breaking it down into small steps

Last night I was listening to NPR’s All Things Considered.  There was an interview with a woman who just passed her solo flight exam, the final step on her way to obtaining her pilot’s license.  She was 83 years old and lived in a retirement home.

While she talked about various aspects of continuous lifelong learning, the importance of doing things that you want to do, and her hope that she would be an inspiration to others to get off their duff, there was something else that caught my interest.

When asked how it was that she decided to learn to fly, she said (and I paraphrase, here): “Well, I didn’t have the goal of getting my pilot’s license.  My first goal was to simply taxi the plane down the runway.  And then my next goal was to turn the plane around.”

If you did this with every daunting project, what would happen to the course of your life?

What’s the equivalent of taxiing down the runway in your life?

Enough is Enough

When do you cut it short?  When is enough enough?  When is throwing good money or time or energy or your soul… when is it enough?  When is it “too much” already?

How do you know when you’ve put too much energy into a project that hasn’t had a satisfactory return?  How do you know when to sell and when to hold?   When you’ve passed the point of no return?  When it’s time to part ways?  When it’s time to get on with the rest of your morning, your day, your life?

I’m asking these questions because lately it seems like a lot of my energy is getting sapped away by what should be little projects that take more time, energy, sustained attention, and commitment than they should.  And there’s something about staying the course that feels kind of ennnnndddlllesssss… like if my energy reserves could be turned into a sound, it would be a great sucking noise.

Here are two examples.  The first is a personal project that, I must admit, has leaked over into my work time:

Example 1: the free gift calendar

I got a “free” $19.99 calendar from Shutterfly as a result of having made a camera purchase on Amazon in November.  By the time I received the notice, the deadline was only seven days away.  Seemed like a good deal.  I like their calendars.  Okay.  A gift for someone coming right up. 

Suggestion: You can skip all the hairy details in this next paragraph and just feel the time adding up.  And up.  And maybe you’ll begin to notice a spot in your chest getting progressively tighter.

But if you feel compelled to revel in the hairy details, read on:

Set up the account, learn how to do get started.  Decide to make a collage on each page.  Needs more photos than I can upload one by one.  Download the uploader.  Pick out photos and store them in an album on iPhoto. Upload them.  Add them to the calendar creation page.  Start making the calendar.  Have to decide on background, when to start the calendar, which format for each page, how many photos I have for each topic, be creative, etc.  Deal with making mistakes and not being able to undo.  Exit without saving saves anyway.  Use a different web browser so I can add birthdays. And then… the dreaded “I’m talking to someone in India” phone call to resolve a website oddity that I couldn’t imagine they could understand in an email.  But Great! it got resolved. (Competent service. Yes!) With the credit I have, my free calendar only costs $6.47 to ship. 

Yes, it will be a wonderful gift.  But how many hours did I spend?  When I started the project, I figured 3 hours max start to finish.  Real time estimate: 6.4 hours.  Was this how I wanted to spend those 3.4 hours?  No, it wasn’t.

Example 2: Transferring Quicken on my old PC to my Mac

 I won’t even go into the details.  Suffice it say that coming up with what may be the best solution has taken too many steps, each of which has required research… and, when I go forward, trust that whichever solution I choose will not beat me up in the process.  Yet, I have to pick one way and try it.  As you can guess, my old PC was still crowding my desk more than a year after I switched to Mac for everything else but Quicken.

Examples from Academia

  • A career that’s not a good fit.
  • An institution that’s not a good fit.
  • A department that’s not a good fit.
  • A project that’s been stalled too long… hard to get back into it or to get others re-invested.
  • Protracted relearning or exorbitant energy required to migrate to a new computer system.  This could occur when you upgrade to a new computer, of course, but there are many other opportunities for it to show up, including when you modify, upgrade, or convert to: databases, evaluation systems,  computer operating systems, online course management systems, grading schemes, contact maintenance software (e.g., Outlook), and so on.
  • Changing offices.
  • Getting “organized.”

I’m sure that without too much hesitation you can come up with a list of what’s sucking you dry.  So go ahead and do it!  Write down a small handful of projects that fit that criteria.  Then pick one, just one, and write it on the top of a sheet of paper.

OK. OK.  I’m not really sure what you should do with that paper, now that you have spoiled it by writing on it.  Come to think of it… maybe you should stop reading this article right now… or commit to going to the end.  What a PAIN!  These decisions are everywhere, aren’t they?

So here’s the thing to remember: this stuff is not easy to deal with.  Each of us has a point where we just know that we’ve committed too much time, money, energy, or whatever it is, and that we’ve come to the place where we can’t avoid putting off the decision to cut it short or go on.

It seems to me that our goal should be to get to that place sooner and sooner, so that, over time, we reduce how much of our precious personal resource we commit to projects that should have died an early death. 

And that’s where I’ll leave it.  

For now.

finding hope

I was working with a client last week who made what she believed was an error in judgment that she also believed would ultimately cost her the possibility of achieving her goal of becoming a tenured professor.

First, let me be up front about the tenure process. It has its good points.  And it has its bad points.  

Some good points: it allows current faculty the power to be sure their beloved department and programs maintain standards of excellence; it provides a measure of freedom from censorship; and it attempts to ensure that their new colleagues not only have the ability to work well together, but that their skills and expertise complement those of the existing faculty.

Some bad points: the requirements are often not clearly specified; fulfilling clear requirements is not a guarantee of tenure; developing changes in department or university needs or goals can lead to new policies that run counter to previously assumed tenure requirements; negative evaluation of a candidate’s personality may override a positive evaluation of scholarship; politics can play a big part in the decision; tenure-track faculty often keep central beliefs hidden for fear of being blackballed; and the expectation of perfection and productivity can be unreasonable.

So this client made a mistake.  What to do?

When I started writing this piece, all I really wanted to say was “Mistakes will be made. It’s the nature of living that we make mistakes.  That’s how we learn.  That’s how we grow.”

But, as you know, this is real life, and real life is often untidy. What happens, for example, if you can’t simply move into the emotional space of learning and growing from the experience?  Well, depression, stagnation, and a downward spiral come to mind as possibilities.  

There is a better way.  And this path includes several steps.  Let’s go through them.

First, get into action.  The antidote to the poison of immobility is nothing other than mobility.  This sounds simplistic, doesn’t it?  Well, in some ways it is… but there is a trick that makes it possible to take action when inaction is in control of you.  So write this down and post it on your fridge, your computer, and your bathroom mirror:

Break it Down Into Little Tiny Parts
And then break it down again.  And yet again, if necessary… until you can do something that moves you in the direction you want to go.

An example
Let’s say you’ve received gloomy news from your department chair, but you still have to finish the end-of-semester work and move into preparation mode for the upcoming one.  Where do you start?  Well, you have grading, reporting the grades, filing, storing materials, creating or updating syllabi, reading, and so on.  

OK, let’s get started on grading.  What?  You can’t get started on grading because it's also just too daunting to consider? 

So Break it Down.  What’s the first step?   Hint: It’s not “Grade the papers.”  The first step may very well be “Choose a time that’s uninterrupted and schedule it into my planner.” A different first step might be “Put the papers in my bag so I will have them with me when I get to my home or office.”

Once you have that step done, there will be a “very next step” that will be evident, such as “open them up and put them on my desk.”

And so on.  This does sound simplistic, right?  But you’d be surprised how much easier it is to get moving on large and especially onerous tasks when they’re broken down into smaller, more manageable pieces.  It might not be the answer to every struggle, but in many instances, it is.

There is another secret to getting moving when gloom has descended. 

Ask for Help

Stick this one on your planner or your car's dashboard.  Ask your partner, spouse, or colleague to spend ten minutes or an hour with you while you start to do the actual work. They don't necessarily have to be watching what you are doing, though that can help.  They only need to know that you are doing what you say you are doing. In my coaching, for example, I sometimes have a client do whatever she's stuck on while I listen over the phone.  And guess what?  It works!

Much of what stops us from finding creative ways to solve our own problems is that we just can’t get a handle on not only what we need to do, but what we can do.  When we finally tease out what we can do, we start to move forward.  And when we can have another human being along for the ride, it can make all the difference in the world.

Coaching offers the benefit of both.  And more!  (Another hint: I’m here if you need me.)

But what about hope?

Hope is experienced differently by each of us.  One can search the social science archives and find relationships between hope and childrearing style, family constellation, parental emotional state, socioeconomic status, and many other variables.

But I see hope as an oddity.  Some people have lots of hope, but do little or nothing to take charge of their lives. Some people experience little hopefulness, but nevertheless can be observed to take action with relative ease.

While hope may contribute to overall happiness scores, I see something that might be called "Propensity to Be in Action" as more crucial to success.  Put another way, we can hope all we want. But hope alone will not change the course of our lives or the lives of others.  Only action has that power.

silence is the dawn of true speaking

At the end of the 4-day International Coach Federation (ICF) conference, in the last time-slot on the last day, there was a new and curious breakout session.  It was entitled “The Practice of Silence,” and was described as a chance to draw together the learning and experiences of our time at the conference, “the opportunity to center yourself through the practice of silence and allow what next wants to emerge, to emerge."

After being “talked at” for a good part of a week, I was ready to learn what I’d absorbed, what gems of wisdom and practice I was taking home, and what might come next for me.  And I was eager to be in silence and see what showed up.

There was a leader who offered us meditators and non-meditators a framework: ten minutes of silence, followed by an opportunity for spoken reflection on what we’ve learned. I would have preferred to leave out the spoken part, but others found it useful. We then did two more cycles of silence, one of 15 minutes and one of 20 minutes.

During the first silence, I focused on what I wanted to remember about the conference’s three keynote presentations. After the time of silence, I jotted down the following notes:

  • Deep Thinking – What draws these people to not only think about large systems, but also with the intent to generate wide-ranging systemic change?
  • What keeps me from doing this?  Or do I?
  • I need to do more meditation to promote integration of thought and energy.

Just below it in my notebook I also wrote down this quote, offered to us by the leader: “Silence is the dawn of true speaking.”  I can’t recall the author, but assume it is most likely composed by someone like the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh, someone known for deep thinking.

Here are some of my thoughts regarding the notes:

  • Deep Thinkers have a calling and they are responding to that call.  The thinking they offer us is “simply” their unique contribution being expressed.
  • What keeps me from doing this is the missing belief that I: can do it; can make a difference; will be safe if I do it.
  • It is easier to write about meditating than it is to build it into your life.  At one time, I was a daily meditator.  This is no longer the case.  What will I do about it?

My questions to you are these:

  1. Where do you fall short of what you know to be true about you?
  2. Where do you fall short of what others know to be true about you?
  3. Do you want this to be any different?
  4. If so, what do you want to be different?  (Write it down!)
  5. What are you going to do about it?  (Write this down, too.)
  6. Now, find a way to get the support you need, so your dreams stay clear and present in your life. 

As a shameless reminder, let me say that coaching is a wonderful tool and support when you’re stepping into something big.  You go farther faster, with more ease, greater satisfaction, and, dare I say, with more joy.  I highly recommend it.  I wouldn’t be doing this work if I didn’t know it to be true.  For your convenience here's how to contact me or find a coach through ICF.

Setting Your Intention

Last week, I returned from the International Coach Federation's annual conference in Long Beach, California.

Over the course of the next few days, I will share with you some of the learning I have taken away from that conference, learning that may prove useful for you, as well.

I did something different this year. I went to the conference with a plan!  I went there to make some specific business connections, to forge relationships with those colleagues who could help me out in a particular way. In the least, I wanted to talk with folks who might be in the position to know other people who could potentially help me.

It turns out that I made just such a contact on the afternoon of my arrival in Long Beach, and it was with the first new person I met from the conference!  I was pleased.  But the best part is that since I had told one of my long-time colleagues of my intention, she not only remembered that I had a goal, she also asked the new person the question as soon as she thought of it.  I only had to follow up.  How cool is that?

With this intention in mind, I obtained several more valuable contacts, just by asking people whom I knew to be well-connected.  That’s just the beginning, of course.  I still needed to do the follow-up.  But the plan got me in motion.  The plan helped me focus my actions, to remember to do what I would have regretted not having done after returning home empty-handed.

Setting your intention may not a necessary ingredient for reaching your goals, but it sure makes the path shorter and more direct.  It is also not a guarantee that your goals will be attained.  But, again, it surely does help.

It’s just like using a map.  If you know where you are now, where you want to be at the end of your journey, and what you want to see and do along the way, not only will the best route become clear, but it will be obvious when you have strayed too far from the path.

Here are just a few situations in which setting intentions can be valuable and just a couple of suggestions for where you might look when contemplating your own needs:

Conferences – What are my goals in attending?  What “persona” do I want to try out (e.g., being more outgoing, more reserved, more reflective, more brave)? Whom do I want to meet?  What do I want to come out of the meeting? Who do I need to “be” to have these outcomes?  What do I need to do to have these outcomes?

Classes You Are Taking – What do I want to be clear on before I leave?  Who can I buddy up with to study?  How focused to I want to be or need to be today?

Classes You Are Leading – What do I want the participants to take away from the course, the section, the class, or the exercise?  How am I contributing to the attention students are giving me?  What if I behave differently today, this week, from now on?

Vacations – Why am I taking this vacation?  To rest, rejuvenate, get a change of pace, meet new people, renew my relationship(s), step outside of my typical way of being, take photos, bring back something?

Career – What do I want from this career?  Is it still good for me?  Should I do something else?  Who is building up my career?  What comes next?

Meetings – What can I do to make this meeting be more valuable?  What are others expecting of me?  What am I expecting of others?  

Your Turn

  • Take a look at your calendar.
  • What’s coming up this week or this month that could use a tweak?
  • Ask yourself: Am I satisfied with the way this might turn out?
  • If yes: Wonderful!
  • If not: What do I want as an outcome and what do I need to do to improve the chance that it will happen?

Getting clear about your personal “road map” is some of the work that goes on in coaching.  If you would like to learn more about coaching, I welcome your inquiry.

But whatever else you do, make the decision to make your day, your week, and your life, intentional!

off to the coaching conference

Just a quick note to say that I will be away attending the International Coach Federation's Annual Conference in Long Beach, California for the rest of this week. I expect to bring back some interesting and powerful tools to further my clients' progress.

While it is possible that I might check my email during that time, I probably will do it only randomly.  So if you send me something, rest assured I will reply when I return. 

Have a great week!