Being Busy

This summer when I’ve been asked, “How are you?” my initial response has mostly been, “I’m busy!” This response is true, but not totally accurate. “Being busy” has many different meanings. It’s important to differentiate those meanings.

I’ve been alternating between a “gratified busy” that fills my bucket and an “overwhelmed busy” that makes me feel panicky. Calling both these states “being busy,” means I’m not  mindfully attending to either one. Being mindful of how we are attending to and feeling about our tasks is how we generate better energy—we can modify what’s working and what’s not.

When I’m the kind of busy that makes me happy and purposeful, I want to be grateful and enjoy it. I might say “life is full,” or “I’m working on lots of interesting things.” When I’m the kind of busy that consumes my energy with tasks that are necessary but not gratifying, I might say, “I’m feeling  a bit run down.” When I’ve got multiple balls in the air and not feeling in control, I’d be more accurate saying, “I’m feeling overwhelmed.” How I deal with a bunch of depleting to-dos is different than how I manage too many different or competing things on my plate. To be wise about to what I say “yes” and “no,” I have to be clear about how specific things impact me. To distribute my energy efficiently, I have to understand what in particular is feeding me, teaching me, or draining me.

Most of us feel good saying, “I’m busy!” We like being in motion, getting things done. Our culture rewards busy and we often associate lulls in activity with the insecurity of periods of transition or uncertainty, such as unemployment. It’s important to acknowledge how much of being busy is positive and treat it as such. The axiom, “If you want something done ask a busy person to do it” is often true. People in motion tend to stay in motion. I certainly manage my time more efficiently when I have less of it. And yet, I also know that the positive charge from being busy gives busyness the ability to seduce me away from other vital states of being.

 “Being busy is its own kind of laziness.” I don’t know who said this or in what context but the truth of it shot through me when this comment blared out on the speaker system when I turned my car on recently. It rang true for me personally and is also central to many of my client’s efforts to expand on what they do and how they are working. When we want to be more creative or strategic, we need time and space to think, plan and create. Trying something new or doing something differently requires slowing down, assessing, and putting energy into accomplishing what’s  unfamiliar to us. The number one excuse I hear for why people don’t test boundaries, try new things and put effort into ideas in which they’ve long wanted to invest is, “I’m too busy.” It’s a great excuse because it implies the reason we are not doing the thing we want to do is that we are productive, diligent hard-workers. This is much easier to contend with than that we are not feeling brave enough, talented enough or energetic enough to explore new paths.

Sometimes after a period of lots of activity, the lack of it actually scares me. It scares me because I know that without the distraction of being busy, I’m going to have time to assess. To think through where I’m expending energy and if there are things I’ve been procrastinating or avoiding. It’s when I run out of excuses not to do the harder, riskier things. And of course, any feelings I’ve buried in activity are going to have to be felt!

Stay attuned to what kind of busy you are. If it’s fulfilling, great, enjoy it! If it’s overwhelming, hang in there and look for what you can let go. If it’s draining, can you switch course or access something that will also fuel you? If it’s busyness distracting you from richer, more challenging work, then be brave, put down your to-do list and dig into the ambiguity and opportunity of unoccupied space and time.

Growth And Fixed Mindset

At the heart of any attempt to learn or strive for continued growth is the concept of growth mindset. I’ve had zero coaching engagements where this doesn’t come up. It is core to our ability to be vulnerable, stumble, take risks, look silly and get better.

Through extensive research, Carol Dweck sets forth the concept of fixed vs. growth mindset in one of my most frequently recommended books, Mindset (2006). Today almost every thought leadership or self-help book references this research. All of us in the world of learning and development see and feel how fundamental it is.

Fixed and growth mindset address how we think about our abilities. Thinking of our talents as fixed traits makes it much harder to put ourselves in positions where those talents aren’t being proven. To someone with a fixed mindset, doing a task poorly or lacking knowledge about something feels like a threat. Those with a growth mindset believe our abilities can be developed through practice and learning. They are not threatened by challenges and mistakes, because they believe that through them they will develop their skills and improve.

A few years ago I took two eight-year old girls to play tennis. I was feeding them balls and they were missing all of them. One of the girls got really frustrated and after about ten misses, said “I don’t like this, I’m done.” After watching her storm off, the other girl turned back to me ready to receive more balls. She chatted and swung her racket and ran happily after dozens of missed balls. I thought to myself, “This girl is my hero. It’s not occurring to her that she might look silly or be failing.”  I had never been able to stay that open and optimistic while doing something poorly. Eventually, of course, she started hitting the ball. She became my growth mindset role model. When I feel myself choosing to look impressive over learning more faster, I think of her swinging that racket and say to myself, “it didn’t even occur to her to feel silly.” Today this girl stops me instantly every time I use a word she doesn’t know to ask me what it means. I have a history of practicing the fixed mindset habit of looking up words I don’t know in private where my intelligence can’t be questioned. Asking people to clarify things I don’t understand or know about is one of the ways I practice a growth mindset. That’s the good news; we can practice and develop more of a growth mindset. 

One way a fixed mindset shows up frequently for my clients is when they don’t feel good about how they are contributing to conversations at work. They have good ideas, but are frustrated that others often express them first. There can be multiple sources of this but one of them is their fear of looking stupid, which prevents them from tossing their ideas or responses onto the table. Because they want to prove their intelligence or their right to be at the table with every comment, few of their ideas seem good enough to say aloud. In accepting that an imperfect idea is not evidence of their own imperfection, they can begin to take more risks and find new ways of adding value. 

Another way I often see fixed mindset is in people’s resistance to learning in areas of expertise or strength. It can be hard to accept new perspectives or information about things we are known to excel in.  With a fixed mindset, new information can be perceived as a threat to our own expertise rather than an opportunity to deepen it.  

Another indicator is unwillingness to ask for and receive feedback. The best of the best in all fields are feedback seekers. They welcome critical feedback as a way to hasten improvement. As you consider your own place on the spectrum of growth vs. fixed mindset ask yourself, “Do I invite or avoid feedback? Do I embrace or shy away from challenges? Am I threatened when someone else succeeds or do I celebrate and seek to learn from their accomplishments?”  There are numerous opportunities to practice growth mindset behaviors in these questions. 

It’s easy to see how beneficial a growth mindset is to innovation, creativity and resilience. A fixed mindset is fertile ground for our inner critic and the part of us that wants to play it safe. It makes us smaller. A growth mindset sets us up to explore, experiment and get up after a fall to brush off and try again. When we focus on effort, practice, and process over polished products and results we can nurture and develop growth mindset in ourselves and each other.  After all, there is no arrival. We are works in progress, with something ever more possible always before us.  

How to Give Up

I’ve been working on a blog post for the better part of two days. The topic I chose just isn’t coming together. I checked in with the perfectionism part of my brain to see if it was sabotaging me but that wasn’t it. Try as I may, my ideas on that subject are not coming together in a cohesive way.  Last night I told my husband how frustrated I was and he said, “why don’t you just give up on this one? It’s summer, you should give yourself a break.” To which I responded, “No, I shouldn’t! I’m committed to this! And I’ve been working on it for two days, I can’t just give up.” 

I went to bed grumpy about that dang blog for the second night in a row. 

I woke up thinking about sunk cost bias. Sunk cost bias is our tendency to stick with something despite evidence it’s not working because of the time and money we’ve already invested. Basically throwing good money after bad. Or good time and energy after time and energy already spent. On a small scale: me tormented by whether to give up on a piece of writing. Large scale: a country figuring out whether to pull out of a war when it’s more expensive than anticipated and a strategy isn’t working. 

I work frequently with people who are wrestling with sunk cost bias, even if we aren’t naming it that. When we work through how to manage time on people who are floundering or on projects they no longer believe in, one of the factors we consider is the energy already invested. Have they worked with someone long enough to feel sure about a decision to remove them from a role? Should they give up on a spiraling project or forge forward and try this or that? There’s never an easy answer…which is why I have a job. 

Sunk cost bias is deeply embedded in decisions to quit jobs or switch careers. As someone in a second career, I can fully attest to how painful it is to make the decision to turn away from something we’ve been fully committed to in every way. It usually takes years to sort through all the factors that enable someone to feel good about choosing a new direction.  Looking back, I can easily see how much of the investment I made in my first career is fundamental to success in my second one. I can see the ongoing value of what I learned both from being fully in that world and then getting out. But in the midst of the decision to actually let something go, it can be hard to believe in future benefits. Even if we are miserable in our current situation, letting something go can feel like failure. Even if we see no value in continuing, deciding not to can just feel like giving up. 

We are a culture of go-getters. Never quitters. In the movies the main character has to almost lose something at least twice but stick it out anyway before we have our sufficiently tested hero. How then can we turn away and move on from things without feeling like quitters? How do we know we are being wise in letting something go rather than cowardly or lazy for giving up? 

As these decisions get bigger, they of course get more sticky and complicated, so they require more time and resources (friends, coaches, mentors, parents) to navigate them. But we can be mindful about how we manage sunk cost bias on a more daily basis. If you pay for an expensive meal, do you keep eating after you’re full because you’re thinking about the five dollars still on your plate? If you decide to paint your bathroom yellow and realize you hate it half way through, do you keep painting because you already bought the paint and towels to match? If you write a story that won’t show you an ending, do you dig in day after day or put it on a shelf? (What story isn’t getting written while you tackle that one…this post only exists because I gave up on the other one.)

There are no right answers. We will always have to face decisions about when to be tenacious and when to let go. But it’s summer and life is short so for now, let me suggest that if you’re half way through a book you aren’t loving, don’t finish it! If you bought tickets to an outdoor concert but it’s drizzling and you’re exhausted, don’t go! If your friend won’t take the advice you’ve been giving them all year, stop giving it to them! Look for all the little ways you can give up for good reasons. To remind yourself that letting something go can be as brave as fighting for it with all your might.

Be the Change

One of the most common things I hear from leaders working on ways they can be more effective is, “The problem is, the levels above me don’t work in this way. It’s very hard to implement these behaviors when the leaders at the top aren’t behaving this way.”

The kinds of behaviors we tend to be talking about are generally things that create more empowerment and ownership for the individuals on their teams.  Delegating more thoughtfully, coaching team members in order to unleash better thinking and to build on strengths, giving meaningful feedback, and creating accountability. The best leadership requires investments of time and generosity. Yet often people don’t feel like they have enough time even for their own workload and that they’ve had limited experience of this kind of generosity. There is also some short term thinking to overcome. These upfront investments lead to long term payoffs in efficiency, increased talent pools and productivity. But it’s hard to believe this without clear examples of success to follow.

It is important to acknowledge how challenging it is to act in ways that are not being modeled for us. And it is essential that in working with any individual, we understand and appreciate the system they are operating in and how that system impacts their behavior and choices. We know that we are hugely affected by the family we come from, the culture we grow up in, the norms of our schools and institutions. And so I wholeheartedly sympathize with the challenge leaders are naming when they say, “But this isn’t how my leaders behave” or when a client says, “But nobody ever did any of this for me.”  It is hard to be and do what hasn’t or isn’t being done for us. It is hard to act in ways that a system isn’t yet rewarding or even acknowledging in any tangible way. 

And yet. Also. We are capable of this. As Ghandi put it, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

I just learned about a tiny, rural town called Deming in New Mexico. This town is hosting a shelter and welcoming people seeking asylum in our country – pouring out their time, money, and resources to exhausted and terrified families and children coming across the border. To date, 7,000 people have been helped by this small, very poor town of 11,000.  Asylum seekers are being dropped off in their city with no funding to support them, no directives on what to do or how to care for them, no clear knowns on what will happen next. Yet they are setting up centers, using their funds, and volunteers are showing up every day to care for those arriving on their doorstep.

They have extremely limited resources, no strategy, no examples of what success looks like, no system in place to facilitate their efforts, no defined end date. They may not be rewarded in any tangible way beyond the reward of making a difference in the lives of others. They see humans who are suffering and they are reacting. I wonder how many of them in this small, poor town feel that anybody ever did anything like this for them.

We are capable of this.

In our workplaces, we are not met with such extreme suffering and need. But I assure you that you are surrounded by people who would like support, who would like to feel more motivated and to better understand what success looks like. You are surrounded by people who want to grow, to feel a part of something, and who are looking for better, more inspiring leadership.

The questions is, what  kind of leader do you want to be? What kind of person? What impact do you want to have on the people around you? The answers to these questions may well not be modeled and exemplified for you. But they are very likely to be in you. When you are considering how you want to be and how you want to lead, if you don’t see it in the leaders above you or in your HR performance ratings system, then don’t look there. Look at the people around you who you can connect with and make better. Think about what you are learning, the wisdom you are gaining as you process everything that does and doesn’t work around you. Then, trust yourself. React. Be the change you wish to see in the world.

Multi-Tasking Isn’t a Thing

I was at a party this weekend and a gentleman complimented me on my multi-tasking skills. His compliment stemmed from the fact that I referred to an obscure fact he’d mentioned several moments ago while presently focused on whether I should help the hosts pass food around. Also from his belief that women are better multi-taskers.

I decided not to spend my personal time challenging this nice person on his well-intended observation. Here are the challenges I would have made if so inclined:

  1. The reason I remembered what he said in our earlier conversation is precisely because I was singularly focused on what he was saying. Just as in our later conversation I was singularly focused on whether to help with the food.  That focus meant all my cognitive abilities were in peak condition for remembering facts and making connections.
  2. There is no such thing as multi-tasking. Our brains can only focus on one thing at a time so what we are really doing when we think we are multi-tasking is rapid task switching. This is cognitively expensive. It’s exhausting and although it feels productive, it makes us stupider.
  3. Women are not better at multi-tasking, but they are conditioned to and possibly more inclined to care about more things at the same time.  I’m not sure we can say anyone is good at multi-tasking but perhaps the larger range of what women are likely to view as needing their attention, gives the impression of being “better multi-taskers.”

The research on the detriment of multi-tasking is quickly becoming well-known. A year ago most of my clients were surprised that what we thought to be a desirable skill is actually damaging our performance and overall ability to focus and move effectively from task to task. Today the response is more often, “I know multi-tasking is bad for me but I don’t know how to stop!”

Stopping is hard because our culture reinforces attending to multiple things at the same time. It wants us to get more done and digest more information.  At work we receive notice of competing needs via email, text, slack/skype, calls, or an actual human encounter. We carry around a device offering infinite possibilities of additional things to focus on: the possibility of our kid calling while meeting with our boss, our boss calling while we’re with our kid, our colleague needing X report while we are working on report Y, our friend Pete texting while we’re with our friend Bob, an infuriating tweet or news notification while our kids are telling a funny joke…the list is infinite.

To make matters worse, even if we want to reduce all the noise and distractions, we are increasingly addicted to them. When we sit down to focus on our one important person or task, our brain starts longing for the ding or bling that will give us permission to look away. To stop the hard work of focusing on this one important thing we want to do well.

How do we overcome this? We fight like hell. The enemy, competition for your focus, is strong and fierce. There are some false beliefs to overcome about how responsive we really need to be. You can re-train people, including your bosses and clients, on what to expect in terms of response time. You can leave your phone in another room. You can disable internet for an hour. You can spend ten minutes with someone and listen to them without thinking about one other thing you have to do that day. You can block time in your calendar to accomplish something and then protect the time to do that one thing as if it’s a meeting with God. And look, I know it feels productive when you zip off three emails while dialing into the meeting. But the world is overcrowded with useless meetings partly because so many of us aren’t really paying attention in them.  Those emails are far more likely to have mistakes or oversights that will then require more emails.  Make the tough choice. Attend the meeting or send the emails. Everything suffers when we split our attention. Do this, then do that. I know these seemingly easy things are not easy and you won’t always be able to do them. I also know that your focused attention is your most valuable commodity. It is your greatest gift to give. The things you want to be good at and the people you care about deserve it. Fight the good fight for you and for them.

Let Yourself Be Surprised

When my best friend and I met over 25 years ago we actively disliked each other for over a month before an all-night talk changed our minds and led to a life time of love and support. You’d think such an experience would be enough to keep me from ever making a presumption or assumption about someone again, except that this is impossible. 

One of the things I most appreciate about the multi-day courses I get to facilitate is how thoroughly they reinforce the rewards of this same lesson. The more time we spend together, the more we get to surprise each other.  To bust up all the assumptions made from the moment we walk in the door. 

We are wired to measure for social safety and make quick decisions about people, friend or foe. Our brains are overloaded with the 10,000-ish decisions we need to make a day, so we must have some cognitive short cuts for decision making. There is no shortage of brain science and models to explain how we take in information, create a story about it and then make a decision, all within seconds. Our survival as a species is connected to this ability and it enables us to make better use of our big, complex brains. But our need and ability to draw rapid conclusions means we have to be deliberate in our efforts to stay open to others, withhold our judgements and allow ourselves to be surprised.  We have to make a conscious effort simply to stay open to more information.

No doubt we have all been way off base about our initial impressions of something or someone multiple times. Yet this experience doesn’t prevent us from generating that quick, initial opinion next time. We know how important the first impression we make is precisely because it’s so hard to overcome.  To let someone or something work on us slowly, requires diligence and practice.

The adult learning environment is especially rife with opportunity to practice restraints in judgement. When adults take time to learn, it’s time they take away from everything else they could prioritize; work, career strategy, their kids, the to-do list at home. There is also their own financial investment or that of their company. So people want to be assured that this learning endeavor is worth their time and money. At the same time they are there to learn something. Adult learning means admitting there are things we don’t already know, could know more about or have been wrong about. This is hard for some, and doesn’t always bring out the best in us. Adult learning environments are filled with people trying in their various ways to get assurance of time well spent while also navigating the variety of learning styles, comfort levels, and degrees of openness surrounding them. As people work through all this, they are measuring themselves and each other like crazy.

It’s the job of a facilitator to efficiently create a safe space where people are ready to stretch their own ways of thinking and accept the variety of ideas and learning styles in the room. It happens in a day, often within an hour. But the great gift of a multi-day course is how thoroughly assumptions and ideas about each other get shattered. As people sink into learning mode they become more vulnerable, more generous and thoughtful. We absorb information at different rates; there are those with little to say day one, making brilliant remarks by day three. There are those initially seeming inclined towards negativity who turn out to be thoughtful critical thinkers. Apparent ambivalence is revealed to be profound, quiet processing. As time goes by, I watch people’s assumptions about each other melt away. I watch their surprised faces when colleagues offer unexpected insights or unique perspectives.

We can only surprise and delight each other if we stay open to the possibility of it. The work of  overcoming our deep social need to quickly assess each other is work worth doing. This means practicing sitting with the uncomfortable place where there is still much to learn. It means allowing others to reveal themselves to us slowly, while they navigate all their own initial discomfort. It means working to feel safe in the place where we haven’t yet formed conclusions, it means resting in uncertainty. In that uncertainty, there is possibility. The possibility of a new perspective, a new window into your own thinking, a new connection– maybe even an unexpected life-long friend.

Thoughts About Our Thoughts

I often hear my inner voice saying, “You are one good reframe away from a better day.” There is almost always a quick other way to view something that will make me feel a little better, give me the little kick I need to keep going with my head up.  For example, every flight delay frustration is tempered by my gratitude the problem is getting addressed while my feet are still on the ground rather than in a tube 40,000 feet in the air. Every work challenge is tempered by reminding myself that the greater the challenge, the faster I get better.

Reframes are really pretty easy because it could almost always be worse. There’s always an additional circumstance or two that could make your lousy present moment even lousier. When you feel wronged or have messed something up royally, there’s always a lesson to be learned, knowledge to be gained, a more rounded and maybe even better person you are becoming. Resilience and wisdom are built from the tough stuff we go through, not the easy. That’s a reframe I use often; we need the tough spots and bad days to keep growing, to become more effective, interesting people. Too much ease makes us dull.

In general, the positive reframe is a tremendous and valuable life skill. Our ability to effectively intervene in our own thought processes with a different take on things impacts our happiness, confidence, optimism, patience and generosity. There’s agency and choice in the way we reframe. It keeps us from feeling we are victims, which is an easy and utterly powerless role to fall into. You can be the bride who weeps miserably about rain on her wedding day or the one who merrily splashes through the puddles in her bare feet.

The downside to the reframing skill is doing it so relentlessly that we don’t let ourselves feel what we feel. Our negative feelings often fuel more urgency or effort to do something differently, to ensure undesired outcomes don’t show up again. If we are using all our energy to make something better in our own minds or to convince others it’s not so bad, we might miss the lesson learned or call to action. Another downside is annoying the people around us who need to be bummed out for a minute.

Sometimes we just need to be a little grumpy about something. While we can do a lot of good by offering up a way to re-think something, we might also need to let people feel what they’re feeling. People who are incessantly negative take us down for sure, but there are occasions where the incessantly positive person does the same thing. Insisting their rosy disposition and positive take is the only right response. It’s frustrating when someone else’s positivity makes us feel guilty about processing our own feelings. We all have our unique response systems—different events and circumstances awaken in us a variety of old wounds, fears or regrets. To each their own on working through them. It is undoubtedly a positive to be the optimist in the room, but even optimism needs to be wielded with sensitivity. Reframes and positive thinking aren’t meant to keep us from feeling our feelings, they are meant to keep us from falling down the unproductive rabbit holes those feelings may lure us into. They can keep disappointment from turning to depression, frustrations from turning to festering anger, doubt from becoming pervasive insecurity. The key is to equip ourselves with meaningful reframes that will help us work through our challenges in the healthiest ways possible, so that we can ultimately right the ship and do our thing in our best thing doing way.