There are countless tools out there that will help us organize our lives: tips and tricks for managing a to do list; achieving Inbox Zero (aka knowledge worker nirvana); making time for deep work by not scheduling meetings one or two days a week.
There’s also plenty of quality advice about all the professional skills we might want to work on: from how to give and receive more constructive feedback; to what we need to do to become better writers (write shitty first drafts); to how to become great coaches.
But there’s a catch.
The best To Do list approach (and app) won’t work if we also keep, sort of, using our Inbox to track our tasks tasks.
Our Inbox Zero dreams will be dashed if we don’t consistently act on each and every email. Not most of them, all of them.
Our time for deep thinking will evaporate if we make exceptions for “really important” meetings on our supposedly-open day.
We won’t become skilled at giving and receiving effective feedback if we fail to walk towards that discomfort regularly, or if we’re afraid of the awkwardness of structuring our feedback using the Situation-Behavior-Impact framework that might be new to us.
And on and on to our writing, our coaching, and, yes, our, diet, sleep, and exercise.
The doorway from where we are to where we want to be isn’t knowledge or even motivation.
And in most cases, halfway is none of the way there.
Lately I’ve come to see much more clearly the myth of my calendar: the myth that there’s a pinnacle of time management that will make everything OK.
It turns out that there isn’t.
The pieces that I’m trying to fit into my day – the articles I am and am not reading; the meetings I am and am not taking; the talks I am and am not giving – are but a tiny, arbitrary swath of the everything that’s out there that I could be doing that might be relevant and useful.
It’s comforting to think that we’re constrained by all the things we’ve already signed up for, when in reality what constrains us is our unwillingness to let people down in service of our higher purpose.
This is why we can look at people who have learned Mandarin in three months, become world-class tango dancers, or completed the Ironman and say, “Sure, they can do that, but that’s because they have the freedom to spend their time that way.”
This is also why we talk about the changes we’d like to make aspirationally, even wistfully: “Someday [when I’m a perfect person] I’m going to…..” […speak up more in meetings. …start working on that long-term project without anyone’s permission. …sleep enough every night…be courageous…stand up to my boss…learn to code.] It’s just another way of hiding, since we know that we’ll never be that perfect person.
The real issue is our unwillingness to let people down, our unwillingness to bear the brunt of the ensuing disappointment from people we like and respect in service of something more important.
One way to start a new conversation is to ask ourselves: what would make the way we’re currently behaving intolerable to us? What shift would have to happen to make the things we’d like to ‘someday’ become the things we have to do today? What would have to change so that we have no choice but to start doing the work that WE have, until now, chosen not to do?
The first person we have to be willing to break an old contract with is ourselves.
Some of the best advice I’ve heard on how to give feedback involves the simple switch from “you” phrases to “I” phrases, meaning switching from, “You weren’t as clear as you could have been today in making that point” to “I was confused by the points that you made today, and I didn’t feel like your message got across.” It’s a small shift in language that helps create connection and a sense of shared ownership, instead of a feeling of judgment and separation.
Lately, I’ve found myself pining for a parallel shift of language in big meetings.
In meetings, among polite company, I challenge you to find a lot of “you” statements or a lot of “I” statements. Safe meetings are the world of “we,” as in “we need to think about such-and-such” and “it’s important that we take action to correct this problem.”
Unfortunately “we” as a standalone doesn’t get us very far. “We” abdicates responsibility and ownership and follow-though unless it is followed by “I,” as in, “We haven’t prioritized this important project, and what I’m prepared to do to help is….”
In feedback sessions gone awry, the conversation is all about the other person and how he needs to change. In meetings gone awry, the group and the organization transform to a collective “we” separate from the people having the meeting. We use safe language to create the illusion that “we” is anything other than a collection of “I”s who either will or won’t take steps – starting now, starting today – to make something else happen, something new happen, something hard and important happen.
There’s no “we” but you and me.