Reclaiming Monday Mornings

I’m a big believer in weekends.

Rest, recovery and unplugging allow us to clear our minds of the dross and stress of the previous week. If we truly let ourselves recharge, we find ourselves with both more energy and creativity on Monday mornings.

However, work still happens on the weekend: emails still arrive, questions need to be answered, calendars get shifted around, Slack channels come alive.

It’s tempting to wake up Monday morning and see this influx as a weedy undergrowth that needs to be hacked away immediately. With this mentality, we choose to start our Monday morning with a few hours of routine, mindless tasks.

A great trade is to find just one hour over the weekend for simple, menial work: delete spam and respond to spam-like work messages; check over to do lists for the week and add/delete items; look at and adjust calendars. These tasks carry a light mental load and ticking them off lets us start the week calmer and more grounded because we are on our front foot.

Then, the payoff: use the first two hours of Monday morning for something creative, important, scary, or fun. Maybe it’s a project you’ve been putting off, or it’s one you’ve not yet discovered. Perhaps its lying hidden on a blank sheet of paper, waiting for you to find it.

This small, stolen hour of catch-up work can recast Monday mornings: instead of “here we go again” we start the week with “finally, a few precious hours to do important work before I get sucked into the week.”

That’s Right!

A classmate of mind in graduate school earned himself the nickname, “Yes, but…” He could disagree with anything, and he would happily voice that disagreement.

It’s easy to fall into this trap, to only verbalize when you have a critique to make.

No stranger to this mistake, for many years I was most comfortable speaking up when I saw a fault in someone’s logic, a gap in a plan, or when I had a new idea that I thought was a better solution.

I thought I was helping. I thought I was moving the group towards a better outcome, and that it made sense to speak up with my ‘yes, buts’ and to otherwise keep quiet.

Not surprisingly, I was part of the problem.

To build great teams that come up with great solutions, we should spend most of our time verbalizing specific, heartfelt positive comments. In fact, on the best-performing teams, the ratio of positive to negative comments is a whopping 5.6 to 1. (Incidentally, the same goes for marriages: the ones most likely to stay together have the same 5 to 1 positive-to-negative comment ratio). For the worst-performing teams, the ratio is an abysmal 0.36 to 1.

Why is expressing positivity so important for team performance?

First, because it cultivates an environment of trust and motivation. Let’s remember that most of us, most of the time, are our own worst critics: we barrage ourselves with the echoes of our negative internal narrative. So, each external critique serves to amplify this narrative, while each compliment is muffled by it.

This is why what looks like an environment full of “helpful suggestions” is really one in which the dial on criticism – of ourselves, of each other – is turned up all the way. In this sort of space, people stop taking risks and being willing to do things that might not work.

But wait, there’s more.

The ‘yes, but’ approach does more than undermine trust and chip away at bravery and confidence. It ends up hacking away at the roots of what people need when trying something new.

In areas in which we are not yet skilled, we literally do not know the difference between good and bad. It doesn’t matter if we’re trying to write an email in a new way, practice a new technique for closing a sale or learning to play the violin, at the beginning of steep learning curves (and all new micro-skills have their own steep learning curves), right and wrong action are, to the novice, nearly indistinguishable.

That’s what makes it so invaluable to say, “Yes! That! Do more of that, it was great!!” It both identifies the right, new behavior, making it much more likely to be repeated; and it reinforces that new right action will be rewarded, both intrinsically and extrinsically.

The good news is that there’s a monumentally easy fix for the ‘Yes, but’ rut.

Just say ‘Yes, and…’

Try saying that five times a day and you’re off to a good start.

Apologies for the Missing Spaces

Hi everyone.

You’ve probably noticed that a number of my recent posts are missing spaces between words.

WordPress has a new editor and it’s giving me trouble. I swear there are gremlins in there, because I reread all of my posts before I publish them and am pretty sure I would have noticed “Microsoft built itthat way” and “fabric of ourdays.”

I will try to get to the bottom of this.

In the meantime, thank you for your patience.

And if anyone is out there using the new WordPress editor and has a solution, please let me know.

Defaults

We schedule 60-minute meetings because Microsoft built it that way.

It’s just one of defaults that make up the fabric of our days.

The time we go to bed and wake up.

When show up at work, and when we go home.

What we say when someone asks “how are you?”

How we decide if we’ll stop for conversation.

Who we look in the eye.

What we do in the elevator.

And in the car, the train, the subway.

How, when and what we eat.

The first thing we do when we open our laptops, or when we have a free moment, or after concentrating hard for 15 minutes.

The number of minutes (seconds) we allow ourselves for unstructured time just to think.

Feeling rushed.

Acting rushed.

What counts as “real work.”

How honest we are with our boss, and with ourselves.

These are all defaults we’ve developed. Some are intentional, many are unconscious.

Most of them served us well once and don’t any more.

Want to change your day, your health, your outlook, your productivity?

Start by changing a default.

(Including in Microsoft Office)

Brand New Ideas

None of your ideas is ‘brand new,’ not really.

Think of what it would mean to have a thought that no one has had before, ever.

It is, mathematically speaking, impossible.

Phew. Once we notice this, we can be duped into letting ourselves off the hook. If it’s all been said before (we tell ourselves) then no one needs to hear from us. Time to sit back, relax, and passively consume.

The problem with this story is what it imagines an idea to be: a formless, weightless thing that exists, objectively, somewhere out there.

This isn’t what ideas are at all. They are living things that take on meaning through the way they are expressed: their content, emotion, and form (the words, the medium, the imagery) all breathe unique life into them.

When we consume your idea, we take in all its indivisible parts: the idea is shaped by each irrefutably personal element you put on it. Only you could express this idea in this way, because there’s only one you.

This means that your job is not to tell us something we’ve never heard before. Your job is to tell us what this thing means to you, right now, in a way that is textured, imperfect and personal.

This allows us to understand what it means to us, right now, and why we might let it into our minds and our hearts, so that it can change us.

Right Thought, Right Action

You’d think they go together nearly all the time.

But when we’re trying to change, especially when someone has asked us to change, they rarely do.

Thankfully, right action is always available to us.

We just start, we do this new thing, once, a second time, over and over again.

We might not understand why. But we can choose to start by acting, and in so doing we show our faith in and respect for the person who suggested the change.

If it helps, you can see this right action as an exploration: once we genuinely engage in right action, we will see its results. Often, at this moment, our blinders come off. The limitations of our arguments defending our prior, not-as-right action, get exposed.

Right thoughts will follow, because the actions and their results speak for themselves.

The other path, the one where we only act after we’re convinced it’s right, is a mirage.

Because our mind has this terrible tendency to believe itself.

Looking into a Different Mirror in 2019

hannah-grace-385877-unsplash
Photo by hannah grace (@oddityandgrace )

While I’m not a big believer in New Year’s resolutions, I like the idea of resolving, this year, to change the story we tell ourselves about ourselves.

One of the most relaxing parts of my winter break were the hours I spent curled up with The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss, the most-recommended fantasy fiction book by all of you.

At the end of the book, I found a pearl of wisdom spoken by a minor character named Bast:

Everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.

Bast then goes on to illustrate about how the story we tell ourselves can change (I choose to read this excerpt with the implied broad sense of “beauty,” and even so wish the example were a different one):

If you tell [a shy girl you love] she’s beautiful, she’ll think you’re sweet, but she won’t believe you. She knows that beauty lies in your beholding…But [you can] show her she is beautiful. You make mirrors of your eyes, prayers of your hands…It is hard, very hard, but when she truly believes you…Suddenly the story she tells herself in her own head changes. She transforms. She isn’t seen as beautiful. She is beautiful, seen.

So often we cling fiercely to limitations that are far past their expiration date.

We can resolve this year to start to believe the stories that the people who love us most tell us about ourselves.

Stories about being worthy of love.

Stories about being truly, deeply beautiful.

Stories about what we can accomplish: the book we can write, the new role we’re ready for, the strengths we have that come so easily to us that we ignore them.

The biggest leaps I took in 2018 were possible because I believed, even if just for a moment, the kindest, most generous stories that people who love me told me. These stories were sometimes spoken out loud and sometimes reflected powerfully in actions.

All of them helped me see myself in the kinder light reflected in the mirror of their eyes, rather than the harsh glow of self-criticism.  And I’d think, “Maybe they’re right. Maybe that is in me. Maybe.” That was enough to imagine bravery. That was enough to begin.

As we look to 2019, let us remember to believe those who see in us more capability, bravery, and potential than we see in ourselves. And let’s remember that one of the greatest, easiest gifts we can give is to be positive mirrors, by reminding others of the beauty that lies within them.

Happy 2019. Here’s to a great year ahead.

Whole30 and the Forever Problem

About 10 days ago, I started the Whole30 diet. Whole30 is a popular elimination diet that purportedly helps with everything from weight loss to chronic inflammation. I’m trying it because I’ve had stomach problems since May that haven’t gone away. I figured that a strict approach to food could help me discover how my diet is, or is not, part of the problem.

The Whole30 plan is strict: 30 days not eating or drinking any dairy, simple carbs (bread, pasta, crackers, rice), added sugar, legumes or alcohol. Plus you try to limit fruit to two servings a day. This boils down to every meal being some version of a protein and a vegetable, and I’m also eating a lot of tree nuts (no peanuts, they are legumes). Breakfast is particularly tough, since my staples of cereal or oatmeal or yogurt plus coffee with milk and sugar are all forbidden. In addition to everything I’m cutting out, it’s also a ton of food prep since everything prepared by someone else has either sugar or bread or butter in it.

While it’s not easy, it does seem to be helping me some. Plus, it’s an interesting experiment in resetting my body’s expectations around sugar, which is my biggest dietary vice.

Here’s what this looks like in practice: last week, I had back-to-back breakfast meetings. At Maison Kaiser, which has the most incredible baguettes and breads I’ve found outside of France, I had a half an avocado, a serving of bacon, and a cup of herbal tea. Then, at my next meeting in an open cafeteria, where I’d normally have gotten a Danish and a fruit salad, I had, instead, a cup of plain herbal tea. Fun.

At the cafeteria, my cup of tea steaming in front of me, I noticed the donut that the person I was meeting with was eating. I had a visceral subconscious reaction: unbelievable that someone would have a sugar donut at breakfast at 9:15 am!!

And then I checked myself, because six days ago I’d have had the exact same thing.

What struck me was how something that was brand new to me–this crazy diet–already felt permanent, enough that my subconscious mind was judging someone who was happily having a doughnut and a coffee just like I would have had a week ago.

This is what I’d call The Forever Problem, the feeling that whatever is happening to us right at this moment is real, true, and permanent.

With respect to adhering to Whole30, my Forever Problem does help me at times: with strict dietary rules, I enter every place where there’s food, from my pantry to a restaurant, differently. I skip past 95% of the available food, say “that’s not what I eat,” and move on.

But more often than not it hurts me.

When I’m hungry on this diet, or craving something, it feels like I will feel this way forever.

When I’m going through a particularly tough patch at work…you guessed it, forever.

Same thing for the last mile of a run…will this pain ever stop? Of course it will, but it doesn’t feel that way.

The Forever Problem often stands in the way of changes we want to make in our lives. Nearly all worthwhile change starts with discomfort, and we mistake temporary hardship—a jolt of fear, a sense of clumsiness when we try a new approach, a bit of shame when the new thing doesn’t quite work—for something permanent. We over-ascribe meaning to these missteps, thinking they represent something other than “this moment, right now, which is fleeting,” and we ultimately give up.

This is why success at making positive, lasting change in our lives is self-reinforcing: we’ve lived through this kind of difficult before, we are familiar with it. While we may not like it, we allow ourselves to consider that it won’t last forever.

This is also why cohorts can be so powerful in supporting the change we seek to make: our fellow travelers remind us of our purpose, they experience the ups and downs differently, they have seen us persist before, and, when our commitment flags, they believe in us more than we believe in ourselves.

None of this is easy, but meaningful change never is. We can get better at pushing through the hard bits by learning to reframe them. Our job is to see them as real but temporary, to remain curious about the panic we’re feeling, and to explore what other responses are available to us. Or, if we really must panic, we can give into that but choose to keep staying the course.

As for me, it’s about time to think about my next meal: which combination of eggs, nuts, roasted vegetables and protein will it contain?

Only 20 days to go. It feels like forever.

Bonus: Your Fantasy Fiction Picks

Tuesday’s post about fun fantasy fiction got an amazing response. I guess we all need an escape every now and then.

So many of you shared your favorite books with me that I wanted to pay it forward and compile your full list. Many of these are new to me, so I thought they might be new to you too. I included the sci-fi ones too, for fun, and some of your comments as well.

Thank you to everyone who shared!

The Kingkiller Chronicle Series (2 books) by  Patrick Rothfuss

The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss was recommended by multiple readers so it makes the top of the list.

Red Rising series by Pierce Brown.

Mistborn: The Final Empire by [Sanderson, Brandon]

The Mistborn series by Bryan Sanderson.

The Robot Series by Isaac Asimov, “A 1950s conceptualization of artificial intelligence.”


The Paradox Trilogy by Rachel Bach, “think Alien meets Mills & Boon.” (and, for you non-Brits, Mills & Boon = Harlequin)

Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, eight books in all.

Fablehaven books by Brandon Mull

The Discworld series by Sir Terry Pratchett has sold more than 80 million copies worldwide.

The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston was described by a reader as, “It’s a true story, but wild enough to be fantasy.”

The Bees by Laline Paull, “A beautiful fantasy book about a worker bee and her struggle inside a hive.”

Other recommended authors: Rick Riordan, Anne McCaffrey, C.J. Cherryh, Fritz Leiber, Patricia Wrede, Tamora Pierce, and Robert Heinlein.

Here’s to a holiday season with lots of curling up under a big blanket to escape, for a little while, to another world.

My Daily Book Escape

My end-of-day ritual is to read in bed, usually for 30 to 60 minutes until I am falling asleep. This has become one of the best parts of my day, a quiet sanctuary: the door is closed, our phones and computers are downstairs, my kids are (or should be) asleep, and I can escape into whatever book I’m reading.

While I have always enjoyed a mix of heavier and lighter reading, ever since January 2017, when politics became terrifying and I got sucked into a social media vortex, I’ve discovered a new love for lighter, escapist fantasy fiction. Visiting another world every night has been a cushion from the day and a welcome escape from the noise of our new, cacophonous reality.

With that in mind, here are a few fantasy fiction gems that I’ve enjoyed over the last couple of years, in case you’re looking for something fun to pick up over the holidays.

Harry Potter, by JK Rowling. Right after the 2017 election I grabbed my worn copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and reread all seven books for (at least) the tenth time. I love them every time. If you’re one of the eleven people left on earth who hasn’t read them, you’re missing out. (Bonus: if you’re a true fan and you find yourself in London, head over to Greek Street where you’ll find a gem of a store called the House of Mina Lima with beautiful graphic art from the movies – graphic designers Miraphora Mina and Eduardo Lima created many of the props for the movies).

House of Mina LimaMe having a little fun with my Hogwarts letters arriving at House of Mina Lima.

The Winternight Trilogy, by Katherine Alden. I’ve just finished the first two books in this series. My wife discovered them in our favorite bookstore in Great Barrington, theBookloft, and they are wonderful. The writing is much better and more mature than most fantasy, as Alden brings a historian’s eye to the story. Set in 15thcentury Russia, the books, ostensibly about a girl discovering her magical powers, are really about the intersection of modern Christianity with ancient spirits, and set to the backdrop of politics and power in pre-Tsar Russia. I can’t wait until the third book comes out.

The All Souls Trilogy, by Deborah Harkness. I’m not terribly proud of having read these. They are trashy-but-fun vampire/witch stories with a dollop of Fifty Shades of Grey. Still, they were just good enough to finish, and the writing improves after the first book. They’ll be coming out as a TV series soon so you may as well read them first.

The Stormlight Archive, by Byran Sanderson.  Sanderson is an absurdly prolific author, and this series is just one of many he’s written. These books were a guilty pleasure. The Stormlight world is big, sprawling and messy, there warring kingdoms, species pitted against each other, powerful gods, and epic battles. The story at time gets unwieldy and heavy-handed, but I did enjoy them. I’ve been told that Steelheart is the next Sanderson series for me to read.

The Song of Ice and Fire (a.k.a. Game of Thrones) by George R.R. Martin. Not original, I know, but if you’ve only seen the show it’s still worth picking up the books. In reading the first two I thought the series had the potential to stack up with the Lord of the Rings, but the quality dropped a lot after book two and they nearly grind to a halt. The five books are nearly 4,000 pages of reading, so choose wisely.

Seeds of America Trilogy, by Laurie Halse Anderson. These books aren’t strictly fantasy fiction, but they are so good I had to include them. These young adult stories of the American Revolutionary War, told from the perspective of a young female slave, bring historical events down to human scale while leaving the reader to struggle with the inherent contradictions of the fight for American freedom while condoning slavery. The books are fabulous, the characters rich and alive, and I wanted them to go on forever. These books and the Deborah Harkness ones are my favorite ones on this list (besides Harry Potter, of course).

I’d love to hear your additions to this list…otherwise I’ll have to go back to reading serious stuff, and who wants that?