Do You Control Your Time or Does It Control You?

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Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Mee-high Cick-sent-mee-high) is one of the most famous psychologists studying the basis for happiness.  His break through work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, draws from the works of Carl Jung, Epictitus, Viktor Frankl and other great thinkers who have pondered what aspects of our psyche control our thoughts.  A major determinant of “flow” is taking on challenges that are “just right”–neither too complex and potentially demoralizing, nor too easy and likely to be boring.  Of course, as we master just right tasks we can increase the complexity and grow in our mastery.  Managing our time is a major factor in taking on these exercises in flow. In the current state of the world, most of us spend an awful lot of time feeling like we are trapped in a batting cage with tasks coming at us as if they are being delivered by a major-league pitcher.  We must fight our initial resistance to managing these inputs in a reactive way and instead set up some system that allows us to break down the tasks into their most basic components, prioritizing and tackling our commitments to free up blocks of time where we can get into flow.

A system I have advocated for decades is taking the time to break tasks down into meaningful but manageable “chunks.” This is a time-honored technique for tackling tasks…particularly those that are too complex and overwhelming.  If you find that you are easily overwhelmed, it is very likely that you are not breaking a project down into small enough chunks.  Try it! Faced with a job search? Go micro – commit to getting just the paper for your resume, then design the header. Leave it for a day and go on to other things. Come back to it and chunk a bit more, maybe you can do your education bullets or accomplishments from your first job. Additionally it helps to think in terms of categories of tasks you need to tackle regularly: computer-based work, phone calls, tidying, spreadsheet updates.  To get more things done without a feeling of overwhelm, pick an item from each category and get it done rather than trying to work on multiple items from one category. The variety will alleviate your feelings of oppression at the magnitude of the work. And again, if you have a sense of fear or foreboding, your tasks are probably a compilation of too many steps and you need to “chunk” these tasks into smaller more achievable components.

Fielding incoming to dos, analyzing what needs to be done, and then calendaring your commitments is the bedrock of productivity. David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, offers one of the better systems out there for freeing yourself from reactivity and owning your time as you pursue your projects. There are many summaries of his work, but the biggest takeaways I find are:

1) stress comes from knowing what to do but breaking that commitment to yourself and others; stress rarely comes from a lack of actual time.

2) Filing each and every to do in an accessible  system that you review at the appropriate moment is a critical component of managing your work and life.

3) Items that are not in a place where you can access them effectively and have no next action decided AND attached to them will weigh on your mind.

3)Deciding on and then noting down the next step you must take for each to do will alleviate ruminating and significantly reduce your angst.

4) Take each to do through a decision-tree process: upon receipt if it takes less than 2 minutes to complete, do it immediately. Otherwise, decide: does it get delegated or deferred? If it gets deferred, either calendar it if it has a specific do date OR place it on a list of to dos with a specific next step written next to it.

4)Make a regular time to review your lists daily and commit to stop breaking your commitments: make a time to do those things that are due.

When you free time up for flow by establishing tasks in chunks that are manageable to complete and then field and file future to dos in a calendar system that works for you, you will free yourself from much of the worry associated with managing your time. At that point YOU will control your time — it will cease to control you.

 

 

 

Strengths vs Weaknesses -Where Should You Concentrate Your Efforts

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Forbes says forget the weaknesses, go full tilt and maximizing your strengths: (https://www.forbes.com/sites/actiontrumpseverything/2013/07/10/forget-about-working-on-your-weakness-play-to-your-strengths-your-overwhelming-reaction/#13da9c1d7765)

Harvard Business Review says just the opposite, that coaching has taken the “strengths” thing too far, that there is no scientific data to back this up, and that weaknesses must be attended to: (https://hbr.org/ideacast/2016/01/stop-focusing-on-your-strengths.html).

As the HBR article points out – toxic office behaviors are at the root of much of corporate dysfunction.  Bright people are often the biggest perpetrators.  So, what to do?  From the research, it looks like making a conscientious effort to work on weaknesses truly can help a person function better at work to the tune of 30-40% more effectiveness at their jobs.  The major reason this approach has fallen out of favor among coaches and self-help guides is that, “let me help you fix your faults” is not the sexy message that sells coaching and books.  However, it is what keeps workers employed, and ultimately it is the work that will remove the road blocks that keep an employee from promotions and raises. Bosses are loathe to comment on weaknesses.  Gone are the days of a manager who just manages others. They are busy with their own deliverables and unpleasant conversations derail their flow.  Often they ignore the telltale signs and only address problems after the issues have built up for a while.  You know what also builds up? Impatience and anger at the employee, such that many times by the time feedback on negative behaviors is shared, the manager has already demoted the employee in their mind. This makes it much harder for the employee to have a positive impact when they do address problems and change. Like a halo effect, the manager is carrying around the baggage from the pileup of infractions which comes with emotions that are fraught.

What’s the quick way to rectify this? An honest positive relationship with a manager.  Your willingness to start your first few weeks at a job encouraging the manager to give all kinds of feedback – positive and negative – will put him/her at ease.  You can even go into your weekly meetings (hopefully you are having those) with your own self-aware critiques to share.

You don’t want to over do the negative – start with items from your list of weekly accomplishments, intermittently bringing up difficulties and challenges – maybe 25% of the discussion can be about challenges?  The conversation will feel a lot like the point in an interview when they ask, “What are your weaknesses?” As I’m sure you know, the formula for the weakness answer is, “here is something I find challenging,” (give a real example). Follow up with, “here is how I am attempting to work on it (give examples).”  Unlike in an interview, you will take this one step further.  Add, “do you have any ideas how I could get better faster on this issue?”  This kind of dialogue, said in a positive and collaborative way, will get you far better input than just focusing on accomplishments.  And if your manager is not receptive, try it with a colleague with a communications style you really appreciate.  A, “really level with me” conversation with a trusted colleague or boss can make the world of difference, particularly if it is interwoven into a broader conversation that brings up your strengths.

 

Therapist or Coach/Mentor?

 

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Do you want to forge a new or improved path in life but feel you have the basic building blocks under control? Or, do you feel you have major life events that act as stumbling blocks and need resolution?  While therapists are licensed and coach/mentors are not, they both provide valuable input when you are stuck or have self-limiting patterns.  To make the determination of whether you need one or the other, you will want to figure out whether deeper unresolved issues are holding you back. Or, is your path forward cloudy because of either a sense of not knowing your options yet or not being motivated to stick to a plan. Coaching operates in a framework where the basic assuption is a client is healthy and whole, therapy involves the assumption that the client wants/needs healing of some sort.

If you want to think in terms of a sports analogy, therapists treat deeper issues much the way a physical therapist, orthopedist, chiropractor, or acupuncturist might treat an ongoing injury such as tennis elbow.  A coach/mentor will act more like a workout or sport coach, giving you tasks and monitoring your progress while providing you feedback and motivating you as you improve.  I have seen students who employ both therapy and coaching together. While this approach can be costly, it is quite effective.  Likewise, I have seen folks who use these two modalities sequentially – some start with therapy, resolve issues, potentially are medicated for any mental health issues such as depression or anxiety, and then move on to coaching. Others start with coaching and if they fail to meet their objectives, they move on to therapy as a way to uncover and resolve emotional issues that are blocking their progress.  The key thing is that a reputable coach or mentor is just that, a coach/mentor, and does not handle psychological issues.  Both approaches can bring life long value and are worth exploration.

To know yourself better, you can do a short exercise where you write down five goals you have for your future. Under each goal, write down what is holding you back. If the issues seem to be tactical in nature such as motivation, lack of contacts to help you, dissastistaction with concrete tasks and commitments you have in your life, a desire to move or to get a promotion but a fear of breaking down and executing on the detailed steps that will take, then a coach may be the best approach. If your mind focuses on deeper and more generalized fears – fear of failure, sadness around lack of love or happiness in your life, unresolved issues with family or friends, then therapy may be a great place to start.