Improve your daily game with focus

Last week I wrote about developing your imagination. This week I thought I’d balance things out with a left-brain productivity booster.

Normally, I’m not a fan of the “just make it happen” school of sports and military inspired productivity talks. Like the oft-cited quote from heard former Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi’s: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

Interesting factoid: at the end of his life, Lombardi is purported to have said to a journalist:  “I wished I’d never said the thing…I meant the effort. I meant having a goal. I sure didn’t mean for people to crush human values and morality.”

Organize Tomorrow Today: 8 Ways to Retrain Your Mind written by Dr. Jason Selk and Tom Bartow draws from elite sports performance coaching, but the focus on training your mind intrigued me enough to want to read it and I’m glad I did. Selk was formerly “director of mental training” for the St. Louis Cardinals and Bartow is a basketball coach turned leadership trainer, who draws heavily from the wisdom of UCLA’s famed basketball coach, John Wooden.

Here’s a summary of the points from the book I found to be most useful:

Pick the three most important things you want to focus on each day and then choose the one that is the most important.

Don’t try for a jillion. The authors say we have to respect our “channel capacity” (great term!) and acknowledge that we can’t do all we assume we can. Trying to do more than is do-able throws us off our game. (Smaller priorities can be fit around bigger ones or done after you’ve accomplished your most important things.) The authors are particularly interested in finding the key things that will improve our performance if done consistently.

“Choosing wisely is difficult because it is counterintuitive. It is easier to put a list together of all the possible things you need to get done than it is to actually choose your one most important task and then master it.”

Guilty as charged. After reading the book, I’ve started to look at what is most important to my business/life each day, and keep a list of those items in front of me as I manage the rest of my stuff.

“Focusing on one primary task makes action much more realistic–one simple, positive change builds momentum and primes you for the next success.”

The authors also advise not to fixate on results. Your results are data. But an athlete who keeps looking at the scoreboard will likely fumble the play. More important during a game is focusing on the practices that can lead to success. Athletes bent on peak performance learn to identify the specific competencies that they need to develop and then they practice, practice, practice.

For me as a writer, focusing on results would be like worrying about being published, instead of sitting and writing. I need to work daily to develop my craft so my book will eventually be publishable. I can explore the specific steps to take to improve such as writing more vivid imagery (see last week), adding more dialogue, and practicing imitating the writers I admire.

Evaluate yourself in a productive way.

Evaluation shouldn’t be self-flagellation. The authors recommend spending two minutes a day to fill out a success log with the answers to these four questions:

  1. What did I do well in the past 24 hours?
  2. What is one thing I want to improve in the next 24 hours?
  3. What is the one thing I can do differently to help make the above-mentioned improvement?
  4. How did I do today with my “3 Most Important/I Must?”

I like the focus on reinforcing the positive and setting realistic goals that allow you to succeed.

“Setting goals too high and hoping to ‘get close’ is one of the most damaging things you can do to your performance.”

They recommend disciplining your self-talk to focus on what you do well before you look at how you want to improve.

I remember when my niece, a fellow equestrian, used to criticize herself out loud during her riding lessons. I’d hear her castigating herself with negative self-assessments, even when she was receiving positive feedback from her trainer. It was painful to hear. (Her trainer had to tell her to knock it off.) When I asked her why she was so hard on herself, she said that it would help her improve. The authors argued the reverse, writing:

“What you focus on expands. Focusing on the negative is essentially like fertilizing the weeds in your yard.”

Do a mental workout daily

They suggest taking five minutes to do these steps:

  • Take a centering breath (Breathe in for six seconds, hold for two, exhale for seven.)
  • Speak your identity statement – basically an affirmation of your strengths and an acknowledgment of the best of who you are.
  • Visualize three “done wells” from the past 24 hours. Then visualize three things you want to do well in the next 24 hours.
  • Repeat your identity statement.
  • Take another centering breath.

I like this!. It’s compact, do-able, and positive. I can see it sharpening my focus without turning me into a do-aholic,

Watch out for thoughts that pull you off your game plan.

Give up viable excuses. (This is one that was a bit too yang for me. Mothers, in particular, know that there are things that can and should pre-empt your plans.)

Don’t focus on what you can’t control. I really like this one. I cannot control the President of the United States. (Alas, who can?) Yet how much time do I spend worrying about him. I’m not giving up watching political satire, (thank you Seth Myers for making me laugh), but I need to make sure all the national upset doesn’t take me away from focusing on improving what I can change, like my performance.

Give up problem-centric thinking. Like the above, this suggestion is useful for anyone (like me) who is vulnerable to occasional bouts of awful-ing.

“When we focus on small, incremental improvements instead of perfection, the human spirit takes over, and all things become much more possible.”

So there you have it. I’ve started using the three priorities system and find that useful. Next I’ll try the mental workout and put less of my precious energy into do-loops of worry about current politics. (Note to self: I do not. Need. To Fret.)

To learn more, check out Organize Tomorrow Today: 8 Ways to Retrain your Mind.

And don’t forget to keep growing your imagination!

 

 

How much is enough?

This week I‘m having a blast designing a business storytelling class for a client, interspersed with writing my blog. Working on two deadlines, I’ve had to ask myself:

How much is enough?

The question isn’t that straightforward. I’m always tempted to try to do more than I need to.

Years ago, in a meditation group, I learned the concept: “No more, no less.”  The idea is that you should give–or do–as much as you can with the caveat: no more and no less.  Discernment is key.

With both my training work and the blog, I want to give a lot. When I teach, I want to be well prepared and not caught short.

But how do I determine what’s enough? I don’t have an easy metric I can turn to.

Women, I believe, end up doing more than we need to out of a fear that we aren’t quite enough. (Guys, you’ll have to tell me if this applies to you.)

Tara Mohr, the wise-beyond-her-years author of Playing Big, talks about all the ways the inner critic can sneak up and tell us we’re not enough. That critic is a nasty, sniveling killjoy, who’s easy to recognize when she uses her judgmental, demeaning, “it’s all or nothing” tone of voice. At other times she’s sneakier, using a very reasonable sounding voice to dupe us. She’ll suggest that we’re not quite ready to take on a project, book, or new job because, well, we need to prepare more. There’s always so much more that we should know before we attempt to…(you name it.)

That’s where the critic hooks me as I prepare a workshop. I think I need to read two more books, consult some alternative source material, create a super-fancy slideshow, and put off designing until I get more: 1) information, 2) experience, or 3) confidence. Entranced, I forget how much wisdom lives inside me, how well I know my subject, and the wealth of experience that I’ve had. (Tara says that men are less likely to get hooked in this way.)

Once I start believing that I should do more, I spin out in a whirl of overwhelm and worry. In my tizz, I start forgetting things, including the things I actually need to be doing.

It’s time for me to remember the mantra: “No more. No less.”

How much do I really need to do? Before I can even decide, I need to slow down and breathe. (And stop acting like a happy puppy dog running in circles trying to please!) Time to call up a cool, calm and more objective side of myself.

I grab a cup of tea and ask myself a few questions;

  • What’s going to best serve the client?  What’s the goal from their perspective?
  • What really has to be done?
  • What’s most important?
  • What else would I like to do if I had time?
  • What would be enough?
  • What would make this really fun?

Chances are I’ll work on my special slides anyway, because they are fun and they allow me to exercise a bit of creativity. But I know that I’ll be working on them for my pleasure, not because the client requires them. And I’ll probably have to keep reminding myself to make sure the basics of my project are complete before I lose myself adding some artistic flair.

How much to give?

This question gets complicated quickly. Giving can be very pleasurable and who wants to be seen as a cheapskate? But what if you’re on a restricted income and you learn that your grandson is asking for that terribly expensive and probably violent video game for his birthday? Do you get it anyway, knowing it’s way outside your budget (and preferences)? Or, do you just say, “no” and come up with a simpler and more heartfelt alternative, trusting that it will be enough. (Even if you have to wave good-bye to a bit of guilt.)

What about that mountain of requests from legitimate nonprofits that really need your help? How do you even decide how much to give? Once again, it’s time to take a big breath and consider what’s behind the impulse to give. Are you OK doing what you can, or do you believe that you have to do more in order to be seen (or see yourself) as the good, kind, generous and lovable soul you are.

When we don’t know that we’re enough and have “done enough,” it’s hard to enjoy the feeling of generosity behind what we do.

How much to do in a day?

Another complicated question. I have a big appetite for what I think I can accomplish. At the end of my day, there’s usually a mountain of stuff undone. And that leaves plenty of room for regret, even though, in truth, I did plenty.

Maybe I should add a ritual to my day (do you have one?) to step back and reflect on everything I did experience, give, or realize. Chances are I did what I could do. No more. No less.

Really understanding what is “no more/no less” requires contemplation–weaving together head with heart. Given how fast today’s world comes at us, we need an inner litmus test that allows us to feel complete and good in the face of all that we could have done or could have given.

That’s enough for today. There’s more I could write…another day. Instead I’ll stop.

 No more. No less.

 

Are you rolling the rock uphill? (Or Sisyphus in the garden)

From animated film by Peter Dronen on YouTube

Do you ever feel like you’re just rolling the rock uphill?

As I face that huge to-do list of things-that-have-to-be-done, I’ve been thinking about Sisyphus, the hero of Albert Camus’s famous 1942 essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus described Sisyphus, a mortal in Greek mythology, who offended the gods and was punished by being condemned to roll a rock uphill for eternity. Each time Sisyphus reached the top of the hill with his rock, its weight would send it cascading back down the hill. For Camus, the myth demonstrated man’s existential plight, and the absurdity of having to do work that is futile, day in and day out. (Watch Peter Dronen’s animated film here.)

That’s how I feel in the springtime when life and all the weeds return to my garden. The gods warned me (through a number of gardening colleagues) not to plant such a huge garden, but I, as a proud, inquisitive, and energetic mortal, decided to defy them. I created something way bigger than I can manage. During the springtime, I weed one area one day, then move on to the next, return in a week to the first, to find, guess what? A new set of weeds has taken over and my work must begin again. Like Sisyphus, I will never get it all done.

Should I just throw in the spade and crumple into a pile of (unwanted) buttercups?

 

 

An actress friend of mine from New York City has a different take on the matter. When she heard how overwhelmed I was feeling trying to manage our property, she laughed. “Oh, you get used to that living in New York City. Every day there’s so much you can do in The City, but you realize that you will never do most of it. You get used to knowing that what you do will only be a smidge, compared to what you can’t do.”

A lightbulb went off! I saw that I had been believing that I should get it all done. It was as if my life was constructed around a huge game called “accomplishing all there is to do.” But I had forgotten that I’d chosen the game. Maybe there’s a different game out there called “it will never be done and much of what lies ahead of me will never get finished.” Sure, there are responsibilities in life, like mine to my family and clients, that have to get done; I am accountable for managing these. There are consequences for not doing some things. Yet I’m the one who chose many of the obligations on this man-made mountain I have chosen to climb.

Awareness may be the first step in recovery. But I still need strategies that can help me navigate the absurdist drama before me. I’m experimenting with these.

Stop and smell the roses. Or the peonies. Or the unwanted buttercups.

The peonies are blooming in the garden and they are luscious beyond belief. Their intoxicating perfume lifts me out of my hopelessness about the garden. The weeds can wait. Checking into my here-and-now sensory experience, helps me bypass my mind’s diagnosis of “there is too much to do.”

Get some perspective.

Have you ever been sick, really sick, when even doing the simplest task seems out of reach? When I’ve been laid low by sickness or hurt in an accident, one of the gifts I’ve received has been to watch the list of what I expect from myself miraculously shrink. When I am able to leave my bed, I delight in what I can do, such as make my first cup of tea, in the face of all that I can’t.

I want to remember that perspective, that gratitude, as I get swept back into the rhythm of regular life.

Track your real accomplishments.

On the surface, this can seem like returning to the land of the ever-present to-do list, checking things off the list, and watching how new items magically spring up to replace what you’ve checked off. But I’m talking about a different kind of reflection.

This week, I discovered a little software app called “Idonethis.com” that allows you to track accomplishments. (It’s free in its hobby-personal version , and requires almost no learning curve.) You can either list tasks and check them off (the old way) or pause a moment, reflect, and record what you accomplished that matters most to you.

For example, my big accomplishment on Tuesday was not tied to any goal. It was a surprise insight that came out a conversation with one of my former podcast guests. “Don’t try to write another career book about working in the 3rd act of life. Connect working with the kind of questions of meaning that show up in writers like Parker Palmer and Richard Rohr.”

One five minute insight meant more to me than a mountain of to-do’s done. And taking a moment to record this was very satisfying, a glimmer of meaning I could take from my work.

Meditate. Become more mindful.

This is a longer-term strategy, so I won’t write about it here, although I know it’s the door into a way of being that is not dependent on the world becoming fixed, ordered, or behaving as it should.

From animated film by Peter Dronen on YouTube

 

Camus was interested in finding meaning in an absurdist world where the tasks of life seemed overwhelming and futile. (And if you need to practice feeling the absurdity of life, just turn on NPR and listen to the news out of Washington, D.C.)

He thought the world was godless. I don’t agree, but I appreciate his wrestling with the question “why bother” in the face of the craziness of life. His essay closes with Sisyphus accepting his fate and the absurdity of his work, finding, within his choice, the possibility of happiness.

Accepting that part of life that may always seem a bit futile, absurd, and at times overwhelming, seems wise.

Take that you forest of weeds.

How to (not) Play Squirrel

Some years ago, I was walking my beloved Springer Spaniel, Lady, to the dog park. She was pretty well trained to heel off-leash, and sat calmly beside me as we waited to cross a busy arterial and enter the dog-friendly area on the other side of the street.

Bad choice. Before I knew what happened, I saw a brown and white bullet race across the street, into the heavy traffic. She’d seen a squirrel. I screamed “LADY” at the top of my voice, hoping to startle and stop her, but she continued to run right into the trajectory of an on-coming car. Then I heard her hit.

Mercifully, the god of small animals was with us that day. She hit the tire of the car from the side, and bounced off. One moment sooner and she would have been under that tire. She limped to the side of the arterial, shaken, but miraculously alive and intact.

I never let her walk off-leash near busy city streets again. Her primal instinct for SQUIRREL was stronger than any command I could give.

How we all chase squirrels

Dogs aren’t the only squirrel-chasers. We humans, too, have our own versions.

We sit down at the computer, primed with our to-do lists, and set about our work, (spoken as one who works, with some freedom, for herself). But then the squirrels come out, with messages sent to tempt us. Is Meryl Streep really dead like that click-bait notice says? Does Brad Pitt have a new girlfriend? And the President just tweeted…whaaaat?

Yep, it’s SQUIRREL time!!! Before we know it we’re charging ahead, off-leash, forgetting our erstwhile priorities, mumbling, “I’ll just check this one little thing.”

SQUIRREL isn’t just about the Internet. It could be any distraction we know we shouldn’t take on. Maybe it’s a committee we could join, a tempting invitation from a friend, that extra piece of research, or a magazine that just arrived. The challenge with SQUIRREL is when something else starts driving our brains.

Not that we always have to be rational. We don’t. It’s just that SQUIRREL can lead us into an alternative reality from which we emerge minutes or hours later, with nothing to show for it, frustrated with ourselves and what we haven’t been able to accomplish.

There are a few ways to put ourselves into obedience school.

One, is to get clearer about our intentions and what really matters, taking time to focus before we plunge into our work, or our day.

Second, we can use those handy-dandy Internet tools like Freedom that block websites and apps while we know we need to be working. These are great for writers or others interested in doing deep work. A New York Times article summarizing science research suggested that we’re happier when we can stay focused on one activity rather thinking of something else.  (And yes, there’s a new psychological diagnostic code called Internet addiction.)

Third, we can allow ourselves to play SQUIRREL, but with intention. Give yourself a finite period of time and web surf, catch up on all the Facebook traffic you missed, or feast on click-bait. Until your time is over. (Maybe set a timer.) SQUIRREL loses its power when it’s played with intention.

Finally, you can just call the game for what it is. My husband and I will sometimes disappear in the evening into our respective offices “for just a few minutes.” As time clicks away, it may take one of us calling out, “Are you playing SQUIRREL???” to break the trance. We laugh at how easy it is to be seduced.

I’ve heard that awareness is the first step in breaking any habit. Lady couldn’t reflect on her habits. But we can. Which I plan to do. Right after I find out if Angelina might take Brad back.

How to Birth a Dream—Gently

Before a dream can be transformed into a project in the world, it has to be born.

We talk about “making” dreams come true, but isn’t that a bit pushy for something as tender as a dream? Many books and articles on entrepreneurship explode with archetypically male images about making things happen, straining and striving for success, competing and winning, and being the best.

Let’s add another, gentler perspective.

How about including a few more classically feminine images to describe the process of bringing an idea to life, especially as it just starts to emerge into the world? Words like midwifing and birthing come to mind. Dreams are delicate, especially the ones that we have held deep in our hearts, for many years, waiting until the time was right to bring them forward. Turning a dream into a project, whether it’s a business, book, or some other creative form, requires some tenderness.

After all, you are asking your dream to leave the warm, liminal space where it has been living in your imagination and confront the light of day. That’s risky business.

We need to honor the transition of taking an idea from its secret place in your mind into the world.

When a woman is pregnant, much anticipation and preparation precedes the birth. Selected friends and colleagues are informed; there may be a celebration. The mother prepares herself over the months as she experiences her baby in the womb; the family prepares the baby’s room.

It’s a time for joyful anticipation, not for making decisions about who the child is going to be, and whether she or he should go to Harvard, the Colorado School of Mines, inherit the farm, or become a baker. Parents may hold off picking a baby’s name until they sense the nature of their precious offspring. As the baby is born, no one is grading or evaluating it. (At least I hope not!) The baby needs time to grow, discover his or her nature and find a place in the world.

Don’t new projects need a little time to grow and find themselves, too?

Midwifing the start of a book

I’ve decided to start writing a book. Maybe you’re cringing as you read this, knowing how many people you remember who have said, “I’m going to write a book someday.” When it comes to writing, I believe that either you are writing a book (interesting to me), or you’re thinking about writing one (not as much). I want to move quickly into the former.

I’ve been thinking about the idea (without announcing it) for several years. Not every dream wants to come to life. I have lots of ideas, and I can only sink my time, spirit and resources into a few of them. With this project-idea, I asked myself:

  • Is my dream begging to come forward?
  • Do I love it?
  • Do I believe that it’s needed?
  • Is this something I feel I have to do?

It took a while to feel certain, but when I heard my “Yes,” the journey of birthing my project began.

Now, as I midwife it into action, I find myself on a journey where I want to learn and share about how we navigate the very delicate, early stage of a creative project. It’s that time on a project when you put in a lot of effort, yet have very little to show. It’s a time for trusting and holding the course until you start building momentum and see the work start to bare fruit.

How my idea started

The genesis of my big idea began five years ago when I turned 60. I became inspired, even haunted, by the question: “What does it take to re-invent your career/work/life at a time when your friends are beginning to retire?” What I came to believe is that our second half (or “third act”) of life may be our most creative period of life, if we honor our sense of calling and design our work/lives to support what we believe we are meant to do. In this day and age, I think a lot of us are want, or need, to work, paid or volunteer, long after we turn 65.

Do I know what kind of book this should be? No. Am I sure my idea has to become a book? No. Will I self-publish or seek a publisher?  Who knows! I want the dream to have a little time to walk about in the world and I need to get better acquainted with my project by writing.

So here’s my plan for the very early, early stage of birthing a dream into a project:

Speak about it – with caution

It’s a big deal for me to tell you what I’m doing, but speaking it helps to make the project real for me. I see my own words flowing on to the page and I learn about them. I watch my friend’s eyes light up when I say what I am doing. Sharing helps me to take my idea out of my head and bring it into the world.

I’m NOT announcing to everybody, including the few friends I have who have a strong evaluative sense and will want to “help” by telling me whether or not it is a good idea. That’s not the feedback I need…yet.

Play with it and let it move

I want to do lots of free-writing and research and let my book-child wander about while I observe the paths that she follows. I want to know what she (the book) is asking of me. I also want to learn about my beloved, potential audiences and how they respond to what I’m creating.

Create some structure to support me

My life is full. LOTS of elements compete for my attention. I need a structure to insure that the book moves forward. Step one: spend a chunk of change on an eight-month program for writers who wish to create compelling books. There’s nothing like spending money to help me put a stake in the ground. I trust that the reinforcement of being in a community with a structured program will be very helpful.

Build daily practices that support the work

I’m still working on this one. Have any hints for me from your experience? Write every morning? Periodically dance what I am discovering? Create some touch points when I will check in with friends, thus giving myself mini-deadlines? To be discovered!

Celebrate the pregnancy as well as the birth

The book may take a long time to complete. I can’t wait that long to celebrate. Maybe I need to start by celebrating that I’m swinging out, daring to feel vulnerable, feeling uncertain, and, at the same time, ecstatic.

Thanks for letting me share the dream with you as it moves into the world. I hope I can do the same in return for you. Do let me know!

Structuring Your Time Without Killing Your Muse

As a creative entrepreneur, I often wrestle with how to manage my time, get things done, and nurture my creative zeal.

I experiment with how to find the balance between creative flow and structure. As a writer, should I follow the discipline advocated by some writers to put my butt in the chair everyday regardless of whether I have anything to say? Or should I listen to those who say that trying to force a piece of writing when it’s not flowing is just pointless?

If you’re like me, you know that during the day your energy ebbs and flows. Sometimes you’re good for a creative burst of thought or work on a project, other times you’ll be best polishing your existing work, responding to problems, doing email or grooming the cat.  And there may even be times that are good for meetings. (I hope this is true, given how meetings consume so much of organizational life.)

Managing the balance between flow and structure, while finding the best way to work with your own rhythms is key to productively accomplishing creative work (or really any work). I tend to err on the side of flow. I used to tell my leadership classes that my programs would be more like a sailing expedition than a motor boat ride. We’d reach our destination (the course objectives), but we’d be tacking a lot (responding to the needs and knowledge of participants), rather than driving straight ahead like a planned-by-the-minute training session. This helped some of my structure-loving engineers to relax a little. Sometimes.

Knowing that personal organization has never been my strong suit, in my first corporate job I convinced the purchasing officer to let me buy an expensive personal organizing system. Beautiful leather binder. Yummy designed pages. I was so hoping it could miraculously organize me.  If I had been the kind of person who loved making lists, using them, and was already anal about organization, it would have been perfect.

Mostly I ended up affectionately stroking its binder.

My need to be organized and structured without stopping the creative flow has made me very curious about time management systems and structures that creative artists and business leaders use to stay productive.

Although I yearn for big unstructured blocks of time to do creative thought-work, without a way of deliberately organizing myself, I can end up in the eddies, feeling brain-dead about what I intended to do.

After all, a flow of water down a river needs the riverbank to guide and contain it.

How to Flow with Structure: 7 Ideas to Try

  1. Know your chrono-type. We all follow slightly different clocks. If you’re curious about yours, read The Power of When by Michael Breus. Then, explore how you can adapt your days to fit your rhythm. Some people are most clear headed in the early morning; others are foggy until noon. Give your teammates a break and tailor your work to your own internal clock. (Who needs more glazed eyes or bodies keeled over in meetings!)
  2. See your work in big patterns or clumps. Different types of work take different types of energy—and require bigger or smaller chunks of time. Some projects like my writing take large concentrated blocks of time; reading email can be fit in when I’m half asleep. I want to map my high-value creative tasks against my high-value creative energy.
  3. Experiment. Most of us have failed repeatedly at optimizing our time. Maybe this is a game we’ll never really win, but it’s still worth playing around with whatever helps us feel satisfied as well as productive.
  4. Leave time for deeper work. In his provocative book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport rants that our attention-sucking environments risk robbing us of the time and capacity to do our most thoughtful, important work, the work where we could really make a difference, whether it’s designing a strategy or writing a novel. We need to vigilantly protect spaces for deep time.
  5. Make it visual. I love my computer tools — but there’s something totally cool about white boards that keep my important priorities right in my face.
  6. Remember breaks, retreats, vacations and the fact that things will never, ever go as planned.
  7. Celebrate small successes. A darn good idea that many of us neglect.

Back to you. What keeps you at your own energized, creative best? Do you have a system to manage yourself and honor your own rhythms and life, work and creative priorities? Tell me— I’d love to pass on more ideas here.

In the meantime, I’m off to a day that’s mine to create, adding a little structure to keep my mind focused and at the same time being curious where the muse will take me.

Because she often has her own agenda!