Planning in pencil

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Photo courtesy of OFour (Creative Commons)

Photo courtesy of OFour (Creative Commons)

I am a planner. I like to know what I’m doing when, what the next steps are, and what the final outcome will look like.

But lately, especially at work, my priorities seem to be very fluid. I can start my day with a solid plan and by lunchtime, it’s already changed drastically, and by the end of the day, I’m not even sure what I’ve done all day!

I’ve been reading a book called, “What You Can, When You Can,” by Carla Birnberg and Roni Noone, and in it is the suggestion to plan in pencil. That really hit home for me because there is still value in setting the expectations of what to accomplish and how, but if you plan in pencil, then you can easily adjust along the way.

How freeing to know that I’ve crafted a strategy to get something accomplished, but that I can be creative enough to react as things change throughout the process.

In what ways could you be more productive by planning in pencil?

Low hanging fruit

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Photo courtesy of Ross G.  Strachan

Photo courtesy of Ross G. Strachan

What do you do when your task list is so long and unruly that you freak out and become completely overwhelmed?

That is me lately – I’ve been dealing with the urgent too much. I have been putting out so many fires and taking so many notes, that when I finally sat down to see what all I really needed to be doing, I had to throw my hands up in frustration because there was so much to be done.

I took a deep breath, and went back through my list with a highlighter to pick out what I call “low hanging fruit.”

I knew there was no way I could get it all done quickly, so I highlighted some tasks that were fairly simple to accomplish and that didn’t take a huge block of time to complete. Then I got started.

A couple of the items involved quick email as a starting point to a larger project. I filed a few things that I no longer needed. I made a couple of phone calls.

I couldn’t believe the lift I got from finally accomplishing even things so small. I had not checked off any major projects, or spent any significant time working through solutions, but I had made some progress that would make those things easier later on.

Plus, when I went back through the list, it felt incredible to be able to mark things off, and then I could refine my list so it wasn’t quite so overwhelming. I also took the time to block out work time on my calendar for some of the larger projects.

Had I focused on one of the major projects first, I would have been distracted by the volume of little tasks still outstanding. If I had continued to work on refining the task list, I would have been spinning my wheels.

Instead, I felt like I had made major progress and was energized to take care of even more things. Now I can make reasonable progress, and feel confident that other things aren’t falling through the cracks.

What low hanging fruit can you knock off?

Finding the balance between processing and doing

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Photo courtesy of zlady (Creative Commons)

Photo courtesy of zlady (Creative Commons)

Do you ever launch into “DO” mode so fast that you neglect to plan and process first?

I’ve found myself doing that a lot lately – there’s so much on my list to get accomplished, so many people clamoring for me to produce results – that I just hit the ground running. I feel like I’m swinging a machete through the field, whacking down the weeds and marching along, checking things off my list.

But often, I end up having to backtrack because I got too far ahead of myself and went the wrong direction. That wastes time, frustrates everyone involved, and can lead to poor attitudes all around.

It’s like placing that supply order only to realize that I didn’t do a thorough check to see everything we needed and have to place another one. Sometimes I end up setting up a meeting on the fly but neglect to check my calendar first, only to realize I have double booked myself.

I function best when I slow down and take a little time to process so I attack with the right plan. That way I can think through all the issues and not overlook the ramifications of my actions.

For me, processing involves writing, diagramming, and making lists. For others, it might include a mind map, talking with a team, or physically walking through the plan. Whatever the processing looks like, it’s important to include that step so that your actions are more targeted.

I am so much more productive when I pause to process before my actions. Then I can go full speed ahead to crank out that work and feel confident that I’m doing the right things in the best order.

How do you find a balance between processing and doing?

It’s been a good week

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Photo courtesy of revertebrate (Creative Commons)

Photo courtesy of revertebrate (Creative Commons)

I found myself telling someone, “It’s been a good week,” when they asked how I was yesterday. Then I realized I’m not sure what made this one stand out as being “good.”

Nothing particularly grand happened, no earth shattering news or spectacular event.

There wasn’t anything predominantly bad that occurred either – no drama or awful problems.

It was just a week. But it was a week in better focus.

What I did realize is that I am beginning to live into my mission more, and for once, I thought of my work and my life a little differently. I planned my days thinking more of how what I was doing fit into my desire to creative positive experiences for myself and others. I responded to requests with that in mind, and planned my activities around that goal.

I brought my focus to the moment more often instead of looking ahead to what was next, and planned better so I accomplished more. And while the week was not free of drama, I approached issues with resolution in mind instead of dwelling on the problem – I looked for solutions instead of whining.

It took a lot of work and attention, but I am ending the week feeling better than I have in a while. I think that effort was worth it.

What changes in your focus can you implement to improve your week?

No backup plan

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Photo courtesy of Tim Reckmann (Creative Commons)

Photo courtesy of Tim Reckmann (Creative Commons)

I was talking to a friend the other day about how busy I’ve been and he suggested I take a week off. My immediate reaction was that I can only take a day or two at a time because it’s so hard to deal with the backlog when I come back.

He asked if there was someone else who could help.

Then it hit me. It is my own fault that I am not comfortable taking off because I have not made the effort to find and train any backup.

There are plenty of excuses – I’m too busy, there’s no time to train anyone else to help, who I would train, it could get confusing, it might be done wrong.

In the end it boils down to the fact that I need to DIRECT my work and my life instead of letting it manage me.

DIRECT is one of my three focus words this year (read more here), and has been a key element in helping me improve my life.

I need to take the steps necessary to designate and train someone (or several people) to help with different aspects of my job so that I can be gone and not leave people hanging or have a backlog to come back to. Having some support would also take the pressure off when things get crazy busy.

I need to be more deliberate in planning days off instead of waiting “for a good time.” The breaks would refresh me and help me focus better when I am there instead of balancing on the edge of exhaustion.

Rest is an important part of being healthy, and not taking steps like finding backup is irresponsible. Not taking rest days from running can lead to injuries, and not taking breaks from work can lead to burnout.

Do you have a backup to help you when you are off?

Are you a diver or a wader?

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Photo courtesy of Dirk Hofmann (Creative Commons)

Photo courtesy of Dirk Hofmann (Creative Commons)

You’ve got a list of things to do a mile long. Your phone is lit up with voice mails, your physical inbox is overflowing as well as your email inbox, notes are on your desk, and everywhere notifications can come in – they have. There are stacks of work covering your desk, and you’ve got helpers waiting on instructions.

Where on earth do you begin?

Dive in – that’s what I usually do. And when I dive in without a plan, just trying to swat as many incoming alerts as possible, I end up just making a mess of everything. That’s when I go off in the wrong direction and have to backtrack, or tell people one way to do it only to confuse them later by having to show them a different way.

I make mistakes when I dive in.

Wading in is always a better plan.

Instead of being reactive, it works better if I survey the situation fully, and then decide my actions.

You can see the full scope of the work you have to do and prioritize before starting anything – that way you don’t waste time, spin your wheels or get as frustrated.

It makes much more sense to go slowly rather than to blindly start answering emails or voice mails. Get a clear picture of all the information and then make progress.

Even with a new project, the wading method makes sense. Brainstorm the project from beginning to end, develop a clear picture of what “finished” looks like, then create milestones to hit in order to reach your target completion date. If you build in checkpoints, then you won’t have to change direction as much because you will know you are on track – and even if you do have to change, it won’t be as drastic as if you dove in and headed the wrong direction.

How would you benefit by wading in rather than diving in to your next project?

Take a step back

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Photo courtesy of One Lucky Guy (Creative Commons)

Photo courtesy of One Lucky Guy (Creative Commons)

It is no fun being injured, especially when it prevents you from doing the things that you love and that you are used to doing. As a runner, being out with a pulled muscle is frustrating, but it’s important to take a step back from training to allow the time necessary to heal. If not, things will only get worse.

Last year, I pulled a hamstring muscle while training for a race, and because I continued to train instead of staying off of it, my leg took months to heal completely. Looking back, that was a lot of unnecessary pain, discomfort and frustration simply because I was too stubborn to take the break I needed to.

Recently, I pulled a calf muscle, but this time, I took measures like alternative workouts that did not stress it, and using other remedies to speed the healing process. I was only out for a week.

I see that pattern in other areas of my life too – when I’m overwhelmed by a project or situation, I tend to keep pushing through it instead of stopping and taking a break. It’s important to step away sometimes to get a new perspective or to refresh you mind and spirit instead of just forcing yourself through.

Often there are better ways to get to the goal that you just don’t see when you are in the middle of it. Stepping away to plan (or re-plan) and brainstorm with others can be invaluable because you see the situation from a different perspective.

Imagine a maze, where you continue to bump into dead ends while you are in it, but if you could step back (or up) to see it from above, the path becomes clear.

Those alternative workouts allowed my leg to heal quickly just like stepping away to plan some of my projects can help me become more efficient and productive with my work.

Where do you need to take a step back?

What is my excuse today?

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Photo courtesy of vandys (Creative Commons)

Photo courtesy of vandys (Creative Commons)

I’m tired so maybe I’ll wait to pay those bills tomorrow. It’s cold or hot or raining, so I guess I can’t run today. I have to finish this before I can do that planning, and oh, look, I ran out of time.

The day can be filled with excuses. It’s very easy to get so wrapped up in the tedium and the drudgery that you just never get to the things that might make your job or your life more meaningful.

I know for me, it’s sometimes easier to just crank through the mind-numbing busy-work rather than actually spend mental energy planning a project or figuring out a better way to do something. But at the end of the day, I’m not doing myself any favors when I think that way.

Instead, I need to banish excuses, and break out of that routine. Instead of jumping right in to the busy-work, spend an hour or two working on that plan. Instead of wasting time coming up with a reason NOT to exercise, what if I just get out there and run – or go to the gym?

When I do just get busy instead of finding an excuse, I end up feeling energized. For instance, I move emails that I need to read or spend time with into an “Action Needed” folder to review later on. I know you see this coming – what happens, then, is that frequently, by the time I’ve finished clearing the other email, and doing all the other things that seem to crop up, I make an excuse like my mind is tired or I don’t have the energy now to go back and review those emails. So suddenly, I have so many in there that it becomes overwhelming to even think about it, and I delay even more.

So recently, I decided to step over those excuses and go through those emails. What a freeing experience! Not only did I take care of some critical things that would have been disastrous left undone, but I got it back under control and now the excuses will be easier to ignore – since it won’t take much time going forward to stay on top of it.

Same with exercising – if you do it regularly, it’s not so hard and your feel those endorphins. When you skip a lot of days, it feels difficult, and you get sore and that makes you not want to do it again. So I get out there and run.

What excuses will you step over?

The little things

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Photo courtesy of Jamg_94 (Creative Commons)

Photo courtesy of Jamg_94 (Creative Commons)

It is the little things that can be my undoing.

I have been overwhelmed lately with major shifts and concerns in several areas of my life. And I have realized that because my mental power is consumed with thinking through how to handle these changes and ways to resolve the worries, little decisions or issues can send me over the edge, or freeze me in indecision.

For instance, just figuring out what to wear in the morning, what to have for supper, or what to watch on tv (or sometimes whether to even turn the tv on or not) have me wavering for far longer than I need to. I might change clothes 3 or 4 times, wasting precious time, or decide not to even eat because nothing sounds good. Not healthy.

So now that I’ve realized that, I’m taking some steps to counteract that indecision. For instance, I bought the makings of some healthy salads at the grocery, along with a couple of frozen dinners, so the dilemma about what to have for supper is less overwhelming.

Over the weekend, I made sure everything was ironed, and then I took a few moments to plan a few outfits so I can just grab and go each morning. What a huge time and sanity saver that is!

I planned out my week, so that I knew what I needed to accomplish at work, what meetings to prepare for, and what blocks of time were needed for projects. I even put some of that on my calendar to take the pressure off as to what to start and work on during the day.

What a difference it has made in my week! Not only am I more focused on what I need to get done, but I have more positive energy and mental capacity. I’ve written here about how difficult Tuesdays tend to be for me, and I even had a good Tuesday!

The flip side of this is that by taking care of these little things that can cause a day to go wrong, it frees me up to enjoy those little things that definitely make a day go right – like enjoying a beautiful sunrise, a cup of coffee with a friend, or breakfast on the porch. What you overlook when you are stressed out about other things can be the difference-maker in your day.

What little things do you need to take care of so you can have a better day?

I’d like a second opinion

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Photo courtesy of Massey (Creative Commons)

Photo courtesy of Massey (Creative Commons)

I have a friend who is having some health issues, and his specialist has ordered a battery of rather complicated tests, even while he admits that he thinks the problem is elsewhere.

My friend is seeking a second opinion so that he can get a clearer picture of what his options are before undergoing these potentially unnecessary tests that will likely just confirm that his symptoms are related to a different diagnosis.

It is critical to have a clear picture of the problem so you can calmly and logically consider all your options for treatment, and that means looking at the condition from different perspectives and directions.

This same process should be used in business as well, but too often, we go barreling down a path without stopping for a second opinion. Assumptions can be dangerous, and if we think we know why sales are down without looking at the entire situation, we may craft a solution that just makes the problem worse. Reorganizing your staff’s duties without thoroughly considering all the implications can just create additional issues of confusion and oversight.

In a cost-cutting effort at one company I worked for, a rash decision was made to cut out a level of supervisory positions without considering the strengths and skills needed for the newly created positions. The consideration across the board was an arbitrary rating system based on most recent performance appraisal rather than suitability for the new position. As jobs were dissolved and people reassigned many were set up for failure. Had the decision-makers sought another opinion about the situation, those types of oversights might have been avoided and the move could have been a more positive one for the company.

Spend more time analyzing the situation before acting, so that you can make an informed decision that will address all the issues at hand. Be sure to:

  • Pull together a team of people, including some who work behind the scenes, who are familiar with the nuts and bolts of the business to help you brainstorm.
  • Take the time to review the circumstances, and look at all the options, even the ones that might seem illogical at first.
  • Understand how any changes will affect your processes and framework so you don’t create another set of problems.

Once you have considered all of your options, you will be able to make an informed decision that will improve the situation and get the business, or your health, back on track.

What situations are you currently facing in which you should seek a second opinion?