Must Do List

I’ve tried a thousand times to have a consistent, useful To Do list.

I’ve written them by hand in notebooks. I’ve tried fancy project management apps like Trello and Asana. I even almost settled on various paired-down “it’s just a list and nothing else” softwares like Teux Deux, Remember the Milk or Wunderlist.

But eventually, each of my To Do lists fails, and I end up abandoning it.

The problem, I realized, isn’t the interface, it’s the list itself. My To Do lists do a terrible job distinguishing between important and urgent, and between simple and complex. In the end, some combination of three things ends up happening:

  1. I prioritize small things that are easier to check off the list, at the expense of the “real stuff.”
  2. The important things languish…
  3. …or they get so big that they don’t make sense on the To Do list

The result is a doubly whammy of decreased output: a persistent pull towards the simpler, less-important tasks; and a growing To Do list that is either stale (stuff that rolled over week after week for months) or overwhelming (long lists of complex, insurmountable tasks).

Eventually I give up on the list, and the software, revert back to a hodgepodge of solutions.

Lately I realized that what I need isn’t better software, it’s a better list. I need a Must Do List: a things-that-absolutely-must-happen-this-week list.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Find a window at the start of your week, either on Sunday night or, better, Monday morning when you’re fresh and thinking clearly and broadly. Jot down the first 1-3 things that come to mind that feel like they’re going to be most important in the coming week.
  2. Look at your calendar for last week and for the coming week, as well as whatever communication tool (email, Slack, etc.) you use, to orient yourself to the flow of meetings, deadlines, and communication.
  3. Write your Must Do list, a short list of important things that really, truly, must get done this week. You’re allowed an absolute maximum of 10 items on the list.

Use the list all week, and return to it on Friday afternoon to see how you did.

Here’s the important bit: your Friday afternoon job isn’t simply to look over the list and roll things over to the following week. Your job is to evaluate what did and didn’t get done, and then, seriously and intentionally, figure out what happened: was your judgment off on Monday morning about your must-do’s, or did your execution and time management slip during the week?

Now do it again for the following week.

The result of all this isn’t just more efficiency. It’s creating a practice through which you improve both at identifying and executing the things that must happen to move your important work forward.

 

I Know That I Am…

While on the road last week, I did a pretty good job of meditating each night. I’ve found this is the best way to overcome both jetlag and the buzzing distraction of being on the road.

Most nights, I did one of the guided mediations on my Insight Timer app. Near the end of my trip I found a guided meditation by Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn.

“OK,” I thought, “this is going to be some serious meditation!”

The foundation of this meditation, in the words of Thich Nhat Hahn, is the breath, and is paying attention to it by thinking, “When you breathe in, know that you are breathing in. When you breathe out, know that you are breathing out.” He must have said that fifty times in the meditation.

Really? I’ve done lots of meditations where I count my breaths, or focus on a thought or an emotion or an object. But “I know that I am breathing in?” Something about that from the great Zen master wasn’t what I was expecting. Still, I went with it, and the meditation turned out to be quite nice in its simplicity.

I didn’t think much more about it until today. I was walking from my parked car into the supermarket, needing to grab one last-minute item quickly for some houseguests that were coming over for Memorial Day. Conscious of time, I had a moment when I thought, “I know that I am putting the parking ticket into my back left pocket.”

Now, this may not seem like a big deal unless I say out loud that the supermarket parking ticket is the bane of my existence. Between getting my kids out of the car and making sure that they’re not endangering themselves in the parking lot, half the time I seem to misplace that ticket or find it in a pocket despite having no recollection that I’d put it there.

And today, while I wasn’t trying to do anything different, I knew exactly where it was because I was fully present to what I was doing in the moment I put it into my pocket.

When we lose a parking ticket, it’s pretty clear that we weren’t paying attention to where we put it when we got out of the car. In most other situations the feedback is a lot less obvious – how often have I thought, “what went wrong in that conversation was that I wasn’t paying attention to what was being said to me while it was being said?” How often do we actually notice that what’s missing isn’t the right analysis or people being aligned to the same goals, it’s simply that we, or the people around us, aren’t present to the conversation that is happening right at that moment?

I for one almost never notice it. I also am almost never just doing the dishes when I’m doing the dishes, I’m almost never just walking down the street when I walk down the street, I almost never am just saying hello when I meet someone.

Almost never, but not never. And that’s a start.

My ask of you today isn’t that you’ll share this blog post or talk about it. It is that you, before jumping to the next post or email, stop for a second and, for five (just five!) breaths, know that you are breathing in, and know that you are breathing out.

If it helps, imagine that you are joining thousands of other people who, right about now, have also reached the end of this post.

Please, begin.

How coaches help

When we coach in a professional setting, it’s easy to focus on the giving of advice. After all, “coaching” feels like the preferred activity of the coach.

Just as helpful, though, is sense-making. Most bright, skilled people will know what to do if they can figure out the situation they’re in. So, rather than, “you might want to do this,” a more useful approach as a coach is to say things like, “I’ve seen this pattern before, this is how to make sense of it, these are the twists and obstacles that might be coming next.” This way, the person being coached is being made aware of her biases, or omissions, or wishful thinking, and is shored up against her inexperience facing this particular situation.

Also, by sharing “here’s what I think is going on” rather than “here is what I think you should do,” you shift the locus of accountability back where it will have to be in the long-term: with the person being coached.

Underpinning all of this is a quality that cannot be faked or glossed over: seeing someone, fully. This is the heart-felt activity of appreciating someone for who they are, seeing their full person, and, having seen and understood that, standing firmly beside them in their corner–not at the expense of anyone else, just with them.

Most folks can count on one hand the number of people with whom they feel fully seen, and increasing that count by one is a deeply powerful, validating and human stance to take.

Oh, and don’t forget, if you have employees, teammates, colleagues or classmates, you have already donned the hat of “coach,” even if you can’t see it yet. It will be a bit easier to carry that mantle when you remind yourself that there are lots of ways to be useful beyond simply doling out advice.

Fundraising Programs and Fundraising Products

One of the best, most under-utilized ways to give leverage to a fundraising team is by creating fundraising products.

That’s products, not programs.

Nonprofit fundraising is a constant uphill battle: to raise enough money, and to raise the right kind of money. And since most philanthropists choose not to give when they believe there’s a risk they won’t have an impact (“people look for any excuse to avoid giving a donation and then rationalize their skinflint behavior to avoid feeling selfish” says HBS professor Christine Exley), nonprofits respond by creating projects.

Project-based fundraising can work, but just as often it pushes an organization off mission; or it doesn’t provide enough money to pay staff and keep the lights on; or it obliges the organization to keep a program going when it’s not working; or it results in an organization that is so constrained in what it must deliver that it never creates new things.

The better solution is to create fundraising products.

First, some definitions.

Think of a program as an existing, understood and defined set of activities. The activities-based orientation lends itself to highly-specific budgeting, and setting expectations around “we will do these specific things in this way at these times.” Uncertainty is low, as is freedom.

Conversely, a fundraising product is a narrative that sits comfortably between “fund our entire organization” (unrestricted giving) and “fund this set of activities” (a program). It as an initiative around which you create a compelling narrative, one that mobilizes a set of people to make something (new) happen.

Some of the ingredients in a successful fundraising product are:

  • Clarity about what will be built in a specific time period (e.g. “over the next 24 months we are building a new initiative to support income-generating activities among a group of high-performing grantees.”)
  • A defined total fundraising amount (e.g. a few million dollars)
  • A compelling narrative that clearly connects the dots between the funds being raised and the change that will result, and an underlying business logic (this one’s up to you)
  • A minimum threshold for funders to participate (“our core group will each give a minimum of $250,000 over three years”)
  • Clear roles for the funders in the co-creation of this initiative: how they will help shape the initiative, how information will flow to them, exclusive opportunities to come together as a group and with your team/the people and organizations you’re investing in. (e.g. you’re creating a virtual board for the initiative)

The beauty of this approach is that it empowers both the organization and the funders, plus it gives the fundraiser the tools she needs to mobilize more capital: the bigger story has been created (narrative), there are a limited number of seats around the table (scarcity), the fundraise for this program will start and end (deadline), there is a defined funding amount to be part of that group (dollar thresholds), and the role of the philanthropist in the work that will unfold is well-understood (membership in a group).

When done right, a great fundraising product supports everyone’s success: the funders (who get a real hand in creating and accompanying something new and meaningful); the fundraisers (whose effectiveness you’ve just tripled); your organization (which will get the flexible capital it needs to do something important); and your beneficiaries / customers (who are more likely to participate in an offering that, by design, can flex to suit their needs and feedback).

First, Yes

I’ve written before about the situational leadership framework, a model of both learning and coaching that helps make sense of how new skills are acquired, and the adaptive role managers must play in supporting their teams.

The four roles managers can play are:

  • Directing: tell people what to do, how, and when (S1)
  • Coaching: guiding, advising (S2)
  • Supporting: nudging along a skilled person on a task that they might not want to do (S3)
  • Delegating: they’re off and running (S4)

From the perspective of the team member, there framework has a simple 2×2 of skillfulness and willingness:

  • Unwilling and unable (S1)
  • Unable and willing (S2)
  • Able and unwilling (S3)
  • Able and willing (S4)

Though simplified, this is a nice shortcut for framing our development of different skills and the kind of support we require: how good (or bad) am I at doing this new thing? And how willing (or unwilling) am I to do the work?

Recently I was watching a squash coach teach a high backhand volley to a teenager. The coach explained the principles, gave some specific pointers, and then demonstrated. His synchronicity from seeing the ball to the energy he transferred from legs to torso to shoulders to racquet was a sight to behold. Pow!

Then the teenager stepped up, got fed a high ball to hit, and…barely connected. It was a jumbled mess, all wrist and arm going every which way, with the contrast to what he’d been shown all the easier to see from outside the court.

And what did this experienced coach say, seeing this mess?

“Great job!!! Nice work.”

I kept on waiting for the “and…” or the “but…” because there were a hundred shifts that were required.

And then I realized what I’d just seen: the teenager had just shifted from S1 to S2, had just gone from unwilling to willing, and, since we have loads of time, and since sustained motivation matters much more than skill today, the right response is just that.

I applaud your willingness.

I stoke the flames of your belief in yourself.

I encourage you without reservation.

The technique you’re trying to build…that will come later.

Right now, at the start of this journey for this skill on this day, my job is to say “Yes!”

Culture shortcut

Conversations about team and organizational culture can easily go off track, veering into a messy mixture of behaviors, culture, values, strategy, and attitudes.

To cut through it all, I’ve had success with the following: ask each member of the team to imagine they are interviewing a candidate they would like to hire. Have them describe to this candidate what it feels like to be part of this team: how do we behave, what does it feel like, what are the words that jump to mind?

The answers you’re looking for are tangible, simple:

“We move fast.”

“We are collaborative.”

“We talk a lot.”

“We have fun.”

“We are always thinking three steps ahead.”

“We have a plan.”

“We are disciplined.”

“We listen to everyone’s voice.”

And then you also want people to think about and tell you: what are one or two things that are missing from our culture that would help us be more effective?

To avoid anchoring (having the first, loudest, or most senior person’s voice determine the direction of the conversation), have each person write down their answers first. Then read them out, one at a time, and see where there are similarities and differences.

I’ve found that this is a nice way to cut through the noise, helping teams to zero in on who we are today and who we’d like to be tomorrow.

Moments of Joy

It was a cold, cold holiday break, and I spent a lot of quiet time with my family.

I found myself actively appreciating the good fortune of having a warm house to sleep in in the face of brutally cold nights, and reflecting on the little things that fortify me, help me refuel, and make me feel fully alive.

Life is full of ups and downs, of intense periods and periods of renewal–it can’t all be about time for reflecting, relaxation and recovery.

But it is worth noticing these small moments, for they can easily be built in to even the busiest of times.

A good night’s sleep.

Preparing a meal with my kids.

Driving on a sunny morning to play a game of squash.

The calm I feel after a yoga practice, or 15 minutes of meditation.

Curling up with a good book.

Witnessing the moment when someone discovers they can do something they thought they couldn’t.

When snow just starts to fall.

Laughter.

Here’s wishing you a 2018 full of small, and big, moments of joy.

(and, to all you email subscribers, here’s wishing that you got this post safe and sound from Feedblitz. If anything seems funky, please let me know. I’m working on it.)

Painting Stars

Last week, ragged coming off a long flight and feeling unprepared for a talk I needed to give that evening, I decided go for a run.

Mind you, this is not the kind of thing I’d normally do. My working days are, lately, chopped into 30 minute increments. I look on curiously to my fellow airplane passengers who actually watch movies on the flight as I crack open my laptop. And I’m a big believer that the best way to show respect to your audience and their time is to prepare properly for a talk.

But on this day, I was feeling both tired and under the weather. I couldn’t seem to kick a nagging headache. And, given the time change, I had at least another 10 hours left before calling it a night. It’s not that I really wanted to go for the run either, but it seemed like it would help me kick the headache and I then could get back to work.

You probably can see the punchline coming: there was no trade between the run and the time alone in a cramped hotel room prepping for the talk, because the talk came together on the run itself.

We’ve all seen this happen before, but we tend to dismiss it as the exception rather than the rule. But it turns out that there’s a whole field of creative thought that advocates for parallel creative pursuits as a way to keep creativity flowing. Einstein called this “combinatory play,” and he is famous for having come up with most of his breakthroughs while playing the violin.

Image by Lee White
Author Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, calls combinatory play “the act of opening up one mental channel by dabbling in another.” She tells the story of Australian writer and poet Clive James who, after a spectacular failure of a play he’d written, got completely stuck creatively for weeks and weeks. Then, one day, one of his daughters asked if he would spruce up her run-down second-hand bicycle, which James agreed to do, painting his girls’ bikes vivid red, the seat posters like barbers’ poles, and,

When the paint dried, he began to add hundreds of tiny silver and gold stars – a field of exquisitely detailed constellations – all over the bicycles…The next day, his daughters brought home another little girl from the neighborhood, who asked if Mr. James might please paint stars on her bicycle too. He did it…When he was done, another child showed up, and another, and another…And so it came to pass that one of the most important writers of his generation spent several weeks sitting in his driveway, painting thousands and thousands of tiny stars on the bicycles of every child in the area.

And, lo and behold, somewhere in the midst of painting all of those stars, James figured out that he did want to write again. He got unstuck.

I do, at times, take “a break” – writing a blog post or going for a run or playing the piano – when I feel stuck. But I’d never considered that to be more than a respite, I’d never thought of creativity as something to be actively fed and cultivated.

If anything, it had always seemed that the only way to defeat stuck-ness was with sweat and brute force. Who’d have thought that there’s such a think of intentionally tilling my own creative soil?

It turns out it’s both.

It turns out that having some places where we are unabashedly doing things that bring us joy and allow us to self-express is an integral part to living a creative life—whatever that means to you.

It turns out that we all need small and big moments of painting stars in our lives.

How are you?

Notice how grooved we get in our reply to this question.

Either we respond with an anodyne “Fine thanks. And you?”

Or we use it as a chance to vent about the last three things that went wrong in our day.

Here’s an idea: use this as a moment to consciously, genuinely share the most positive thing that’s happened recently, or one thing you’re looking forward to.

By sharing that emotion and that energy, the person who was kind enough to ask can feel that and pay it forward.

Election Day

I have a lot of hopes and fears going in to this Election Day.

Today does not feel like a choice between two candidates with opposing views, or even between two candidates with opposing values.

Today I feel like democracy, global stability, and the last shreds of decency hang in the balance.

I’ve been trying to make sense of it all these last few months, and I think I have a clearer perspective on how my experiences and situation – including, perhaps most significantly, that I live a major metropolitan area – distance me from huge swaths of the U.S. population. I’ve come to recognize that the feelings of anger, hopelessness, outrage, and the sense that the system is broken, are very real for tens of millions of people. And I’ve come to believe that the pain that this election has exposed is not going away any time soon.

But, try as I may, what I still fail to understand, and where I cannot help but feel sadness and fear, comes down to what I understood to be American values.

I would like to believe that there are immutable truths we hold self-evident as a people and as a nation.

I would like to believe that any individual seeking public office – let alone the highest office in the land – must show that he rejects hatred, he rejects demagoguery, he rejects demeaning women and Hispanics and Muslims and pretty much anyone else who comes in his path.

I would like to believe that we all recognize and remember that we are a country of immigrants, a country of misfits, a country that fled persecution and marginalization to form a more perfect union.

I would like to believe, while our union is very far from perfect and while our language of unity has, since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, papered over inconsistencies and outright hypocrisies, that someone who expresses hatred and disrespect isn’t “not politically correct,” he is trampling on core American values.

I would like to believe that Ryan Lenz, the editor of the Hatewatch blog at the Southern Poverty Law Center, is overstating when he says, “For racists in this country, this campaign has been a complete affirmation of their fears, worries, dreams and hopes…Most things they believe have been legitimized, or have been given the stamp of approval, by mainstream American politics to the point now where it’s no longer shameful to be a racist.”

I would like to believe that Richard Spencer, who coined the term alt-right in 2008, is wrong in crediting Trump with “sling-shott[ing] us a long way” and that he’s wrong when he says that he expects that “we can just look at 2015 and 2016 as the beginning of a new stage.”

And I have to believe that today our nation will show the world that the core values upon which it was founded still remain – albeit under attack and deeply wounded.

I have to believe that today will not be the day that the long march towards tolerance was halted.

I have to believe that we won’t look back at today as the last day that our democracy was strong.

I have to believe that we will remain “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

God Bless America.