great at public speaking? Offer to make a budget presentation to your group. Take your strength and use it to support your attempts to fill in your gaps.

Great at leading teams but terrible at meeting deadlines? Get your best performing team together and poll them for suggestions. Then put them in play.

Any change requires discipline, doubling up something that’s easy for you to do with something you need to improve gives you more energy to pull through the tough parts.

Fix. Don’t obsess.

Learn to have difficult conversations

Here’s the exception to “don’t obsess.” If there’s one thing I think we should all obsess over, it’s learning how to have difficult conversations.

Figure out what you fear (confrontation, anger, being wrong, being vulnerable) and find out how to get better at it. There are resources out there. Read them. Learn them. Practice.

This is one skill that you can, and should, master.

It will make you better at everything.

Stuff happens. To everyone.

It’ll happen to you. The thing you didn’t expect that knocks you off your track. It may be temporary, it may be life-altering. It will happen. Probably more than once.

It’s never over.

Keep going.

Ask for help.

It’s probably happening to someone you work with right now.

Give help.

We’re all in this together.

Have a heart

Take a moment to say hello. Notice something. Ask a question. Those people you work with? The ones who annoy you, don’t meet your deadlines, and can’t see what’s completely obvious to anyone who would stop to think for two seconds? There’s probably something good about each and every one of them.

Some of the best conversations I’ve had have been with people I didn’t particularly like at the time. But if you’re willing to set that aside and listen, you may find that they’re only human. They have lives, problems, and people who drive them crazy.

You may be one of them.

You never know when somebody is trying to manage a sick parent in another state, dealing with a rocky marriage, or worried about a kid in trouble.

All you can do is respect them as fellow human beings and try to do your best.

I’ve had the good fortune to know what it’s like to work with people of integrity, to work with a sense of purpose, and to feel compassion and care for the people around me.

I’ve also known what it’s like to be a nameless cog, to be looked down upon, and to feel under-appreciated and unfulfilled. In those circumstances, it’s difficult to bring our best to the table. When I found myself babysitting the monster of all copiers for days on end, shuffling different colored papers in and out of trays and tugging torn bits of confetti from the guts of that toner-laden beast, I was not bringing what I had to offer to the picture.

When I left that job, not knowing what was next, one woman took me aside and said “I’m glad you’re leaving. You’re going to do so much more and when you need a reference, just ask.”

Her confidence gave me hope at a time when I really needed it.

Those are the people we remember.

Maybe if someone had handed me this list years ago, it wouldn’t have meant anything to me, but eventually enough experiences run together and there you have it – your puddle.

Are the many messages of perfection preventing you from achieving one thing?

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It happens every year. December comes immediately after Thanksgiving and bam! 

Holidays.

You’d think I’d know this by now. After all, the holiday season apparently begins sometime in early October with Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hannauka and everything else tossed in a potentially stress-inducing fiesta.

Leading this ever-advancing tide of pressure are the many perfection messages:

Have a hassle-free holiday

Make the perfect holiday meal

Decorations you can do on a dime

In that moment when I realize the year is almost over, I typically react in one of two ways. Sometimes the barrage is a challenge – I’m going to take this season by storm! – and out come the notepads, smartphones, and the determination to micromanage the heck out of the next few weeks.

At other times, it’s all the reason I need to crawl back under the covers and pretend none of it’s happening.

Either way, the idea that there’s some perfect person out there floating through the stress in a cloud of peppermint-scented-calm is enough to make me throw up my hands.

I can’t do a perfect holiday.

I can’t do a perfect work-place, either.

Thinking about seasonal stress got me to thinking about how we tend to see stress as an absolute (stress vs. calm) year-round. This mindset can cause conflict because it focuses us on a given solution (no stress) without letting us consider where our focus belongs.

Those perfection messages reinforce this notion that it’s an all-or-nothing situation. Either you’re a stressed out mess or not. And there are so many opportunities to feel behind or lacking.

Either you’re a stressed-out mess or you’re calm, organized, filing those emails as they pop up, managing your time to the maximum, and networking after hours. Then you’ll set some new year goals and you’ll be on your way. But really, no matter how on-top of things you are, the pendulum swings back and forth because life happens.

 

We are surrounded by the many. Many ways to improve, many ways to succeed. We are told everyone has the potential to be President, run a start-up, make a million (over and over), and be happy. And it’s all supposed to be easy a la “ten simple steps and you can be the leader” or “want to succeed? just do this”

This season, I’m looking for a way to reduce the many mindset and be open to focusing on one area at a time.

For instance, there are three events that all have holiday significance to me and- the calendar gods must be crazy – this year they’re all on the same weekend. I began trying to figure out which one we could do on Friday – Saturday – Sunday – all in the name of holiday spirit. Then a little voice in my head said just pick one.

One is a realistic goal.

With one, I can still do some of the normal things that make a weekend work for me. Like buy milk.

One got me thinking.

When I have a head full of to-do’s, it’s helps to dump them all down on one piece of paper and then choose one place to start.

When my day is overloaded, it helps to pick one think to accomplish that day and do it first.

When I need to have a difficult conversation with someone, it helps to pick one point of focus instead of trying to address all the problems in a single conversation.

One is about focus.

As someone who tends towards the page of goals, I don’t think this will be easy for me, but I’ve experimented in small ways and the Holidays provide another sanity-saving opportunity to experiment with one.

Are you a one or many person? What have you learned and what would you share?