Friday, May 31, 2013

What do you absolutely know you want and how are you showing the world you want it?

I struggle with this question almost daily.  Because of the work I do, I know that what I really want is defined as much by what I actually do with my days as it is by how I answer questions about what I want.  Today I wanted to write. I also really wanted to spend time with my kid.  I know that because I made him breakfast, did some errands, drove him home to Hamilton and then took him out for lunch. Now I'm working on work: but I'm okay with that because I know that I do really want to get my next book written and that goal fits into a bigger picture when I am grateful for time with my kids whenever it becomes available.

In my business, I feel that I should have clearer goals and plans. The truth is: my goals are clear in the way I work. I want every person I train to think better and to become curious about how much better they could be in their thinking and their results. This shows up often in my interactions with clients: and sometimes I  remember to serve this purpose in a way that allows me to be paid for my work. It's clear to everyone (even me) that while I do believe that I provide value and that people need to pay for that value, in any given moment my bigger purpose is to get people thinking in ways that feel good to them and have positive results in the world. At the end of the day, if that's happened, I feel good about my work even if I am left with worries about building the business.

On the whole, I know that I am on purpose when I am teaching people who are understanding and using what I teach. I work on developing ways to find more of those people so that I can do my real work more and my business support work less. But that's a secondary purpose and if I tinker too much with my commitment to my primary purpose, I wonder if I'll like the results. It's a matter of balance: if I don't do the chores, I can't do the real work. If I become more committed to the chores and less to the real work, then I could build something that is externally successful but not satisfying.

We all know it's sometimes hard to walk our talk. It's equally hard to talk our walk: to know what we are doing in a way that allows us to put the goals and values we are living into words.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

What are you managing when you manage time?

We all know what time management means, at least until we start to think about it. The phrase implies that time is a kind of resource that can be used more or less effectively to create a particular result. But when we try to pin down the qualities of time as a resource, the definitions get trickier.

For one thing, $5 is always the same amount of money, but 5 minutes does not always seem to be the same amount of time. Five minutes in an emergency room is not the same as 5 minutes curled up on the couch watching a sitcom is not the same as the final five minutes in a championship game. How are we supposed to know how much or little we can do in five minutes when the size of the container keeps changing? The calculations only get more complicated as the units get bigger.

Can we at least understand the neurological processes that determine how long a unit of time seems to last (and so how much we can reasonably expect to do in that time)? The answer to date seems to be: not so much. The way the brain measures time seems to be more complicated than the current state of science (and of the human mind) can easily understand. Multiple parts and processes seem to be involved and the workings are still not clear.

How can we manage something we can neither accurately observe nor control?

We don't manage time. We manage the way we move through time. Time management is really the ability to make effective choices about what to pay attention to at any given moment relative to the set of goals we are pursuing at that moment. We don't need to understand time to manage it because we are really managing our ability to move toward or between multiple objectives. We make the most of our time when we are very clear on how our circumstances and actions connect with a well-defined goal. We "waste" time when we move our thoughts or actions without knowing where we are going.

The primary tool for time mangement is not a clock. It's a map.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Vacations, planned and not planned

I have just returned from a long-awaited week on the beach in Varadero, Cuba.  It's our third trip to Cuba in as many years, and we've been planning to be there since last May. I knew I would need to disconnect for a week, to relax into the rhythms of resort life, and to gather energy for some big projects on the go in June.  I was more than ready for that vacation.

Ten days before I left, I took a different kind of vacation. My back went into spasms and I spent the better part of five days doing nothing more than managing my back. It's true that the problem was relatively well-timed and I had five days when the world could manage just fine without my thinking or writing much. I am grateful, because there are much worse ways to come to an abrupt halt. And it happens to everyone now and then. Without a plan (or reservations) we have to step out of our busy lives.

There is something to be gained, whether or not your break is intentional. Your perspective can be different and your habits can open room for change after you have been away. You can choose again, in a way that you are not aware of being able to choose while you rush from one commitment to the next.

I'm back now, and on the edge of several changes. I'm pushing through some big projects and thinking about changes to my work space and my working pace. I am building the energy and the intention to get back into shape after a winter of back problems; I am giving clearer shape to some goals; I am beginning to imagine. . . or to settle into imagining that started in the back of my mind while I was reading on the beach.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

What happened to the Leafs?

There will be endless water cooler discussions (or maybe other beverages will be involved) as the true blue fans and the skeptics talk about Game 7 between Boston and the Leafs.  In case you're not in Toronto as you read this (and your world does not revolve around the fate of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team), let me give you a quick recap of their first round playoff series against the Boston Bruins. Toronto lost 2 games on home ice and was down 3-1 in the best of 7 series. They fought back (unexpectedly) to a 3-3 tie, forcing a 7th game in Boston.

Back on Boston ice, the Leafs were up 2-1 after two periods, and 4-1 about 9 minutes into the second period. (A period is 20 minutes).  They then allowed 3 unanswered goals, went to overtime, and lost early in the sudden-death overtime.  No more playoff dreams for Toronto, and some folks ready to call it a choke.

I don't think it's entirely fair to say they choked. What I saw (and I only saw a little of the previous games) was this: after a goal was scored for or against Boston, Boston came to the face off ready to charge. After a goal was scored against Toronto, they were scrambled, pushing hard but scrambled. That wasn't just true in the 7th game. It was true enough to seem like a pattern.

Imagine that you expect the other team to score but over and over again you escape. Your goalie makes amazing saves; the other team misses the net; you get some lucky bounces. One way or another, you escape enough that it seems like you are meant to escape. And then the puck lands in the back of your net. For a moment you are as confused as your fans. Although the odds were in favour of this happening, your direct experience was so vivid and compelling, you forgot about the odds.

The same optimism that allowed you to rebound from lost games and score unexpected goals now turns on you. You suffer a few moments of confusion. And in those moments a better, more experienced team makes you pay. They beat on you physically, and they are more focused than you mentally. And that's what happened to the Leafs.

If you're the underdog, part of your preparations has to include the pattern interrupt that happens when you are suddenly ahead instead of behind. And it has to include the next pattern interrupt, where fate turns on you and the other team is suddenly on the upswing. You need to be able to charge through the confusion with fierce focus and calm hearts.  That's a different kind of conditioning.

People will no doubt accuse the boys in blue of lacking heart and focus. But it's more likely that it was precisely the momentum of heart and focus that got them into trouble.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Training in time management

Time management is one of the most requested courses in leadership training. It's something that people wish other people would do better (so they could meet their commitments) and something individuals want to do better (so that they could feel more competent and more confident). That's why there are lots of different courses and models of time management.  But it's harder to find approaches that are evidence-based. 

The general loop goes something like this: I want to have better time management so I can be more effective and feel more confident and my boss wants me to have better time management so I meet deadlines and keep my people on the right track. I sign up for training in time management and I am given information about tasks to do that will condition me to manage time better. I might even be given new tools that are designed to help me meet my most important priorities first.  As a result of new information and new tools, I develop more confidence. And because I am more confident, it seems like the training must have worked.

Not so fast.  What may have worked is a kind of placebo effect. By changing your state of mind about time management and your expectations, you have more or less magically gotten to a result. That result will only be sustainable if it's based on actual beliefs and skills.  If it is just an artifact of having moved your attention to your priorities, it will last only as long as those priorities last.

Time is notoriously hard to perceive much less manage.  There is lots of science on how we represent time internally and few useful conclusions yet. In many ways, to manage time is to manage something that you cannot see. Imagine that someone asked you to speak for five minutes. Would you know how long five minutes is without looking at a clock? Now imagine the question is this: how much information will someone remember after you speak for five minutes? What kind of match is there between the amount of information you could speak in five minutes and the amount that someone else would take away from listening to you?  Finally, imagine that five minutes takes place in the waiting room at Emergency.  How much longer or shorter are those five minutes than the ones you had in mind a moment ago?

You see what the problem is.  Even with a very small amount of time, the variability in what it can usefully hold is large.  It's like filling a container to an optimal level but the container keeps changing in volume.  What this indicates, is that the problem we are trying to solve might not be the right problem. Maybe time is not something we manage. Maybe if we manage our outcomes, mental state and attention, our time will manage itself.

Let's go back and look at someone who seems to be a role model of good time management. That means they are managing scheduled work and surprises. It means they are moving faster sometimes and slower at others to accomodate collaboration.  What else does it mean? The faster way to improve your time management is to find someone you admire and find out what that person is thinking and doing as they move through their day.   Try it for awhile. The more attention you give this person, the faster you will begin to mange your time better. You might not even notice it happening until someone comments that you've been super productive lately.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Pain management and meaning

If you are not in pain, don't read this. Don't imagine pain: it will get under your skin and it might grow in unexpected ways.  This post is for people who are coping with pain, people who don't have to imagine how pain concentrates your perceptions while making it hard to focus your thoughts. This is for people who know how words fail when some part of your body is suffering and someone asks you to describe the pain.

If this is for you, then imagine that you can see someone who looks and sounds like you, someone who is experiencing that same pain that you are experiencing. You might notice the tension across that person's forehead, the clenching of the jaw, the breath that is not quite rhythmic. You might be aware that the body twists or tilts at an awkward angle, that something is unbalanced. You might notice, as though it were happening to someone else, someone far off in the distance, that all parts of that person are involved in the experience of pain.

But that person is not you. You are the person who is reading this and watching that other person. Some part of you is thinking. Some part of you is asserting your desire to focus your thoughts on an outcome that is pain free, an outcome so separate from the pain that the pain does not exist while you think those other thoughts and those other thoughts could not exist if you were truly fully involved in the pain.

So you notice the thoughts and you notice the pain, not at the same time, but one after the other. And the part of you that is involved in the pain has no words for the pain, except perhaps those short curses that we repeat, sharply and quickly, as though somehow we are building a wall or pounding at the pain that is pounding at us. In this moment, it is absurd to think of managing pain. We do not want it managed. We want it gone.

But there is that other part, that watching, considering, outcome-forming part of us that drifts away and considers. And that part wonders how to fit language to the experience, how to use the limits of language to contain the pain, wonders whether it is burning or tearing or aching. Wonders how to know what it means and where it begins and if it will end. And if it doesn't end, what then?

Then there will be a moment when you will decide. You will decide to set your mind to those things you knew were important outside the pain, outside the body. And this will not distract you enough, will not allow you to out-think the pain, will not corral it or manage it.  But. . .

You will come to realize that the pain cannot be managed. But you can manage with the pain; and you can manage to find the edges and to pull your vision back and back so that you see that the pain has limits and edges and boundaries.  And yet, no matter how far back you pull, you will not find limits and edges and boundaries around you.

You will be bigger than your field of vision. And in that moment, in the freedom of that big, big vision, you may stop trying to manage anything at all. For just a fraction of a second, you may hold a meaning you would not have discovered were it not for the pain.