I hope she knows.

I’m sitting on a plane about to take off for a conference in Florida. I’ve been traveling a lot lately, but at least this time I’m staying on the East Coast. My wife and I celebrated our 6th anniversary yesterday. We did so in style, staying at a nice hotel on Friday followed by an over-the-top spa day which include an 80-minute couples massage. 80 minutes! That’s like a movie!

I’m not a nervous flyer by any means, but I do usually say a quick prayer before takeoff. I keep it simple; just give thanks, and ask for a safe flight. Why not show a little gratitude every once in a while? After all, I certainly have a lot to be grateful for. I’m grateful that the odds of this flight crashing are less than 1 in 11 million. I had to research that – I made sure to turn my laptop away from the lady sitting next to me before Googling “odds of plane crashing.” I’m grateful for the beautiful weather, and the fact that aside from a few sniffles my family is happy and healthy right now.

And I’m especially grateful that, despite the cramped seating, my back and my shoulders feel amazing after spending 80 minutes beneath the strong, capable hands of my masseur, Brian.

But mostly, I’m grateful for her:

 

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I hope she knows.

I hope she knows that the reason I set the alarm so early in the morning is because if I didn’t I’d never get anything done. Because if her alarm goes off she’ll hit the snooze button, roll over and put her arm around me. Then my alarm will go off, I’ll hit the snooze button and put my arm around her. And then her alarm goes off again and the cycle continues for 9-minute intervals until one of our kids starts crying. And so I set my alarm early, because I know that none of my morning plans stand a chance against the prospect of holding her for a few more minutes.

I hope she knows that a few years ago, when she was crying about how she didn’t think she was going to be a good mom, the reason I didn’t cry with her wasn’t because I didn’t care. It was because I knew that if she treated our children half as well as she treated me our lives would be perfect so there was nothing to worry about. Turns out I was right on that one, not that I’m keeping score…

I hope she knows that a few years earlier, when we were sitting on the couch at St. Peters and she laughed at something on The Bachelor, only to turn and see me watching her instead of the screen… it was because I do that all the time. I love watching her laugh. I want to memorize what it looks like so I can take it with me wherever I go. I hope she knows that her laughter means everything to me. That I try to make her laugh when I don’t know what else to do. That she should always laugh – at the world, at our problems, at this clumsy boy who loves her so much.

I hope she knows that a few years earlier, when had that big fight early in our marriage, it was because it was always easier for me to start a fight than admit I was scared. Scared of failing her, of losing her. Scared that my tolerance for pain, doubt and chaos wouldn’t measure up during the bad times. Scared that I’d let those same feelings spoil the good times too, anxiously waiting for the other shoe to drop. Because it can’t be this good, right? I don’t deserve it.

And I hope she knows that a few minutes ago, when I said “I love you” before putting my phone into airplane mode, I didn’t just say it out of habit. I said it because I wanted to make sure it was the last thing she ever heard me say. And I wanted her to know that my thoughts in that moment were thoughts of gratitude, and that, like my prayers, they were simple:

I had her.

I had everything.

I hope she knows.

 

NYR 19-09: “Be A Better Spouse.” Part 3 – Books On Spousing.

“Dan: And there’s no books on how to raise kids.
Darlene: Yes there are. There are literally thousands.” – Roseanne

Why do I read so many damn books? I suppose there are a number of reasons, not all of them great.

For starters, I’ll be the first to admit that “number of books I’ve read” is a vanity metric that’s deeply ingrained in me. I blame the public school system. Olde Providence Elementary encouraged summer reading by having us track the books we read (title, number of pages etc.) At the beginning of the school year we were awarded trophies based on our results. These weren’t your typical “everybody gets a prize” trophies which were common at the time (probably still are). You had to earn these, by reading the books and tracking the data.

It’s no wonder that, decades later, I’m writing a blog now and publishing all my data in spreadsheets.

So other than to stroke my own ego, why read? I like to think the main reason is to acquire knowledge so I can learn and grow. There’s also an entertainment component; after all, if reading weren’t fun I wouldn’t do it consistently. But I also read to procrastinate, as a means of avoiding my responsibilities for a while and engaging in a task I can pass off as being “productive.” Learning through books is great, but there’s no substitute for learning through experience. On several occasions I’ve been reading a book on personal development and suddenly imagined the author sitting across from me with a disappointed look on their face saying, “stop reading and go do it!”

Well if reading is a vice, I’d argue it’s one of the more innocuous ones, and count myself as one of the worst perpetrators, for better or for worse.

Like the Roseanne quote says, there are thousands of books on parenting. The same goes for relationships. But for some reason I haven’t read too many of those. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because picking up a book on relationships is admitting that I don’t have all the answers, that I (and my relationship) may need help. That’s a bad reason, but it’s a reason. And it’s a common one – I imagine it’s the same reason why most people decide to never go to therapy, and why the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.

But I think a bigger reason I’ve avoided these books is because I’ve always viewed personal development and relationship development as two different things. In my mind, personal development efforts put you in complete control of the situation. I can work on myself without having to worry about any external factors, which is an appealing quality.

Relationship development, on the other hand, is a two-way street. What’s the point in picking up a book on relationships if I’m the only one reading it? And even if my wife and I read it together, what if she interprets it differently? How can I make sure that we’re (literally) on the same page?

I think the reason why I can’t find the answer to these questions is that my original logic is flawed.

“No man is an island.” Personal development and relationship development are inextricably linked. You cannot fully grow as an individual without investigating the way you engage with others. And the best place to start with developing your relationships is investigating yourself.

So go ahead, pickup a book on relationships if you haven’t already. Why the hell not? I finally read one last year, and it was pretty good:

The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. From Wikipedia:

According to Chapman, the five ways to express and experience love that Chapman calls “love languages” are:

  • receiving gifts,
  • quality time,
  • words of affirmation,
  • acts of service (devotion),
  • and physical touch.

Examples are given from his counseling practice, as well as questions to help determine one’s own love languages.

After reading the book, Liz and I tried to guess each other’s Love Languages. She was actually able to name all five of mine in order (not surprising). I didn’t do quite as well with her, but I did get her number one.

Liz’s primary love language is “acts of service.” My love language is “words of affirmation.”

If you buy into it (which I have), this can be pretty helpful – instead of spending precious energy and resources trying to express love in a way that the other person isn’t picking up on, you can make a conscious effort to tailor your communication to the other person’s language. Instead of buying each other gifts (low on both our lists) we can focus on the dynamic that works for both of us.

In our case: I do stuff for her, she tells me how awesome I am. Everyone wins! And that’s actually how I came up with this year’s NYR for Be A Better Spouse:

In 2019, I will clean Liz’s car 26 times. Click here to see my progress.

Now if you’ll excuse me… I need to go clean the car (it’s been almost a month).

NYR 19-09: “Be A Better Spouse.” Part 2 – Angry Cleaning.

In last week’s post, things were… messy, to say the least.

My wife and I were in a tough situation. We were both mad, both tired, the place was a mess and it was 9:30 (way past our bedtime these days!) She’d asked me for help cleaning the playroom, and I basically told her that she got herself into this mess, and she can get herself out of it. She responded with deafening silence, and went back to putting the toys away.

I had options. For example, I could have pressed her further for a response:

“I mean, do you think this is somehow my fault?”

I also could have apologized:

“I’m sorry, that was dumb. Here let me help.”

Neither of these options would have been very genuine, at the time.

If I pressed her further, it might look like I’m trying to engage in meaningful dialogue. But it’s more likely that I’m just setting a trap for her, trying to get her to say something that proves my point. I’m already building arguments and counterarguments in my mind, playing out a hypothetical showdown and preparing myself to win.

The second option would likely have been an insincere apology (which most people, including my wife, can see right through) which would have only made matters worse. Even if she bought it, I would eventually become resentful because my original complaint (poorly worded, I admit) reflected my honest perspective, which would have gone unaddressed.

So I didn’t apologize and I didn’t try to talk about it. What did I do?

I started doing the dishes.

Because when I saw her starting to put the toys away I knew… it was happening. I just needed to do my part. We were Angry Cleaning. We were going to be ok.

Angry Cleaning: The Answer To Most Marital Conflict/Maybe All Conflict On Earth.

That night, Liz and I probably spent two hours getting our condo spotless. She got the playroom looking like this:

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As opposed to this:

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Not easy considering there was a lot of work to do. We still hadn’t unpacked from our trip to West Virginia. We had dirty laundry, dishes, trash… all the usual suspects. Nevertheless, we got after it, all of it, together.

Well, sort-of together. We certainly didn’t say much to each other during the process. Mostly we stayed out of each other’s way. But the next morning, we woke up to a spotless home. We made coffee, sat on the balcony, and apologized.

And that’s all Angry Cleaning is. It’s literally just cleaning while angry. But the devil’s in the details, and so if you’re interested in exploring this strategy on your own here are some important guidelines:

Angry Cleaning Isn’t Something You Do. It’s Something You Let Happen. If you’re in a fight, you can’t just unilaterally say “you know what, let’s just angry clean.” Because while the issue at hand might not seem important right now to you, it could be important to the other person, and to suggest doing something different just to avoid talking about it could make things worse. No, Angry Cleaning is something you see happening… and just go with it. I knew it was happening by the way Liz reacted to my comment. Trust me, if it starts happening, you’ll both know.

Angry Cleaning Should Be A Sacrifice, Directly Serving The Common Good.

When I was drafting this, Liz brought up a good point: some people like cleaning. She and I don’t. And so when one of us picks up a dish, we’re saying “I’d rather not do this, but it needs to get done and I’m going to channel my anger towards something productive that will help the family.”

So it should be a sacrifice, but it doesn’t have to be cleaning. You can Angry Pay Bills, Angry Grocery Shop, etc. I would caution against Angry Working (as in, popping open your laptop and doing work for your job). Yes, doing work ultimately serves the family by bringing in money, which is super important.  But when emotions are high I think it’s better to work on something that more directly serves the common good. From the outside looking in, “doing work” can just look like a dark, bottomless pit that you could hypothetically spend all of your time on, and so shirking a family responsibility (engaging in dialogue) to further a work responsibility (answering emails) might not be as helpful.

Angry Cleaning Isn’t The Silent Treatment.

I say this as someone who has used the silent treatment more times than I care to admit. Over the years, I started to recognize that when Liz and I got into fights, eventually I would say something really dumb. Eventually I learned that, instead of trying to win an argument, I would just say nothing at all. This was a clunky, disrespectful, and pouty solution.

Angry Cleaning is different – just because we’re not talking about the issue at hand doesn’t mean we’re being disrespectful. We still respond to questions, most of which are directly related to the Angry Cleaning (“is this sweater clean or dirty?”) We talk just enough to keep the wheels turning until the task is complete.

Sometimes We Go To Bed Angry At Each Other

 I’m sorry, but the old adage “Never go to bed angry at each other” is something I can’t practically apply to my marriage. I did some math, and my wife and I probably go to bed mad at each other about 5-7% of the time.

Maybe I’m just using a different definition of “angry” than the folks who genuinely apply this rule. Maybe they’ll concede that they might go to bed “annoyed” at their spouse, but that “anger” runs deeper and is more directly related to their spouse’s character than their actions. So I will say that, when it comes to conflicts with my wife, before going to bed I try to remember that I’m not mad at who she is, I’m mad at what she did.

But the point is just because something’s important, doesn’t mean it needs to be addressed right now. The idea of staying up all night and compromising sleep to solve a conflict that night just doesn’t sound practical to me. Sleep is a precious commodity, and I’d much rather face this problem in the cold, clear light of the morning in a clean condo. Which brings me to my final point…

You Have To Talk About It, And That Usually Starts With An Apology

Studies have shown that, when it comes to managing stress, the way your brain reacts to solving a problem is very similar to the way it reacts to planning to solve the problem in the future. The brain doesn’t care too much about the details of the plan, but it feels a lot better knowing that there’s a plan in place. And the only reason why Angry Cleaning works is because Liz and I both know that we’re going to talk about it in the morning.

And we have to talk about it. We have to talk about it because, while on the surface it may be a dumb fight about who is going to put away the presents, underneath that fight are deeper issues. Issues like respect, sharing responsibility, traditional gender roles, consumerism, approaches to parenting, personal finances… the list goes on. We don’t necessarily get into all of those topics – but there’s usually one or two that crop up at the root of the problem.

And the conversation usually starts with an apology. It doesn’t matter who goes first. In almost every situation, the other person immediately apologizes in response.

And it has to be a good apology, something that explains (not excuses) why you did what you did, not just as a result of external circumstances but as a result of who you are and where you are at this point in your journey through life.

  • I’m sorry. I just don’t see why we have to have all this stuff, and I don’t feel like it should be my responsibility to put it away if I’m against buying it in the first place. Not great.
  • I’m sorry. Last night I was just tired and feeling overwhelmed. I appreciate what you do and will try to keep my emotions in check next time. Better.
  • I’m sorry. Having all of this stuff gives me anxiety. It’s easier for me to blame you than to admit that I haven’t helped you with any of this. I just feel like when it comes to buying things for the kids I have no idea what I’m doing, which is actually how I feel about parenting in general. I need your help. Best!

Getting angry happens. To quote one of my daughter’s favorite Sandra Boynton books, Happy Hippo, Angry Duck:

…a difficult mood it not here to stay. Everyone’s moods will change day to day.

If you can have the awareness to recognize when you’re angry, the discipline to disengage and redirect toward something useful, and the trust to know that you’ll eventually circle back to the problem and work through it together, Angry Cleaning can be an effective strategy for conflict resolution, which can lead to less anger in the future.

NYR 19-09: “Be A Better Spouse.” Part 1 – The Present Situation.

“Will you help me?”

My wife’s voice called from the playroom. I turned the corner and saw her hunched over on the ground, surrounded by toys.

She sighed. It was the week after Christmas.

“What do you need?” I asked.

“I just need some help deciding where these things should go.”

“You don’t want my help for that.”

“Why not?” she asked, reaching for another toy.

“Because if I were deciding, half of this stuff would go in the garbage.”

Her hand stopped, but she didn’t look up. My words hung in the air for a few seconds. Then she picked up the toy in silence.

It was on.

I knew I had started something, but I didn’t care. Why should I have to help figure out where all these toys are gonna go? I’m always the one saying we should be getting rid of stuff, and this is why. Our condo is bursting at the seams with junk we don’t need and I didn’t buy any of it but I’m the one who has to put it away and I’m sick of it and it’s not my fault. She’s the one who bought all this stuff, she can figure out where to put it. It’s her fault, right?

Perhaps.

Let’s do a little thought experiment. If we were a business instead of a marriage, what would our respective roles be? For the most part, I think we share roles pretty evenly. We’re both revenue generating, and I like to think that we both have equal spots in the C-Suite where we put our heads together and try to establish a joint vision for our family’s future. And there are definitely some areas where I take on a bigger role (Accounting), and others where she does more of the heavy lifting (Logistics).

But there’s one department that I don’t touch, an area that Liz handles all on her own: 

Procurement.

My wife doesn’t just buy the presents. She buys everything.

Paper towels, clothes, medicine, toys, vacations, basically anything that breaks… the list goes on. Aside from picking up take-out and the occasional grocery run I basically don’t spend any money. I probably haven’t bought a shirt for myself in over five years.

And nowhere does this separation of duties become more apparent than when it’s time to buy gifts for special occasions.

Last Christmas Liz bought gifts for me, and gifts for the girls. But she also bought gifts for the girls from me, and gifts for me from the girls, gifts from the girls to each other, gifts for herself from the girls… basically every combination you can think of. This applies to extended family as well, her side and mine. When I’m at my worst, she even has to buy gifts for herself, from me.

So why does she do it?

Well, Dave Chappelle certainly has his theory, and I mean… that might be part of it. But it’s a small part. There’s a much bigger reason why Liz does all the shopping, and it’s actually not funny at all. My wife does all of the shopping because she knows that if she doesn’t, it won’t get done.

If I look at it carefully, very often what I pass off as being “thrifty” or “minimalist” is actually just being lazy, cheap and not wanting to make decisions. She probably enjoys the shopping and planning for special occasions to some degree, but she probably wants some help, too. In fact I know she does because she’s asked me for help directly. And I don’t give it to her, and it seems to be getting worse each year.

Special occasions have become a game of chicken, and she inevitably folds and does all the work because she knows that if she doesn’t then my daughter’s birthday is going to look like this:

That’s not a great way for a business to operate. Or a family, for that matter.

I don’t know why I’m like this. Maybe it’s a scarcity mentality that causes me to avoid spending money in any form. Perhaps it’s a defense mechanism in response to my own self-doubt… I’m not going to put effort into planning things for other people, because who would ever want to put effort into planning something for me? That excuse is particularly ludicrous considering my wife has planned amazing birthdays for me on several occasions.

Regardless of how we got to this point, here we are and we have a problem. My wife asked a simple question, a basic and essential question to ask of someone you love:

“Will you help me?”

And I started a fight. She made Christmas happen with zero help from me, and now I’m complaining about the results. But none of that matters now. Because it’s 9:30 and there’s work tomorrow and she’s mad and I’m mad and my heart is racing and I’m starting to think about other things she does that make me mad but are completely unrelated to the present situation and the pressure is building and as I’m writing this down it sounds so stupid but when you’re there and in the moment it’s hard.

So what do we do?

That’s a big question – next week I’ll give you the best answer we’ve come up with so far.

NYR 19-08: “Be More Productive.” Part 4 – Executing.

I’m starting this post on a Friday, which is much later in the week than I usually like. I’ve been on the road, and this just kept falling further and further down on my list of priorities. It would be pretty ironic if the first time I missed a posting deadline was when I was writing a post about Executing on daily tasks.

Ironic, but not out of the ordinary. Because for me, this is definitely the hardest part. Don’t get me wrong – on some days, once I’ve got my day planned out and my tasks prioritized, I just start with the “1”s and knock them out.

But not always. Sometimes I’ll knock out that first “1”, then maybe the second. And then a certain tasks stops me in my tracks. I hesitate. I start looking down the list at the other tasks. The “2”s and the “3”s, tasks that I know for a fact aren’t as important because I evaluated them in the cold, sober light of the morning… they start to look enticing. I start to think about how good it might feel to cross those off, make the whole list a bit smaller. They have to get done anyway – is it really that important that I do these things in the right order?

Yes. It’s incredibly important. In fact, it’s everything. It really comes down to one, simple idea:

If you truly want to be more productive, you have to learn how to do things when you don’t feel like it.

I can be downright masterful at avoiding the task at hand. I can get busy with other less important tasks. I can engage in Pavlovian activities in exchange for quick dopamine hits, like getting up for water or coffee, chatting with a co-worker, scrolling through my phone, organizing my desk. But eventually there comes a time when even I can no longer fool myself… when my desk is clean, my other tasks are crossed off, the deadline is approaching and there is nothing between me and the task at hand other than the fact that I don’t want to do it.

And of course, the only way to get past this is to actually do what I’m supposed to do. Yes, it’s hard. But 90% of the time the hardest part, the greatest point of resistance, is the start. It can be suffocating. To quote Shakespeare,

Between the acting of a dreadful thing and the first motion, all the interim is like a phantasma or a hideous dream.”

Ok that might be a little dramatic if all we’re talking about doing my timesheet at the end of the day. But seriously, how often in life do we encounter things that we know we should do and we just don’t do them? Is there anything we can do, other than, as the Nike slogan goes, “Just Do It?”

No. “Just Do It” is actually the only answer.

But I have developed a few strategies to help me get started on those days where doing it seems impossible.

Break it down. Sometimes I avoid a task because it seems like too big of a thing to handle. I might see it as a three-hour task, and so I tell myself I’ll wait until I have a three-hour block of time to do it. Ha! In my experience, three-hour time-blocks don’t typically fall out of thin air. Sometimes if I really need to do something, I’ll break it into smaller tasks, with the first task in particular being really small. For example, the first task might be, “Open this spreadsheet, this email and this PDF file at the same time.” And see what happens.

Study the problem. If I really can’t figure out why I’m stuck on something, sometimes I’ll give myself permission to stop and take a step back. I’ll open a word document, set a timer for 5 minutes (the timer is important: I don’t want to spend too much time on this), and I’ll just start writing about it. Almost like a journal entry, a sort of letter to myself asking why the hell this is taking me so long. It might start off, “Man, this has been on my to-do list for two weeks and I have no idea why I’m resisting it so much. I know that so-and-so is going to be disappointed if I don’t get it done by Friday. The problem is I just really don’t understand why…

And that’s usually when I figure it out.

When I write a sentence starting out with “The problem is…” I know I’m getting somewhere. Maybe I’m avoiding a confrontation. Maybe I don’t understand the need for the task and I’m worried about looking stupid if I ask about it. Maybe I’ve put it off so long that I’ve forgotten some important details. Writing it out brings clarity, allows me to forgive myself for these rational (but ultimately bad) excuses, and move forward.

The 5 Second Rule. If you’re really stuck, check out this book by Mel Robbins:

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My wife read this for work, I picked it up and it was a great read. If you want the cliff notes, check out her TED Talk:

From the moment that you have the idea… you’ve only got five seconds to take action, otherwise it’s gone.

The exercise is simple: if you want to do something, as soon as it enters your head just start counting down, from five to one, and then push yourself forward. Yes, it sounds cheesy. But I’m telling you, it works. In particular, I find that it’s helpful to 1) count down out loud, and 2) at the end of the countdown, engage in some physical act toward the task at hand (ex. open the email, pick up the phone, get up from my chair). I’ve used it for everything from initiating tough conversations to getting out of bed in the morning.

I certainly don’t have this all figured out. I still put things off, but I’m trying to get better. Call it grit, call it discipline, call it whatever you want, but it takes practice. The only way to get better at doing things when you don’t feel like it is  to do things when you don’t feel like it, again and again.

How much better would your life be if you just did the things you knew you were supposed to do?

So just do it!

NYR 19-08: “Be More Productive.” Part 3 – Prioritizing.

It can be very easy to feel overwhelmed by tasks at work. In last week’s post, what we were really focusing on was completeness. The goal was to get all of the tasks for the day onto one sheet of paper. But if your inbox looks like this:

… where do you start? The answer is as obvious as it is difficult: you have to prioritize.

If you’ll look to the left of my list of tasks, I’ve put a number next to each task:

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Here are the general guidelines I use to come up with these numbers:

“1”s: The Sleep Thieves. I really try to be judicious when applying the “1”s to my tasks. I don’t think I’ve ever had more than five of them. When deciding whether a task is a “1”, I ask myself a simple question: if I didn’t do this task, and then thought about it as I was going to bed tonight, would I get out of bed and do the work? These are the things I’m getting paid for, and they’re nonnegotiable. Sometimes these “1”s get added to the list mid-day (after all, fire drills do happen) but I have to be really careful with that. It can be tempting when an email comes in to all of the sudden decide it’s a priority, when really what I’m doing is trying to put-off something further down the list.

“2”s: The Grind. These are the day to day tasks. They’re important, but it’s not the end of the world if they don’t get done. Which, in many ways, makes them the most challenging. If an important tasks comes up out of nowhere and immediately gets classified as a “1”, I’ll often get an adrenaline rush and immediately dive in, working in a comfortable flow state until the job is done. But the day to day stuff? The grind? I don’t always get that same payoff. And unfortunately that sometimes leads to them getting put off, and before long my “2”s become “1”s as deadlines approach.

“3”s: The Wish List. “3”s are an interesting bunch. Sometimes they’re administrative tasks with far-off due dates. But more often they have no due date at all – things like personal and professional development, networking, planning, brainstorming. These tasks are usually associated with some sort of long-term goal, but I’m only allowed to touch them once the real “work” is done. Unfortunately that means that I don’t always get around to them. But they keep getting transferred to the next day’s list, which provides the benefit of keeping them at the front of my mind. The way I see it, “1”s and “2”s are what you get paid for, but the “3”s are what keep your career moving forward. So I try to make time for them whenever I can.

“*”s: My Timesheet. Some of you may have noticed a “*” next to the top task labeled “TS”. That stands for timesheet.  It’s kind of in a it’s own category which is why it gets its own symbol. At my job, we have to record the time we spend on work. And ideally I’m updating my timesheet as I complete tasks throughout the day. I used to label this as a “1” task, but the problem was I couldn’t cross it off until the end of the day, and it became a distraction whenever it was time to go to my “2” (wait, what about that “1” up there?) So I gave it it’s own symbol “*”, allowing me to keep it on the front burner while still moving on to other tasks.

I used to have “4”s but found that there wasn’t much value in distinguishing between them and the “3”s. The only other thing I might write is a “D” for “defer”, and that’s just when I think of a task towards the end of the day that I definitely don’t want to get started on until tomorrow, and I just want to make sure it can get transferred to tomorrow’s list, where I can evaluate it objectively in the cold light of the morning the next day.

And that’s it! Planning and prioritizing is complete. This whole process usually takes me less than fifteen minutes, and I know exactly what I have to do.

I just have to do it.

And that, of course, is the most difficult part. Planning and prioritizing are kind of easy (even fun if you’re into that sort of thing), but eventually you have to do the work. I definitely don’t have all the answers on this, but I have picked up on a few tricks over the years that help, which I’ll be covering in next week’s (final) post for this series: Executing.

See you then!

 

NYR 19-08: “Be More Productive.” Part 2 – Planning.

I find that I get a huge return on investment from spending just a few minutes each morning planning out my work day. Right now, that process takes form in three phases, which I’m calling the Yawn Phase, The Calendar Transfer Phase, and the Task Transfer Phase.

Phase 1: The Yawn Phase

I call this the “Yawn Phase” because that’s what I’m usually doing at this point in the day. Sometimes I’m fired up right when I get into the office, but not always. The Yawn Phase is best thought of as a ritual, a consistent process that I do involving minimal effort and thought, the goal of which is to get my desk looking like this:

In no particular order, I plug in my computer, get a water and a coffee, and start a new daily planner, which literally involves just writing the date and the time on a piece of paper, then numbers down the side representing hours of the day starting with whatever hour I happen to get into the office:

Phase 2: The Calendar Phase.

In Phase 2, I transfer any items from my Outlook calendar into the left column of the page:

I used to do this last, but I’ve realized that it’s important to do this part as early as possible, because it forces me to look at my calendar before I start doing any actual work. I’ve run into situations where I was spending time planning my day, got sidetracked by a task and then suddenly looked at my calendar and realized I had a meeting come up. Not good – planning is important, but actual commitments come first, so the calendar transfer needs to be done as soon as possible.

And it’s super easy – as you can see, I put two (hypothetical) meetings, noting where they are and any other details that might be helpful (ex. internal vs. client facing). All this information is already in Outlook, but the purpose of the calendar isn’t just to remind me of what’s on the agenda, it’s to identify the empty space in my calendar, so I can figure out when I’m going to do the tasks for the day.

Phase 3: The Task Phase.

In Phase 3, I put the tasks for the day in the column on the right:

Where did these tasks come from? Well, for this post I just made them up. And instead of trying to come up with fake names for clients and team members, I just used letters of the alphabet: run a calculation for A, prep forms for B, email C, follow up with D, feedback request for E, and so on. This probably saved me a few minutes, which I promptly lost when I started daydreaming about how funny it would be to work for these guys:

Ha! Little throwback for those of you who aren’t reading Chicka Chicka Boom Boom on the regular these days.

In real life, most of the tasks are simply transferred from the previous day. I rarely get everything done, and tasks that aren’t completed are moved over. Other than that, the rest of my tasks come from one place. I know some people like to have their tasks in multiple places, from note pads to post-it notes to apps on their phone. But I’ve found that I need everything to come from one central location. I prefer to put all my eggs in one basket, but just make it a really strong basket: my inbox.

Good or bad, email is the driving force of everything I do at work. I try to touch every email only once and file it when it’s done, getting my inbox down to zero before I close my laptop at the end of the day. This creates a bottleneck, a tiny door through which every task that comes up has to go through, and so I don’t have to worry about things falling through the cracks.

In fact, sometimes I’ll send emails to myself just to make sure that the task eventually flows through the system. For example: let’s say I’m at home, unplugged, playing with the kids when I suddenly remember something I have to do for work. That used to be the worst! I would try to stay engaged with the kids but my mind kept drifting to the task, then I felt guilty about not being present, then I felt guilty about not doing the work.

But now, if I think of a task that needs to be done for work, I just ask myself one simple question: does it need to get done tonight?

I wish the answer was always no. Unfortunately, sometimes there are fire drills at work and things just need to get done. If that’s the case, I do what I can to get the kids down as soon as possible, or (more often) Liz blocks for me while I do the work.

If I decide it doesn’t need to get done tonight… I just send myself an email from my phone.

Done! I know I’ll review emails the next morning first thing when I pull together my tasks for the day. “Home David” has successfully delegated work to “Office David,” and so the task is off “Home David’s” plate. I can unplug again and be present with my family.

It’s a nice feeling to be able to look at everything that’s on your plate in the morning. And as you can see, the Planning Phase doesn’t really require much thinking. It’s just a matter of transferring items from a few different sources to a single page, giving me a snapshot of what needs to be done, all while shaking off the cobwebs and getting in that first sip of coffee.

And we’re going to need that coffee. See those numbers, one through three, to the left of the tasks? Those require a little more thought – we’ll get to that in next week’s post: Prioritizing.

See you then!