work-life

Seven things that actually mattered

wpid-2015-01-30-07.20.05.jpg.jpeg

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.

Advertisements

Are you ready to take it to the next level?

wpid-2014-09-01-13.53.49.jpg.jpeg

There are three killer hills at the end of my favorite bike ride and each one is bigger and steeper than the previous one. There comes a point, about two-thirds of the way up, when this phrase runs through my head.

You gotta put something into it to get something out of it….

It’s what gets me up the hills. I’ve talked to other people who ride bikes, and most cyclists have some version of this trick. It’s whatever gets you over the hard parts or up the last piece of the climb. Some people count strokes (“I’ll look up when I’ve pedaled 100 times”) some people go through the lyrics of a song before they look up. Whatever it is, it’s a way of marking the intervals in a difficult ascent.

I’m a strong proponent of having a life outside of work. It’s hard to do these days, when you carry your email around in your pocket and everyone’s sense of urgency is easy to absorb. Bicycling is a way for me to be out of touch for a while.

Interestingly, it’s often on a relatively flat stretch of road, while I’m watching the wind bend the grasses into rustling waves, smelling the cows and goats, and hearing the metallic ping of roof repairs on the nearby barn, that the answers to difficult questions appear most clearly.

I enjoy that feeling of calm, being out in the world, and working through things one wheel-turn at a time. With such emphasis on fast answers and immediate information, it’s easy to feel like success should also come in a click – like that good idea that pops out of nowhere. However, like a long bike ride,  we lay the groundwork for our larger ambitions and accomplishments in a million small ways. We have to put something into it.

How?

It helps to have some focus. I have a friend at work who said to me in jest, “my hobby is hobbies.” I knew exactly what she meant. I have a million interests and a million-and-one things on my to-do list at any given moment. It’s been difficult for me to learn to pare back to a more manageable inventory of “projects.” Instead of swearing off all projects, I instituted a simple rule: finish what you started. Or call it over and move on. I was overwhelmed by the number of projects and things I wanted to get to, as well as the things I’d started and didn’t really want to finish. Throw something off your to-do list. It’s liberating. I was not going to be a knitter. It bored me. No matter how many cute projects other people did. And just because I could knit didn’t mean I had to knit. So I donated my yarn and moved on.

Ask yourself: What old ambitions are you holding on to, even though they’re out of date? What do you really want to focus on now?

It helps to develop some habits to support your focus. I used to rush in the mornings to pull together lunches. I was pretty good at talking to my kids over the counter while they ate breakfast, but they weren’t getting my full attention and sometimes I’d forget to bring my own lunch (or wouldn’t have anything to bring.) So I’d plan to just deal with it sometime during the day. Of course, my days weren’t exactly conducive to pulling together impromptu lunches. In a pretty basic switch-up, we now make lunches during or after we make dinner. Note that I didn’t say I, I said we. Which brings me to the third, and most life-changing step for me.

What could you do to open some time for the thing you want to focus on? Can you stop doing something? Designate a time most days for your focus?

Ask for help. My kids are fully capable of making a sandwich, I just wasn’t asking them to. Once it became part of our evening routine, we were enjoying breakfast together and rushing less in the morning. It took more discipline on my part, at first, to ask for help and make sure it became a routine. Once the habit was established, we had an easier time of it. Having that routine set helped me focus on a more personal goal. My favorite time of day to write is first thing in the morning. In order to make that happen, I had to go to bed earlier, set my clock, and ask for help. My husband brings the coffee and gets up with me. His support of the habits I wanted to maintain has been the best motivator when I feel less than energetic (and that’s basically me, pre-coffee.). Find someone who has your back, wants to help you put something into it, and you’ll have double the oomph.

What are you assuming someone won’t help you with? Have you asked? What do you assume you cannot do? Why?

Changing something in your life can feel an awful lot like those last few hills of the bike ride. They’re big, they’re steep, and you’re tired. But each stroke of the pedal brings us closer. When I’m on the hill, the only thing I have to focus on at that moment is putting one foot down, then the other. All those movements together bring us over the top.

What gets you over the hills?

 

 

 

Why you should do your worst task first today.

“Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” – Mark Twain

wpid-2014-08-19-06.57.24.jpg.jpeg

I came across this Mark Twain quote last weekend and it struck a chord. One of the habits I have had to overcome (okay, I’m still working on it!) is procrastination through productivity. I’m mean really, nobody wants to eat that frog first thing in the morning, right?

Yesterday morning, I got to work at 7 am. I am not normally the earliest-arriver at my office. My philosophy is to be fully present and to work really hard while I’m at work – no coffee breaks, not too much chatter, focus on the work. That allows me to preserve time at home to be with my family and to have other interests. It doesn’t always work perfectly, but that break between work and home is important to keeping us motivated and fresh.

Yesterday was different. I had a few tasks that required my undivided attention at work and it’s summer. For one more week there are no busses, no evening meetings, no after school activities. Home felt cared-for.

So I went in – yawn – early, to eat my frog.

When you’re putting off that big project by doing a million little things, sending emails, filling, organizing your office instead of tackling that one big unpleasant task you need to focus on? That’s productive. But it’s still procrastination.

Here’s what usually happens. I finally decide to deal with whatever I’m putting off. I make time, I make myself do it, and when I settle in, I realize one of two things: 1) I’ve waited so long to examine the task that there’s something I’m missing and now it’s too late to get it/do a good job (this can sometimes result in a 9pm trip to the hardware store) or 2) It turns out that it’s much simpler than I had built up in my mind.

Lucky for me, yesterday’s task was simpler than I expected and I ended up having an hour to work, uninterrupted, on other projects. I felt centered and focused for the rest of the day which made me less stressed and more able to go with the flow of the day.

In our busy world, it’s easy to feel like our time and attention are constantly divided. There’s a lot of advice out there about how to structure your day and your time, how to disconnect, and how to focus. When we’re able to incorporate some of these skills into our planning, it can help us focus on what really matters.

Like frogs.

 

 

Do you leap over conflict, duck under it, or belly-smack your way through?

2014-07-04 14.47.31

Anyone who has spent some time at the beach knows there are a lot of ways to deal with the waves.

On a calm day, you can just bob along, enjoying the sun and the motion of the water. But once things start to churn, you have to decide how you’re going to deal. The beach is a great analogy for our conflict styles.

  1. Run for the safety of the towel. Maybe you just don’t engage, sit it out and watch from the sidelines while everyone else struggle or surfs.
  2. Leap over the waves. The dolphin divers take the waves with a lot of grace.
  3. Duck! It’s pretty easy to just take a deep break and let the big one wash overhead. You can barely feel it as you settle into the calm beneath.
  4. Bellysmack! whether intentional or not, this one can hurt. A full frontal or side-smack? Doesn’t matter much, you take a beating and sometimes a snort of seawater to boot.

Of course, you can always choose a combination approach, tailoring your reaction to the waves, if you have time.

Regardless, after a few hours of battling it out, you’re probably ready for a break. It’s brutal business. You’ve been knocked off your feet, your knees are scraped up, and you’ve probably been caught by surprise a time or two.

Time to return to the towel, chair, pool, sofa, and reassess.

And this may be the critical part of your strategy.

As you replay the day’s decisions, do you beat yourself up for the waves that caught you by surprise? Or do you visualize the next day’s trip to the beach, with better outcomes?

 

 

Tug ‘o War

When was the last time someone handed you a rope and said “hey, how about you pull really hard on your end, and I’ll pull really hard on my end, and when one of us falls flat on our face, it’s settled. Okay?”

Eighth grade P.E. class, maybe?

For me, it was last weekend. Except it wasn’t a rope, it was an argument. The same stupid argument we have over and over. And nobody ever wins this particular one. we just pick up our ends of the rope, dig in, and start heaving our weight around. There’s a lot of mud involved and the emotional equivalent of strained muscles.

In the middle of all the pulling and tugging I wondered “Why do we keep tugging? Why not let go of the rope?”

Arguments can go wrong in so many ways when the emotions are high. We say things we don’t intend, we drag up battles of years past, we resurrect old hurts, previous slights, and the reasons to continue arguing pile up. But most of us don’t relish tug ‘o war and the repair cost can be high.

Some graceful ways to let go and buy yourself a little time to cool down without dropping your opponent (or co-worker, or family member) on their derriere.:

Take responsibility for your emotional state:

  • I’m getting (angry/frustrated etc.) and I need a few moments to calm down.
  • I want to come back to this discussion but I’m not thinking clearly right now, can we take a ten-minute break?

Own your role in what’s going wrong:

  • I’m starting to say things I don’t mean because I’m angry/frustrated/sad. Let’s take a break to calm down.
  • I think I’m being unfair because I’m feelilng (fill it in….). Can we take a break?
  • I know this is important to you and I want to listen carefully. I’m not able to do that right now.

For work-place situations:

  • I think you’ve made some good points and I need some time to think them over. Let’s schedule a follow-up conversation.
  • I’m going to need some time to consider this information. When can we get back together?
  • I can see this is important to you and I don’t have time right now to give it my full attention. Can we come back to it?

It’s very (very!) tempting to tell the other person all the things they’re doing wrong and enumerate all the reasons you can’t possibly have a productive conversation with them, but these kinds of statements probably won’t help:

  • You’re so unreasonable/irrational/mean/wrong that I just can’t talk to you.
  • You never/always …………(anything).
  • You don’t know what you’re talking about.
  • You should feel…..(any emotion)
  • Oh yeah? Well remember the time you did (this other thing that’s not related to the topic at hand but I’ve been dying to bring this up….)

Ideally, we wouldn’t get into these heated situations in the first place, but once it happens, putting down the rope until you’ve both had a chance to cool down and think things through can save a lot of struggle.

I’m sure there are many other great ways to stop fighting out there. What’s worked for you?

 

I like to eat, I like to eat….apples and bananas.

image

I needed to pick up some fruit this week for a morning birthday party at the office and I wanted to ride my bike.  I mapped out a route past the nearest grocery store (thankfully we have many) and backed out a little extra time in my morning.  Things went smoothly until I loaded a bag of oranges and a bunch of bananas into my pannier.  And the bike fell over.

Do you have any idea how much fruit weighs?

(hint: it’s heavy)

It made me wonder how my eating habits would change if I had to buy my family’s food this way all the time.  We’d probably eat less, shop more.

But we might just switch to dried fruit.

Strange Bird

image

It was chilly this morning when I left on my bike.  I wore a fleece jacket over my tank top and long-sleeved shirt and I still balled myself up into the collar as the wind cut through my layers all the way down the first hill.  Lucky for me, there are a lot of hills, both up and down, between my house and my office, so I quickly switched into standing-up mode and warmed right up.

I’m lucky that I have access to a shower and locker at work – without those I just wouldn’t do it – I also enjoy the feeling of calm and peace of mind at the start of the day.  It’s wonderful.  But I think what I like best is the serendipity of the sites along the way.

Today, I saw:

1. a smooshed snake (small, baby copperhead? hard to tell)

2. a wood thrush up close

and

3.  a guy crashing out of a Magnolia tree.

Yup – that’s right.  A fully grown man came tumbling out of a huge magnolia tree in the yard of a small, white house, breaking several branches on the way down if the sound of cracking limbs was indeed tree-related, as I was inclined to think since he landed on the ground and proceeded to talk rather calmly, given his recent descent, to someone I could not see.

I did see a stepladder nearby, the kind you might unfold in your pantry to reach the old can of camper-stove lighter fluid you stashed three years ago on the top shelf, but no other clues stick in my mental snapshot of the scene.

Explain it?  I can’t.  We just had college graduation yesterday and perhaps he was still…coming down off that experience?  Or maybe he too was inspired by the sunny, cool feeling of potential accomplishment that this morning held and was going to do some yard work?

All I know is I would have driven right by without noticing a thing.

I love riding my bike to work when I can fit it in, which isn’t very often given days that require multiple trips and the general pressures of grocery-dinner-extracurricular-kid life.  But I’m always glad when there’s enough breathing room in my world to pump up the tires and take off.

The bike ride is uphill both ways, but worth it.