The Forever Problem

On the days I’m really sleep deprived everything seems impossible. White space is useless. My patience is low. I overreact.

And if I’m having a week or weeks with something that is physically wrong–an illness or an injury–my “impossible” stories get amplified. Especially in the case of illness, “What if I feel this way forever?” is a crushing thought that can spiral.

And then, if I’m lucky, I get better. Enough sleep or adjustment or medication or healing makes an ailment go away. My new “now” is replenished with possibility.

It’s the most human of reactions to over-attribute to our present “now.” We’re so confused about how time, and it’s passage, works that “now” often feels like forever.

So when we’re dealing with an unresolved problem, when we’re making sense of the “no way” that we thought would be a “sure!”, when a key decision maker is a long way from agreeing with our position, when ten potential investors all turned us down in a row…

…we jump, without noticing, to forever.

“What if this ‘no’ is forever? What if I will always be told ‘no’!?”

You won’t be.

You’ve just been told “no” now.

With some combination of good fortune, new information, different tactics, and the simple passage of time, forever things will shift.

Tomorrow’s now won’t be the same as today’s.

10 Minute Meeting Hack

The next time you mess up your schedule, get wires crossed, or are simply slammed for time, turn your hourlong 1-on-1 meeting into a 10 minute one.

“I’m sorry, I messed up, we only have 10 minutes, what do we absolutely need to cover?”

Then cover it.

And see what happens with those remaining 50 minutes, for both of you.

This isn’t a profound idea, but it’s a really useful one.

Unless, of course, you file it away under “someday.”

No Rush

It’s summertime. If you’re not on vacation, then you’re probably making space for some bigger, longer-term projects.

Inevitably, our work time is split into two broad categories: the busy things we need to get through efficiently, and the labor that requires our thoughtful, soulful engagement.

We routinely struggle to create the right balance between the two, which is an important fight.

We also cannot forget that the qualities that serve us well in one area serve us poorly in the other. It’s great to be focused, urgent, and keeping an eye on the clock when tearing through our inbox. But striving to be driven, focused and efficient when we are engaging in bigger questions and in harder topics that don’t yield to quick and easy answers is, with due credit to Indiana Jones, like bringing a knife to a gun fight.

There’s no “hurrying up” when we’re working through big, complex problems.

Make the time, take the time, and don’t rush it.

Tick tock

There’s no half hour longer than the one we spend waiting for something: our table to be ready, the show to start, the gun to go off.

We know this when it comes to the small things, but not the big ones.

So we’re content to sit back and wait for that next big project to land on our laps. We’re happy to cool our heels until we get promoted, because we believe the new title will get folks to listen to us in a new way.  We’re OK with holding court at the water cooler while we wait for our boss to figure out what we already know.

Speak up.  Act now.  Stop waiting.

The Tyranny of Outlook

Last week, as I rushed, apologetically, to start a meeting five minutes late, the person with whom I was meeting nodded knowingly and said, “hey, it’s OK.  That’s the tyranny of Outlook.”

Thank goodness for a bit of perspective.

As I reflect on the ineffectiveness of trying to transition from one meeting to the next in a matter of seconds, I’m contemplating a different approach.  One idea is to schedule all of my meetings to start at 10 past the hour.  (I think this would work better than scheduling them to end 10 minutes before the hour, because then they’d just run over).  10 minutes to shift gears, or to prepare, to take a step back, and also not to run late.

Manually retooling each outlook meeting would create more work, and it would probably take a while to explain to everyone that I’m serious that I really want to start at 10:10 (or, more importantly, 4:10).  Most important would be my holding up my end of the bargain by being on time for 95% of the meetings.

Has anyone out there tried these sorts of scheduling hacks?  What have you learned?

Time’s passage – Tom Hussey

Tom Hussey old youngI found these Tom Hussey photographs arresting.   They are images of Alzheimer’s patients taken 50 years apart.

Perhaps it is because time’s clock is ticking, because the days are long and the years fly by, because the oldest of my three kids just went off for a month of sleepaway camp and, even though it’s still a long way off, his being out of the house for a few weeks reminds me and my wife that one day he will actually BE out of the house, moving on and living a whole life elsewhere, hopefully visiting us from time to time.  And, eventually, so will my other two kids, even our baby girl.

Inexorably, I will, if I’m lucky, continue to live life, experience joy and sorrow, and, I hope, continue to gain wisdom and perspective as I grow older.

All the while I will continue to look in the mirror each morning, and one day (no doubt sooner than I expect it) I will be surprised at the person I see in the reflection.  When that day comes I will talk to younger people and they will make the same mistake that I surely have made countless times: not understanding that I old was once young, vibrant, reckless, inexperienced, and brash.

American culture scores low marks in terms of respect for our elders, and I suspect it is because, in the absence of a strong set of norms around how to treat one another, as individuals we routinely forget the arc of the lives that others have lived.  Perhaps most of us lack the capacity to see a wizened, cracked face, or a body that moves more slowly than it once did, and see the full life that person has lived.

Yet if we’re lucky, time will pass for all of us and we will grow old.  Of course.  I sometimes wonder, though, if our inability to truly understand this simple fact is one of life’s biggest practical jokes.   I know that if we all felt how precious and fleeting our lives are we’d often act differently.

Seeing such vivid, beautiful images of time’s passage doesn’t make me fearful, but it does help me remember to live now, to experience the richness of life and love and family now, to be courageous in what I do now, because time really is flying, and my chance to make a difference is people’s lives is today, not tomorrow.

90% or 5%

I recently heard a speaker who suggested, to a roomful of hyper-productive multitaskers, a radical reorientation of how to spend time.  This speaker, a successful investor and investment adviser, doesn’t write emails, doesn’t multi-task, and doesn’t have a Pavlovian response to a Blackberry’s red blinking light.   Based on his own experience, he suggested that successful decisions come when we create space for deep contemplation and reflection – when we create the time that allows us to we walk around and look at our problems with the curiosity and reflection of a poet who studies a rock, or a beach, or the morning sky.

A lovely idea that is easy to dismiss, to be sure – and many in the audience had just that reaction.  One person went so far as to give an impassioned argument in favor of the efficiency of multi-tasking (while conceding that he agrees with Clifford Nass’ research showing that multi-tasking doesn’t work).

Why are we all so defensive?  Perhaps because we kid ourselves into think that we’re almost getting done 100% of what we need to get done.  We’re super-busy, but, we tell ourselves, we’re probably completing 90% of what we absolutely must get done, and the other 10% probably isn’t all that important anyway, right?  And if we’re getting 90% done, then cutting out half of our meetings or not responding to half our emails sounds impossible.  It feels like a move from 90% to 60%.  Imagine the impact!

But I wonder if the 90% is an illusion.  What if I’m doing 15% of what I could do, or even 5%?  What if I’m nowhere near doing everything I could do that would be productive, because “everything” has gotten so big that I’m never anywhere but the tip of the iceberg.

If I’m only doing 5% of what I “could” do, then a radical shift becomes easier.  By acknowledging that I’m the one deciding how I spend the time, and by recognizing that my criteria might be really good or really bad, I just might create the space for that radical reorientation.

Am I ready to make a big change?  Not yet.  But I do think that doing away with the notion that I’m doing “almost everything” will allow more space for doing what I really need to do.

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Out of time

I just went to the hospital to visit some close friends whose baby will likely be born by the time this blog is posted.  It is five days before the due date, and when I asked how things were going my friend said, “It’s going great, but it’s been kind of sudden.”

Because I was going to meet him after work, rather than heading home, I didn’t rush out of work in the way I normally do. Normally, my time is ruled by the strict deadline of the train I catch every day.  Without the deadline, I “just finished up a few things,” and I left work 45 minutes later than I’d planned.

We fill the time we give ourselves.  And nearly always it feels like the deadline sneaks up on us – even if we’ve been preparing for nine months.

It’s easy to scoff at the idea of holding 5 minute meetings without any chairs in the room, using an egg timer; or doing speed interviews of 20 job applicants in an hour rather than screening a zillion resumes and interviewing 3 people for an hour each.  But until you’ve tried it, do you know which works better?

I’m not saying rush through everything.  I’m saying time is precious and we have the opportunity to be deliberate about how we spend it.   So you get to choose.  Do you:

  1. Decide in advance how much time something really needs to accomplish your goal, and stick to it?
  2. Do things the way everyone else does them, because it’s so uncomfortable to explain why you do things differently?

(and by the way, just because Outlook defaults to a certain length of meeting doesn’t mean that’s how you should schedule your day).

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100% of the time

A while back I wrote about the “125% rule,” the idea that having more on your plate than you can really get done as a good thing, because it forces you constantly to triage, to work better and faster and smarter, and to say ‘no’ to things that you shouldn’t really be spending time on.

That post was about work, and this one is about life.  A perfect life is one in which at every moment you are doing exactly what you should be doing.  Whether at work or at home or somewhere in between, you are fully engaged, fully energized, fully yourself.

I’ve never much liked the term “work/life balance” because of the dichotomy it implies – one is good (life), the other is bad (work), and somehow the idea that “work” is anything but “life” is confused at a pretty fundamental level (plus the phrase really is just corporate-speak for “let’s not make people work nights and weekends.”)

I’m much more interested in “balance,” and to me that means living your life in a way that is aligned with your own priorities, beliefs, who you are today, what you value, and who you want to be in the future.

Pulling “balance” off is tricky.  If I break my life up into its component parts – work, spouse, family, friends, time for myself, etc. – it often feels like all of them could use more time.  And if I run that idea over in my head enough times, I flip from a sense of fullness and energy into a perpetual cycle of “I’m not doing enough” in every phase of my life.

Which has led me to ask: if at (nearly) every moment I’m doing exactly what I should be doing, am I even allowed to be stressed about what I’m not getting done?   Because if I’m doing what I need to do at every moment, yet I still have a never-ending list of incomplete “to do’s” in every aspect of my life, it seems like this means one of two things: either I’m spending my time in the right way but have the wrong attitude about what’s possible – and I need to change my aspirations– or I’m not really spending my time in a way that aligns with my priorities.

Or maybe this is just what life feels like in your 30s?

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Go

I’ve noticed that every time the next big, important thing comes up, I always, always have time for it.  A big project, an exciting opportunity…I’m there – and I’m sure you are too.

But wait a minute.  Where did that time come from? Weren’t you flat out before someone handed you the plum project just waiting for someone to swoop in and save the day?  Sure, you can work a little harder for a little while, but if this keeps happening time and again, you must be making bigger shifts.

Which must mean that there’s always space for something new if it’s important enough.

And this begs the question: what do I do with my time when I’m not stretching on the next big opportunity?

Put another way: “If I had all the time in the world and I really wanted to reach my goals, what I’d really give more time to is _________.”

How do you fill in that blank?  And if the thing is so important, don’t you think you can find the time?

Here’s something I’ve been playing with: scheduling two 2-hour blocks on my calendar every week for the really-important-stuff-that-I-really-should-do-more of.*  It’s probably not enough, but it’s a start.

This is about making your own time for your own most important stuff, because no one’s going to do that for you.  You don’t need permission or someone else making a deadline for you.  And you just discovered that you can make the time.

Go!

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*(I’m serious about the scheduling bit.  I just started doing it.  It makes a huge difference)

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