Chapter 4 - Prioritization and Focus
Why focus is important
Whenever I have seen people struggle, it’s when they have too much to do and it all seems important.
Between the cost of task-switching and the paralysis of overwhelm, productivity drops dramatically the more unfinished tasks and activities we have on our plate.
I see this personally with myself, I see this among my friends, and I see this in organizations.
If you need evidence that trying to improve all the things all at once doesn’t work…
Over 15,000 implementations of the 4 Disciplines of Execution, the Franklin Covey team discovered the following about prioritizing goals:
If you have only 2-3 goals you are focused on, you are likely to accomplish those goals.
Between 4 and 11, you may accomplish 1
More than 11 goals – forget accomplishing anything
Fundamentally – the more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish.1
Our society seems to DEMAND that people multi-task, despite all the research and observation that it doesn’t work. I think this demand is a result of:
Not being willing to say no. This sometimes appears under the guise of “We need to take advantage of an opportunity.” And not asking whether that opportunity aligns with what they say they want to do.
Not being willing to ask some hard questions and prioritize. So even if the new activity aligns with what they want to do, they don’t ask what the cost of changing priorities is.
Valuing the appearance of busyness vs. actual results. Busyness you can see now. Results you need to wait for.
Us, as workers, being told repeatedly throughout our media, our self-help books and via peer-pressure that busy is good. No one seems to ask “To what end?”
Not prioritizing has a personal cost – for yourself and your staff – in stress and health.
Not prioritizing has a productivity cost – in missed deadlines and never finished work.
Not prioritizing has an economic cost. If you think of yourself as “paid by the hour,” how many hours are you spending switching back and forth and how much would that cost? If you are paying others to help you, how much are those delays costing you?
Not prioritizing has a relational cost – in broken promises and reduced trust.
The Cost of Not Prioritizing
I’ve seen the following scenario too many times across too many projects.
A project team is humming along on a website. They managed to get version 1 launched and are now working to take care of the backlog. With the project champion, they prioritized functionality that wasn’t working at launch, and that required significant political negotiation with the affected executive to not hold up the go-live. The team has most of the functionality working and is about 1 week from go-live.
Then the project champion comes in with the announcement “We need to change the appearance of the website in time for a conference!” Admittedly, the site as it stands isn’t pretty, but it works. The team has 2 weeks.
The project team “pivots” to address this new priority.
All efforts to get the functionality working are dropped. The vendor puts together another statement of work for a ton of money that wasn’t planned by the project. The project team is also distracted by on-boarding a user experience consultant since the champion is not happy with the user experience.
Meanwhile, 1 week out from this conference, with the project team still scrambling to change the website appearance, the project champion announces “We’re going to announce a new community feature for the website at the conference! I’d like at least a demo available before we go!”
No one told the project team this was a thing.
So now they are also scrambling to elicit requirements, design and develop a prototype of a new community feature + the new website appearance and user experience.
Oh yeah, and more statements of work from more vendors. Plus overtime from those vendors and any hourly employees involved in the project.
Unbeknownst to the project, the tech lead gets pulled to work on a new app. And, despite all the vendor’s assurances, the work is not nearly as straightforward (nor as functional) as claimed. The tech lead’s tasks for all this start to fall behind. Again, the project team scrambles to get yet another vendor to help make the deadlines.
Result of all of this:
1 angry executive, who was promised that her pages would work a few weeks after go-live in exchange for not stopping go-live.
A pretty-looking website where some of the buttons still don’t quite work right, causing the help desk to get multiple calls from the end users.
A community feature that wound up being a series of mock-ups on a PowerPoint and not the demo site the champion wanted.
An app that barely works in the field
A burnt out, and highly frustrated, project team who now feel like they will never be able to finish anything
A budget that just quadrupled in 4 weeks. And will require still MORE spending to get everything right.
Let’s say you are a member of this project team.
I have bad news. The impact of this scenario will bleed over into your personal life.
Your time, energy, and cognitive load is across ALL activities. Work, Family, Personal.
Overload in one area bleeds into the others.
Change includes learning. We are learning how to do things differently.
J.N. Washburn, in 1936, defined learning as "an increase, through experience, of problem-solving ability," i.e., an increase, through experience, of ability to gain goals despite obstacles.”2
Cognitive load theory argues that learning places a cognitive load on working memory. Dependent upon the type of cognitive load created by the material and your environment, learning can be made easier or more difficult.
John Sweller, at the University of South Wales, Australia, identified three types of cognitive load:
Intrinsic – the demand on the learner as part of the nature of the material being learnt. An intrinsic cognitive load can’t be reduced or eliminated because it is part of the activity. The best one can do is to reduce the activity into smaller tasks that are more easily digested.
Germaine – the cognitive load that results from integrating the change or new information into a framework that makes sense to you. The first time we experience something new, such as attending a sporting event in an unfamiliar sport for the first time, can be daunting. We don’t have a pre-existing model that tells us what to expect. Sweller noted that a germane cognitive load is produced as we observe and learn about the experience to help us understand it.
Extraneous – the cognitive load that results from everything that is outside the task at hand. This includes distractions, bad instructions, and unnecessary complexity.3
As we break down our tasks, we want them to generate the right amount of intrinsic and germaine load while reducing the extraneous load. Keep in mind that the cognitive load factors are additive. If the task is unusually difficult for you intrinsically, or you haven’t been able to fully integrate what you have learned so far, you may still struggle.
Also, keep in mind that when you are tired or sick, the amount of cognitive load capacity you have at your disposal is lowered.4
If you are stressed, you may be able to perform simple, well-rehearsed tasks well, but you will struggle to perform more complicated tasks or absorb new, more sophisticated, information.5 High or chronic levels of stress reduces the amount of attention one can devote to cognitive processing.6
Sadly, work and money are the two most common sources of stress.7 Work, in particular, is a hotbed of stress-inducing scenarios – from office politics, to unclear roles, to time pressures, to overwhelming workloads.8
Then let’s add the spillover/crossover effect.
Spillover happens when you bring your stress from one environment into another. For example, we focus on work at the expense of focusing on our social or family lives when away from work.
Crossover happens when the stress from one area of your life starts to affect your relationships in others. This can happen through the transfer of negative emotions.9
People will naturally synchronize their expression, vocal patterns, and posture with another. This is one of the ways humans bond with each other. We can quickly pick up another’s positive or negative emotions.10
Some of us are more sensitive than others. The trick is in the ability to differentiate between your emotions and another’s – being able to empathize with another without taking their emotions on as your own. Easier said than done for some of us.11
Spillover of your work stress will tend to cross-over to your other relationships if those parties aren’t conscious of their interaction with you. Emotional contagion is natural. Plus, we are picking up on the emotional signals of others. If you are spending your time around expressively stressed and angry people, it will be significantly more difficult to maintain your own balance.
All this spillover, crossover, and emotional contagion (particularly of negative emotions and stress) impacts our ability to process information. We are more likely to be creative and better able to integrate new information when we are happy. If we are sad, angry, or otherwise sense a threat in our environment, learning new things requires greater cognitive effort and we tend to be more cautious about accepting new or challenging information.12
All of this is to say that if we are working in complex, uncertain, and stressful environments filled with unhappy people, we should lower our predictions around what we can get done and do our best to reduce the number and complexity of the tasks that face us.
Easier said than done.
“There will always be more good ideas than the capacity to implement.”
Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, Jim Huling and Jim Stuart at FranklinCovey -The 4 Disciplines of Execution13
Straightforward, but not easy.
And, as with any sound change practice, you need steady, consistent effort to implement that change successfully.
They recognize the enemy of successful execution is the “Whirlwind”, i.e. your day job and the urgencies that appear necessary to sustain your business and yourself. If you can’t focus on the wildly important, other productivity disciplines won’t help you.
As they put it numerous times in the book:
“The most important contribution a senior leader can make is to remain focused on the wildly important goal and resist the allure of your next great idea.” (emphasis mine)
They recognized that the people who tend to rise to leadership positions are also the type of people who are creative and ambitious. The type of people who are hard-wired to take on too much and, because they are in a leadership position, have their staff take on too much.
They also recognized that leaders like to hedge their bets and position themselves, and their team, such that people can’t question the level of effort. Busy looks good.
Nothing is more counter-intuitive for a leader than saying no to a good idea, and nothing is a bigger destroyer of focus than always saying yes.
How many change attempts failed because their clients couldn’t find the discipline of focus?
How many personal change attempts have you tried that have failed because you couldn’t find the discipline of focus?
What should I tackle first?
Now that we have all the changes we wish to make, we want to start determining when we are going to tackle each change. These are the scenarios I have encountered most often. See if any of these look familiar.
Scenario 1: “I’m not confident that I can do this. I’ve failed so often in the past.”
Which one of the things on your roadmap will be the easiest to make progress on?
If the answer is “none of them” – which one can you chunk into a small enough bit that you have at least a 90% chance of success?
Think about when you went to school. The schooling experience is, fundamentally, about a series of small engagements. Each day, you went to class. Getting to class was a decision and an experience. With each day you attended that class, with each small project you did, you worked towards a greater change. For many of us, it was graduating with a degree or a certification. For some of us, it was a decision that we did not want to go down that path. If it was a conscious decision, deciding to stop is OK too. You still come out of that process a changed person.
What we’re after is a quick win. We want to show you progress, no matter how small.
I’ve observed through my clients that success in one area tends to bleed over into the other areas.
Typically, I have clients define which area they wish to focus on, drill down to the change they wish to make in that area, and keep track of their progress in that area. In this case, we decided to concentrate on improving her work execution. We worked together to create a habit that encouraged her to work consistently, at regular times of the day, and made it easier for her to meet her deadlines. We also talked about her business development efforts - creating a consistent client outreach strategy and tracking her execution on that strategy.
We also define 1 or 2 areas that cannot decline during this effort. It’s important to define these areas – change often gets derailed as a result of unintended consequences in areas that are important to us. Or, worse, we make a change in one area and destroy another that is more important to us. Consider the stereotype of the successful entrepreneur who starts a wildly popular business and finds himself working 100 hours per week and losing his family in the process. It’s a stereotype for a reason.
In this example, the area the client decided that could not decline as a result of this focus was her relationship with her children. If we started to see steep declines in either one of those areas, we stopped what we were doing and re-evaluated the approach.
What I found interesting, as I kept track over the engagement (usually about 12 weeks), was that after a “life dip” (which confirmed the same dynamic that coaches and educators have observed with any learning path), ALL areas of their life expanded – not just the area of focus.
The idea behind going after the quick win is to build the confidence to go after bigger things.
From small, simple successes to larger, more complicated efforts is the fundamental approach to successfully developing mastery.
Scenario 2: What I’m doing isn’t working. I HAVE TO make this shift.
Big changes happen as a result of a fundamental shift.
BJ Fogg, at Stanford University, created the Fogg Behavior Model. (https://www.bjfogg.com/stanford)
"Behavior (B) happens when Motivation (M), Ability (A), and a Prompt (P) come together at the same moment."
His most recent research explores the notion that people readily change only when an individual is matched with a good behavior for him or her. Fogg and his colleagues found that “the best matches are always behaviors that the person (1) wants to do and (2) can do. Both matter.”
Fogg continues, “Too often behavior change programs match people with a behavior they don’t want to do (“You should eat kale"). That approach doesn’t work. Or people are matched with a behavior they cannot do (“Hey, walk at work an hour each day”). That doesn’t work either.” It’s also important that the new behavior can move you towards the desired outcome. 14
You have an advantage most people don’t when attempting change. You’ve had an epiphany.
Remember from Chapter 1, in Fogg’s 20 years of research, he found that only three things will change behavior in the long term.
Option A. Have an epiphany
Option B. Change your environment (what surrounds you)
Option C. Take baby steps
Sadly, we can’t entirely control when or whether we have an epiphany.
If you’ve just had one – leverage that as part of your “why.” Keep it front of mind. Use that energy to change the momentum of your life.
Having that epiphany is particularly important if you have a change you wish to make that is binary.
A binary change is one where you have to stop or start a habit and there is no (good) way to make it into smaller steps.
This is revolutionary change. EVERYTHING has to be different. There are no baby steps. In the immortal words of Master Yoda “Do or do not, there is no try.”
In my experience, the epiphany doesn’t occur as a result of one big event. For me, epiphanies have been the result of a series of varying scale events that point to a pattern that isn’t working.
I can easily write off the big event as an anomaly. I can’t write off the collection of smaller events.
Sobriety is one of those experiences. I had a few big events as my drinking spiraled out of control, but it was a very small event that finally made me decide that enough was enough and become willing to start the journey. On the outside, it looked like – “So you stopped drinking because you got drunk at a wedding?” No – I stopped drinking because I was starting to regularly get black-out drunk at events. I wasn’t even counting the evenings where I wasn’t doing much and just drinking myself to sleep. The outsiders didn’t see that.
It’s that epiphany, and the struggles of early sobriety, that have kept me sober as of this writing. I can forgo a pint of Guinness, hot sake, or a gin martini (3 of my favorite things) if that’s the price for not repeating my late 30s (addiction) and early 40s (early sobriety).
Use that epiphany as the blessing that it is.
Scenario 3: Everything is fine, I just want to pursue a dream.
What are you willing to give up?
What are you willing to let slip?
What do you expect your life to look like as a result?
What is your anticipated return on investment?
If that dream is big enough – expect your life to change radically.
The Discipline of Prioritization
To me, prioritizing and executing on those priorities has four disciplines. These aren’t quite the 4 Disciplines that McChesney and friends identify, but they are the ones that have worked for me and my clients when executing personal change.
Focus – What needs to get done today
The middle slog is often not fun and requires focus. Life is also very distracting.
Patience – Not starting an activity until it is time to start it if it doesn’t need to be started today
Starting new ventures is fun. The new, shiny thing is more appealing than the old thing you are working on now. Especially if the old thing is not going well. This is where patience comes in.
Full disclosure – this is the discipline I have the hardest time with
Letting Go – Letting go of any activities that don’t need to be done. They just seem to be a good idea at the time.
New ideas are fun. But not all new ideas need to be acted upon. Having the new idea is good. Write it down. Stick it in your backlog. See if you remain super-excited and motivated. Ask whether it helps you get to where you want to go. Let the new idea simmer a bit. And don’t be afraid to let it go.
Finishing – Focusing long enough to get your task to a minimum acceptable definition of “done” where you (and the team) can put it out in the world for awhile, not use precious mental bandwidth on it, and pick it back up later without extra cognitive load for remembering “where you were”.
Finishing and putting it out in the world is scary. “What if they don’t like it?” I find that the more work I put into something, the scarier putting it out into the world feels.
Focus – Does it Need to Be Done?
A few years ago, Matt was listening to me complain about the amount of work I felt I had to do with due dates of “yesterday”.
“Wendy – ask yourself these three questions:
Does it need to be done?
Does it need to be done by me?
Does it need to be done by me right now?”
Since that conversation, I’ve been using these questions to evaluate priority.
The first question is, to me, the most powerful.
Does it need to be done?
On a recent project, the project champion asked for a status containing
the number of issues found
the number of issues resolved
the number of issues outstanding with the vendor
the number of issues outstanding with the IT department
What needed to be done – get those 4 numbers and give them to the project champion
What did NOT need to be done – develop an automated dashboard and data visualizations.
What we did – develop a dashboard (we didn’t have the integration to automate it) and data visualizations.
What we reverted to after showing the project champion what we did – a table with those 4 numbers.
We learned a lot in that process, but it was also effort, cognitive bandwidth and time that could have been spent elsewhere.
The question “Does it need to be done?” speaks to scope.
It speaks to effective minimum effort to meet the objective.
The simplest solution is often the best solution.
And time is often the tightest constraint.
Time spent doing things that don’t need to be done is time away from more valuable activities.
Investments in resources – money, personnel, energy, time.
We start projects because we are trying to get some return on investment.
It seems like common sense to me. Unfortunately, it’s not common sense in practice.
We act like we have unlimited time, energy and resources.
And we often don’t ask what the expected return on investment is supposed to be as a result of an activity.
Why don’t we pause to ask WHY are we doing what we are doing? How much time is spent doing busy for the sake of busy?
Project and activities, whether professional OR personal, are investments.
They are investments of time, energy, and resources.
Even personal projects have an expected return of investment – just not necessarily financial.
The return of investment can be inner peace, joy, confidence, improved relationships, increased vitality, or whatever that “why” is that you defined when you embarked on the effort.
Focus - Does It Need to be Done by Me?
I had an epiphany a few years ago.
I am the scarce resource.
This idea has completely changed how I approach requests.
I realized that there are two resources that likely will not increase:
Me. (At least until I figure out how to clone myself, and I’m not entirely sure that this is a good idea.)
The number of hours in a day (24, until I figure out how to work within parallel universes.)
Opportunities, however, ARE plentiful.
For example, on January 12, 2018 – there were 8,167 jobs for “Project Managers in the Washington DC Metro Area” on LinkedIn.
I keep seeing surveys where employers bemoan the “lack of skilled workers.”
I keep seeing complaints about email, social media feeds, and all the demands for our attention and energy.
Think about the number of personal requests for your time and energy you have received today.
Think about WHY you are receiving these personal requests.
I suspect there is something unique about the way you approach things that is more appealing.
The scarce resource is YOU.
Don’t let anyone make you think otherwise.
The Balance Between Skills and Task Challenge
There’s a fine line between challenging yourself and spending your days in a state of high anxiety.
Employees become more engaged and provide higher value if they can focus on their strengths.
It’s a lot less stressful for the individual
Opportunities and demands are increasing.
And I have one of me and 24 hours in a day.
I do not see either of those variables increasing in the foreseeable future.
As I encounter new opportunities, I’m starting to ask the following questions:
Will the opportunity play to my strengths?
If it forces me to test my capacity, is it a capacity I care to grow?
Am I in a space to deal with the discomfort of that growth?
I think we have hit a time where we, as individuals, need to become a lot more selective about what we take on.
I see the question of “Does it need to be done by me?” as speaking to a few sub-questions.
Am I the only person with the skills to do this? If I let my ego run the show – the answer will be yes, even though it is not true most of the time.
Is this something that can be used as a learning opportunity for someone else? I have been asked to do things simply because the other folks who do the same thing aren’t as experienced, or because they like the way I do something better. Flattering, but it may not serve the asker when I am too busy to concentrate on their project; or my colleagues, who need the opportunity to grow their skills.
How valuable is my relationship with the asker? Sometimes I will take on tasks because I want to strengthen a relationship. I still need to better discern which relationships are worth strengthening. The last thing I want to do is reward demanding “takers”. Invariably, trying to strengthen those relationships has not been worth it.
It’s easy for me to fall into the trap of me needing to do all the things myself.
It soothes my ego to think I can do all the things asked of me.
I don’t want to disappoint or make others unhappy.
It serves no-one for me to over-promise and under-deliver.
It serves no-one for me to hog all the opportunity for growth and skill-building.
It serves no-one for me to be the resource bottle-neck.
Even if the task needs to be done, I need to allow others to help.
How to Say “No”
As I look through the recent “success” literature – everything points to learning how to say “No.”
I’m still mastering this skill, particularly in the face of the aggressive and demanding.
My favorite approach has 2 basic steps.
“Give me (time), I will give you a response by (time, date)”
Find a resource who will execute the request better than I would do it.
I had a chance to practice this recently with a prospective client.
They had a project that, frankly, I wouldn’t have done very well with.
The scope was huge, the timeline was aggressive, the skills required were not quite in my wheelhouse or in the wheelhouse of my immediate network, and I had grave concerns about the budget (too small) and the expectations around subject matter expert participation (as little as possible).
I had some options around how to address this request:
Say “yes” and scramble to find the resources necessary to execute. I didn’t have a good probability of success and the commitments I already had would have suffered.
Say “yes” and play “prime contractor” – taking their money while not providing added value to them. I know it’s a common practice, but it’s not the way I want to run my business.
Say “no” and point them to the team who would be able to execute their request with quality because they do this every day and have the skills and resources rapidly available.
I chose option 3.
Did I “lose” a good opportunity to make a lot of money? Probably.
Did I risk a client relationship? Maybe.
Was it the right thing to do? Yes.
The client gets the skilled resources they need for their initiative.
The client can focus their budget on getting quality deliverables instead of expensive administrative overhead (which I would have been).
I get to focus on opportunities that are better aligned with my skills and resources.
I think it is much better to say “no” now, at the inception of the project, than to get well into it and realize that I should have never agreed to the request. No one wins in that scenario.
Exercise: Developing a strategy for dealing with requests that don’t align with your future state
What are the activities that are most requested from you that don’t align with your current vision?
Many of these activities will be found on the baseline we developed in Chapter 3.
Write these down.
For each activity – what possible alternative solutions are available?
Who can help you with these solutions?
It’s a good idea to develop an inventory of alternative resources for things you don’t want to do any longer.
I have found that the more prepared I am with alternatives, the easier it is for me to say “no” and direct them to more appropriate resources.
Focus - Does it need to be done by me RIGHT NOW?
A managerial technique I’ve seen frequently abused is false urgency.
“Can you get me this report by close of business today?” The request is made at 4:50pm on a Friday.
And the chances of the requestor looking at that over the weekend?
And even if he or she IS going to look at it over the weekend – do you want to encourage the behavior?
Is there another place they can get that information from themselves? (Does it need to be done?)
What do they need the report for?
When is that meeting?
When was the request made of them?
How much time will they need to review the information to feel prepared?
I get it. You believe some people “Do their best work under pressure.”
Research shows repeatedly that pressure diminishes judgement, decision-making and performance.
Are you really the exception? Is your team really the exception?
If we’ve neglected to identify an approval step, that’s one thing.
If we’re setting a false deadline to motivate people – that’s quite another. And, done frequently enough, it results in low quality work, burnt-out employees and talent churn.
The Eisenhower Matrix: Reduce the not important and urgent. Eliminate the not important and not urgent
Most of you have seen the Eisenhower Matrix (otherwise known as the Urgent-Important matrix).
The one problem I find with this matrix is that when everything feels urgent, it’s tough to gauge importance.
Remember, urgency is often manufactured. It is up to you to discern whether you are dealing with true Urgency.
To mitigate this, I ask – If I don’t do this by x time, will I get arrested or fined?
If yes, and that deadline is close – then it is urgent.
And likely important if I am going to get arrested or the fine is high.
What about all the other “urgent” stuff?
Ask more questions.
Why is this being requested? What is the event trigger?
Are there more people who need to see the results of the request?
When was the requestor informed of the task? (i.e. “How long was this sitting on your desk?” You may need to find a gentler way to ask this.)
You might not be in the position to gauge the importance of the request. Or whether it should be done at all.
At least, not yet.
But at least you can isolate whether something is really urgent or manufactured urgent.
This will help provide space for analyzing importance.
Exercise: Organizing what is currently on your plate – Important vs Urgent
Take what you are doing now. Categorize them.
Is this task Important? Important is defined as moving you towards your target state.
Is this task Urgent? Urgent is defined as having an upcoming deadline (often set by another).
Identify who set that deadline.
It’s OK if a task is neither, for now.
As you take a few minutes to categorize what you are doing now, ask yourself, how much of what I am doing is in the not important, but urgent pile? Especially if someone else put this in your stack of “things to do.”
If someone else put this task in your list of things to do - ask some questions.
What makes this important?
You have a right to some clarity and an explanation as to how this activity is important to them.
Is there anything on this list you can off-load to the other resources you have identified?
Does it get you to your goal?
The next question I ask when I prioritize is whether this task is going to get me to my goal.
This assumes, of course, that I HAVE a goal or well-defined strategic direction.
A recent client set a strategic focus for the year – “Retain Current Members”
Their thinking (paraphrased) – “If we make the membership experience for our current members awesome; not only do we keep the current members, we attract new ones because the current ones are so happy.”
They have limited human resources to execute any initiatives that will help retain current members.
Thankfully, they already have reports showing membership numbers and current retention rates. I don’t know whether they came up with a target change number (knowing this client, he likely did), but “higher” is acceptable.
The next step, for them, is taking all the current requests and beginning to evaluate them against the question “Will this help us retain current members?”
The more likely the task will help them retain current members, the more important the task.
This activity might show that some tasks and projects need to be de-prioritized and made less important. If the emphasis for the organization has always been on “Gaining New Members” – this process could be painful.
The goal is to keep the goal, the goal! Focus on it, don’t get caught up in a bunch of other things.
– Dan John
Will that task get you to your goals?
Combining Your Goals with your North Star / Why
When I was 14, I wanted to be a roadie for Led Zeppelin.
Nevermind that John Bonham had died in 1980 and Jimmy Page and Robert Plant had stopped speaking to each other.
This dream wasn't about meeting rock stars (I wound up meeting plenty - just not Page and Plant), or about travel (good thing, because all I would have seen was the inside of tour buses and auditoriums), it was about seeing how things worked behind the scenes.
Knowing WHY I wanted to pursue a particular dream allowed me to make decisions when opportunities presented themselves.
Because I was more interested in seeing how things worked behind-the-scenes, I got to operate laser shows, rig fireworks (the only job that truly frightened my parents), be a fly on the wall for society events, serve as a radio engineer and DJ, and work countless concerts, plays, and performing arts events.
I had a chance to see parts of Washington DC and Baltimore that few get to see (mostly because I was one of the few people at the lighting company I worked for in the late 1990s that could pass a background check).
The work helped pay for graduate school (both rounds), was infinitely cooler than working at the library, and helped me get my first real job out of my History studies.
I finally called it quits in 2003 as my corporate career took off.
I have no regrets about never being a roadie for Led Zeppelin.
My stagehand career was rich, fulfilling, and I wouldn't change a thing.
I fulfilled my Why.
It also moved me towards my lifelong North Star of "being an old lady with really cool stories."
The time spent doing stage work helped to fulfill the "cool story" part, even if I may have reduced my chances of being an "old lady" thanks to the usual assortment of environmental hazards found in those environments.
Strategies for approaching major change
I was chatting with a friend a few weeks back. We started talking about how to handle conflicting major goals.
As I reflected on the conversation, I realized that in my life, I've handled major (somewhat planned) change using these three approaches:
Combination. Can I combine goals or activities?
Example: If one goal is "Live in New Zealand for a few years" and another goal is "Become an herbalist" - maybe I can combine the goals "Study Maori traditional medicine in New Zealand."
Periodization. This is the approach cited by those (like myself) who are big fans of focus and prioritization. I find it works best for goals I can chunk into small steps and can tackle separately.
Example: If a goal is to change careers to be able to spend more time with family: I can focus one period on getting clear on the transition, the next period on any necessary schooling (maybe further breaking that process down into the various skills required), the next period on working with a mentor to practice these new skills, the period after that practicing something specific, etc.
Evolution. This is the process of combining old and new and is often done accidentally.
Example: When I transitioned from History to IT, this was done via evolution (albeit not very planned). I had teaching skills I picked up when I served as a History Graduate Assistant and moved those to a new context (IT and corporate work). I let go of the old History context. As my career evolved and opportunities arose, I would pick things up (e.g. project management) and let things go (e.g. eLearning development).
Combining Conflicting Goals
I abandoned my pursuit of a History Ph.D. in 1996.
At the time, my colleagues asked "So what are you going to do? Teach?" They had images of me standing in front of a classroom of 6th graders.
My response was "I'm not sure, but I have transferable skills as a result of this education. I'm sure I'll come up with something."
This question kept popping up in the back of my head:
How do I combine the History experience with the Staging experience and do so in a way where I could put together a career and make a decent living?
I knew that a long career as a full-time stagehand was not my path - which was why I pursued a History PhD in the first place instead of taking the full-time offer to run laser shows. (Probably should have taken the laser show offer - no regrets). A full-time job in a theatrical lighting warehouse outside Washington DC confirmed this.
After a move to Baltimore and a few false starts, I found myself working at Towson University in the Media Library. This was the combination I was looking for - I could leverage my History experience and my Staging experience in that job.
Towson also had an Instructional Technology graduate program - which provided a way forward and a framework where I could learn and study whatever caught my fancy. Since the degree program directly related to my work - I was able to apply my homework assignments to my job and vice versa.
I'm not sure I would have been able to complete my MS in Instructional Technology if I didn't have the ability to combine my job and my schooling in that way.
The result - a successful 15-year career in Instructional Technology and IT that has provided a great living, many opportunities to learn, exposure to bleeding edge technologies, and an awesomely supportive cohort of professional colleagues.
So far, none of them have told me that I am off my rocker (to my face) yet.
As I shift into my next chapter, I'm asking myself a similar question to the one I asked as I left my History Ph.D. program over 20 years ago.
How do I combine what I've learned over the years and create a vocation that supports others while being personally sustainable?
It's a measure of the evolution of my friends that the knee jerk question has not been "So when are you going to start working for Amazon?"
Nothing against Amazon (or the rest of Corporate America) - I just sense that it is not a sustainable environment for me. I have a hard enough time with workaholism as it is.
Furthermore, 2018 taught me that if I have something that I want to contribute to the world, now is the time to do it.
Being able to combine goals, as well as combine goals with the opportunities that present themselves, is a powerful technique.
I want to live overseas and have a strong relationship with my family. What would that combination look like?
I want to go on outdoor adventures and make a good living. What would that combination look like?
I want to travel around the world and have kids. What would that combination look like?
I enjoy writing and I enjoy trapeze work. What would that combination look like?
Combine any two seemingly conflicting activities or goals. I find it a great trigger for creative thinking and opening myself up to new opportunities.
The Power of Periodization
In 2009, I found myself carrying almost 25 pounds more than normal and having to go shopping (yet again) because my clothes were too tight.
I knew it was bad when Mom began to give me her hand-me-downs because they were too big for her.
I needed to do something. My weight had been stable until I had major surgery in 2005. Before that time, I could eat what I wanted and work out when I got a wild hair to move around. By the time 2009 came along, my half-hearted attempts at exercise had quit working. I also knew that dieting wasn't the answer.
On my commutes, I noticed a new CrossFit gym and a woman lifting heavy weights in the window.
I thought that looked like fun.
For the next 2 years, exercise became a priority. It wasn't the ONLY thing I did - I still had to work and nurture my relationships - but I prioritized my time and activities around the 5:30am workouts.
Just prioritizing exercise led me to losing 23 pounds, reducing my body fat, and learning that my body could do some cool stuff beyond sitting at a desk and hauling equipment up and down ladders. (I wrote a blog from 2009 - 2012 as a way to track my progress).
Within the focus on exercise, I focused on specific skills for extended periods of time. My first 6 months focused on pull-ups. The next 6 months - running and push-ups. The next 6 months - strength.
What I found most interesting was that as I focused on a new skill, the skill I had worked on remained "improved." Heck, even after being away from CrossFit for 6 years (at the time of this writing), I can still do a pull-up and my weight still hovers at a comfortable range.
You never really "lose" the skills you build. Or, if you do, it's much easier to get those skills back since you've done it before.
Building those skills in the first place, however, requires concentration and focus.
Those periods of focus and the tangible, measurable results I received as a result of that focus served as an incredible lesson.
I've been applying the power of periodization since then, to my life and my work with others.
Right now, I am in a "reskilling" period as I shape the next phase of my career and restructure my business to reflect my new interests.
Starting a business (especially if you do NOT come from an entrepreneurial family and didn't harbor dreams of being an entrepreneur) requires tremendous focus. RE-STARTING a business as a result of discovering that your previous business model is not sustainable requires even more focus.
Starting and running a business has a list of seemingly unrelated skills to master. Strategy, planning, accounting, sales, marketing, design, stress management...the list feels endless sometimes.
I found that dividing these skills into smaller focus chunks, much like I did in CrossFit, has helped tremendously.
For me, 2018 focused on learning basic sales and marketing. I prioritized my educational and practice activities around that. This included the "getting over myself" portion of that program, learning what will and won't work for me, and refining what I bring to the table.
2019 is about developing the skills to provide what I think is the most important things we can do for each other - provide safe space and deep listening.
By thinking about this time as a "period" - I can make choices around what activities are important. It also makes it easier to let go of some things that I would like to do right now. I can always schedule that for a later "period."
I know the fitness focus will return again sometime in the next 5 years. Even without a specific focus on fitness, I was able to experiment with paddleboarding, aerial acrobatics, gymnastics, ice climbing, and other activities. During this period, I'll still occasionally mess around in the gym and do yoga at home - more for maintenance than anything else.
For now - I know my priorities.
In the 12 Week Year, Brian Moran and Michael Lennington’s main argument is that we need to think in terms of quarters vs annually when it comes to evaluation and goal-setting.
It’s not the argument that is most compelling – any project manager or manager familiar with Agile, Scrum, and Sprints can tell you the power of thinking in small, achievable chunks.
What I find compelling in this book are Brian Moran and Michael Lennington’s choice of definition of accountability and their emphasis on the importance of aligning one’s business/career vision to their personal vision (and NOT the other way around – which is what most of us do), and their steps for creating a plan one can actually use.
Accountability – Moran and Lennington take their definition of accountability straight from Peter Kosterbaum and Peter Block’s Freedom and Accountability at Work: Applying Philosophic Insight to the Real World(Amazon affiliate link). Accountability = ownership. Accountability = personal sovereignty. Accountability, according to this definition, is NOT something someone else does to you or can do for you. Your managers claim to “hold you accountable.” What they are doing is trying to motivate you to do something for them that you may or may not have taken ownership of. This alternate definition forces one to look in the mirror and take responsibility for one’s choices. I don’t know which is scarier.
The importance of aligning your business/career to your LIFE – If you are being externally motivated to do things, how close is the alignment of your job to how you want your life to look. If the business/career goal doesn’t align with your life vision, how inspired are you to work towards the goal? How quickly are you going to give up, or do something else, or find another distraction?
Creating an actionable plan you have a fighting chance of following – As with many of the authors I’ve encountered of late, they insist on vision, focus, measurement, and getting VERY honest with yourself if you are not following the plan you laid out.
Patience: Focused Sprints
I have found the Agile concept of focused sprints incredibly useful for setting priorities and allowing myself the time and space to focus on specific changes.
We want to give enough time to see results for each.
I tend to look at quarters, or 3-month cycles – The minimum amount of time you should plan for is 8 weeks.
This will provide enough time to see results and form new habits. The 3-month mark is also a good time to evaluate to see whether what we are doing is working.
Also, by scheduling, we know that we will be getting to the other stuff that is important to us later.
Let’s look at Health Goals as an example.
In our health slice, there may be lots you want to do in this area
Drink more water
Reduce your cholesterol
Run a 5 K
Do yoga 3 days per week
Add your health goal here
Which one of these is most important to you today. You are looking for a target to focus on.
Ideally, think about what goal would have the most impact on your life.
For instance, a goal to lose weight may have a huge impact on your cholesterol, your confidence, and how your clothes fit.
If it’s been awhile since it feels like you’ve accomplished a goal,
you may want to go for the goal that seems the easiest.
You want a quick win to get your confidence back.
Small, incremental improvements often lead to big, lasting changes.
No matter what you choose, choose one.
This will be the goal we focus on. We’re not giving up on the other goals. We are just setting them aside for now.
Patience: The Discipline of Waiting
NOT doing is one of the disciplines I and my clients seem to struggle with.
I have something that needs to be done! Why can’t I just do it NOW!
I personally feel this impulse when the things on my current to-do list don’t excite me. Often, this lack of excitement is a result of the task being in that dreaded dip. The grinding part where I am too far from the start to stop and too far from the goal to see it. The part where I just have to suck it up and do the work for the sake of the work.
I also encounter this feeling when I find I suddenly have some slack. The temptation to fill that slack with more work is great. Particularly in our hustle/grind/just do it environment. Being busy allows me to avoid more uncomfortable activities, such as self-reflection.
“Busy” is a badge of honor. We can justify busy to others. Reflecting and integrating looks a lot like “doing nothing” and, therefore, is much harder to explain.
Filling the slack, or starting another “new” thing when I have other things to do, is hazardous.
The “new” thing invariably takes more time, energy, and resources than initially predicted. “This will be quick” is a signal that I am about to lose focus on the important things I need to be doing.
The “new” thing still leaves all the “old” things unfinished; noshing away at my cognitive load and energetic resilience.
The “new” thing adds to the workload. It only takes 1 or 2 “new” things and the unfinished “old” things to find myself suddenly over-worked and stressed.
Occasionally, I get impatient because I have a thing that I know needs to be done in the future. My ego wants to “get ahead.”
Another warning that I am about to go off track is the voice that says, “If I get this done now, I’ll be ahead of the game.” This voice has caused me more work than any other voice I have in my head.
Certain activities need to happen in a certain order. For example, if I decide to do a rewrite of a chapter while the chapter is out for review and before I have received the feedback, I’ve just doubled my workload. I will still need to do the rewrite.
The discipline of finishing what I have started and staying focused on what I need to do right now is, for me, one of the most challenging disciplines I practice.
It requires saying “not yet” to great ideas and opportunities – some of which may pass me by.
It requires having faith that the work I am currently doing will result in a positive outcome.
It requires being OK with not “getting ahead” of my tasks.
It requires being OK with giving myself some slack when I am blessed with it.
Kanban – Visualizing your work and accommodating energy
Kanban board on Teamwork.com (circa 2019) installation. Most project management software has board functionality built in these days, or you can use inexpensive to cheap software. Best approach is to use post-it notes, pens, and designated wall space. I find using pens and post-it notes, along with the physical act of moving that task post-it note along the board infinitely more satisfying. Computerizing your boards is useful if you need to communicate progress to others outside your house.
Kanban is a process developed by Toyota Motor Company in the mid-1950s to reduce manufacturing bottlenecks and manage production capacity.16
Pretend that you are an assembly line.
In a traditional assembly line, the people creating parts for that assembly line need to predict how many parts they need to create for you to use. You need to predict how many of your parts will be needed by the next assembly line in your process.
If anyone in this process gets their predictions wrong – you wind up with too many (or too few) parts to build what you need and you have the next assembly line yelling at you because you aren’t working fast enough or are overwhelming them.
How many people do you have yelling at you and making demands on your time and energy?
In a Kanban assembly line, you pull what you need. By the act of pulling, you signal to the prior party that they need to create another part. By the act of moving your work to done, you signal to the next party that materials are ready for them. You can see whether you need to create more of your piece when the piece you created is pulled into the next party’s system.17
Pull systems allow you to focus and complete tasks faster because of that focus.
Pull systems also allow you to prioritize requests. You can better discern what is important and urgent vs. what is just urgent (often to the other person). Remember: false urgency is a persuasion technique to get you to do something that may or may not be in your best interest.
Finally, pull systems allow you to accommodate your fluctuating energy and the limited amount of time each of us have. You only have so much capacity during any given segment of time. We all have the same 24 hours in a day. 8 of those should be spent on sleep.
Jim Benson has beautifully transitioned the idea of Kanban into a personal context.18
Behind personal kanban are two simple principles:
1. Visualize your work
2. Limit work in progress.
Visualizing your work allows you to see progress. You can also see how much you are trying to do at once objectively. There is also something satisfying about being able to see what you have “done” during the sprint.
Understand that once something is “done” – any new requests for adjustments to that item (including from yourself) go back in the backlog – NOT in the to-do or Doing columns.
That’s it. As Benson adds: “the simplest systems are the most flexible and the most universal”.19
Exercise: Setting up the board
Remember when I had you color code your items? This is so you can keep track of which “program” is being addressed when you work the task.
Set up a place that can serve as your Kanban board.
At the beginning of the week, determine what NEEDS to be done. Ideally, you have no more than 3 items. If you have something that is a high cognitive load item, you may need to reduce that number.20
These go into your To Do column. Leave everything else in the program where it belongs.
As you start each task, move the sticky to the Doing column. This is the work-in-progress. If you have more than 3 items here, you need to finish items before starting anything else. Again, this is a discipline and can be a tricky one.
When you finish the task – move it to the Done column.
You may have noticed that in the picture at the beginning of the chapter I had a Next Sprint column. I personally find this helpful to see what I have on deck for the next week as I intake requests. I would still leave that column separate from your main Kanban. Your focus should be on what you are doing now.
Letting Go: Prioritization and Fear of Loss
Wendy, do I have to choose only ONE thing?
I had asked my entrepreneurial friend, who had been complaining about being overwhelmed, having too many ideas, too much to do, and not enough focus, what he considered to be the most important thing he wanted to accomplish.
I get it.
I stare at all the ideas that I have and things I want to do and the niggly odds and ends and details to get me there, and I sometimes want to throw my hands in the air and pray that the magical productivity fairies come down and do all the work for me.
Unfortunately, those magical fairies are in my hands and my head. I still need to do the work – physically, intellectually and emotionally.
Because there is one of me and only 24 hours in a day, I still need to decide what is most important.
Right now, the most critical priority is preparing a new service for launch.
This priority includes all of the marketing, branding and sales efforts, nevermind putting together 15+ years worth of experience and 10 years worth of blog posts into something that others can digest and use.
Oh yeah, add the struggle of getting out of my own way since my inner perfectionist gremlin is going bonkers right now.
Because this priority is so all-encompassing and requires so much energy, it means that other things I want to do I need to put on the back-burner for later.
It’s not easy.
There’s a fear of loss that trickles in when I decide to let go of something. Even if it just for “later.”
I need to be OK with letting something sit for a bit. Ideas that I’ve allowed to simmer tend to be much better in execution when I get to them. Even if I do wind up letting go of the idea, or “miss the boat,” it turns out for the best.
A crucial part of prioritization is letting go of the activities you don’t need to do.
You can complete any goal by dropping it. – Arianna Huffington
For a checklist completionist like myself, this takes some wrapping my head around.
Of COURSE I need to finish it. Ideally, now.
That way lies insanity. There is no way I can complete all the things I want to do (nevermind the stuff I am doing for others because I feel I “have to”).
I go back to Matt’s 3 questions:
Arianna points out that anytime we set a goal, it drains energy.
And I have observed that if I do not complete a goal in the time I have stated for myself, I start mis-trusting myself.
I see the same thing with friends and clients.
So many “goals”. Multi-tasking trying to get it all in. Nothing gets done. Shame and self-recrimination.
It’s a vicious cycle.
I’m taking Arianna’s words as a permission slip to remove things from my list if they no longer serve me or others I love.
Dropping it = done.
Exercise: Culling the backlog
Look at each of your tasks. Ask yourself:
Does it need to be done?21 If the answer is “no” – take it off your list. If the answer is “yes,” go to your next question.
Does it need to be done by me?22 If the answer is “no” – figure out who should do it. Go talk to that person. This could be an uncomfortable conversation since you are changing existing agreements. If the answer is “yes,” go to your next question.
Does it need to be done by me right now?23 If the answer is “no” – stick it in your backlog. If the answer is “yes,” stick it in your to do list.
Your “to-do” list, ideally, should only contain items where the answer to all 3 questions is “yes.”
Finishing and the Definition of Done
In too many activities, a definition of “done” seems to be missing.
I don’t know about you, but when I have too many unfinished things on my plate – my performance suffers.
Every unfinished activity has a cognitive load attached.
If something is not “done,” – it tends to hang out in my head and simmer there.
Too many of these things and it gets overwhelming.
One of the environmental characteristics of the flow state is clarity of goals.
Goals have many levels. At the basic day-to-day, what are you trying to accomplish?
What does a completed state look like?
If you don’t know, or if everyone involved has a different definition, it’s going to be tough to know how you are doing and next to impossible to determine progress.
That activity, without a definition of done, becomes a resource sink for both money and time.
Furthermore, it makes it difficult to move on to other opportunities.
Your resources will continue to be tied up in the never-ending project.
Your mental energy will be taken up by activities that have no end.
I don’t know about you, but I find having unfinished items lying around overwhelming and frustrating.
At a certain point, you need to let that project go and call it “done.”
The definition of “done” should be explicitly spelled out and agreed to by all parties. If it is just you, YOU need to be clear on your definition of “done.” Don’t let your inner perfectionist get the better of you.
What are the criteria that need to be met to consider something complete?
These criteria can include deliverables and quality standards for those deliverables.
Here is a corporate example – The project team has determined that the best approach to communicate to the end-user, with the resources they have available, is written end-user training documentation.
The project team decides that the end-user training document is complete when:
All written content identified for development is 100% complete with no grammatical or spelling errors
All graphics have been completed and laid out in the manual
The table of contents is complete and accurate
95% of the target audience easily understands the document and can follow the instructions without further guidance.
The document is ready for conversion to PDF and distribution via email to the end-user.
The Agile Alliance recommends posting that definition someplace visible to keep everyone on track.
You want to do the same with your personal activities.
This activity helps maintain clarity of goals. You know what you are working towards and you know how close you are.
These definitions can (and should) be created at multiple levels. You can create them per user story and/or per deliverable and create an over-arching one for the project.
Resisting defining “Done”
Over the years, I have encountered significant resistance in creating a concrete definition of “done.”
I’ve heard fears around the lack of flexibility, as well as the fears around the accountability demanded when you have stated explicitly what you are going to do. I’m sorry, but accountability is necessary to get anything done.
However, I do think the fears around the “lack of flexibility” are unfounded.
The flex remains in how you get from where you are currently to the state of “done.”
To use the example I mentioned above – the definition of done may be a training document with no spelling errors and understandable by 95% of your target audience, but the document itself can be one page or many pages, leverage graphics in interesting ways, be serious or fun. As long as the document meets the definition of “done” for that deliverable and helps the greater project to deliver the promised value, you are golden.
You can use the concept of “definition of done” for projects (which should have one anyway – traditionally managed projects call this scope) and for personal activities (ie – when is my part “done” such that I don’t have to think about it anymore).
All I ask is that you develop the discipline of defining “done” and finishing activities.
I’ve found over the years that those disciplines go a long way towards reducing overwhelm.24
Exercise: Defining “Done”
In a personal context, we are looking for a definition of “done” such that we can set the activity aside comfortably.
For each of your current activities – identify when you can move that activity to “done.”
Do this for all activities that on your “to-do” list for this week.
“Done” for my book is when it is published and open for sales. I have a hard copy in my hand and an ebook ready for distribution.
“Done” for my meditation practice happens daily – did I do 15 minutes of meditation today?
“Done” for cleaning my office is “will I be embarrassed if people see it” and “can I find what I need.” Both conditions need to be met.
Remember that you can break down your big tasks into smaller tasks that can get “done.”
For instance, the book project can be broken down into subtasks. These are called “milestones.”
I have a definition of “done” for each chapter – “Is the chapter ready for outside review?”
I have a definition of “done” for each phase of the entire book project – such as “Do I have a complete draft with all appropriate illustrations?”
The “clearing my office” project can also be broken down into subtasks.
“Done” clearing my desk means that the only thing on my desk is my computer, a mouse, and a camera.
“Done” clearing my bookshelves means that I only have 1 layer of books on each bookshelf and any books and detritus I am donating is with the charity I want to give to.
Each bookshelf can be it’s own definition of “done.”
If any of your current tasks seem to big – break them down into subtasks. As small as you wish.
It helps to write it on the sticky. The goal is to reduce your cognitive load. In my experience, 1 minute of writing it down prevents days of mental gymnastics around whether I am “done” with something or not.
We have been focusing on working with our current activities.
Spend this time making room for the things that are important to you.
Next chapter, we are going to evaluate new opportunities and changes we wish to make to move our life closer to our dreams.