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Archive for April, 2010

Valuing Uncertainty

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

Being aboslutely certain about what’s supposed to happen next can be a major obstacle–on the job and in your personal life.

There’s a big difference between being ready for what comes next and deciding you know exactly what is going to come next.  The former is like returning the ball in a tennis match.  You need to do what you can to be ready to deal with what come at you, but you are well aware that you won’t know what that is until it’s on the way.

Assuming you know what’s coming next is like deciding your opponent is going to lob the ball and positioning yourself for that specific likelihiid before the shot.  You’re out of position for every other shot that might come once the ball is on the way.  Much it seems carefully thought, it’s far less effective–in tennis and in life.

When you decide you know something you really can’t know, you’ve essentially devalued information about all the other possibilities.  It becomes part of the “background noise” that your sensory system filters out before you even realize they’re there. You don’t get to decide about that information because you’ve already decided it isn’t relevant.  Except it is!

Ellen Langer puts it well in her 2009 book, Counterclockwise:  Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility :  “Certainty is a cruel mindset.”  She makes the point relative to medical care and illness, but it’s equally true for career planning, interpersonal relationships, and romance.

We get a lot of advice to “ask for what you want” and “visualize your ideal” but there’s a downside to that approach.  If I ask for a chocolate chip cookie and the person to whom I made the request is both capable of and willing to give me a glorious box of handmade chocolate truffles instead, I will never know what I missed out on.  If I write down that I want “a regular fulltime job with good benefits,” the chance to do something with an unconventional work schedule that suits me better will never hit my radar.

Yes, we need to know what we need and want.  And we need to be effective in expressing it.  But do the specifics make a difference?  If not, don’t use them.  “A meaningful job doing challenging works with pay that covers my needs” leaves a lot more room for positive surprises than “a senior level accounting job in a Fortune 500 firm.”

To give yourself direction, be specific about what you need rather than what kind of clothes you’re going to be wearing when you get it.

In that same vein, stay open to being open.  Don’t rule anything out until you really look at it.  It’s easy to say you’re open to new directions, but it takes a concerted effort to get your mind to go to those unfamiliar places.  Look for the unusual possibilities and look at them when they appear.

Life is an adventure.  None of us know what is going to come next.  The better you get at dealing with what does (instead of deciding what should have) the more enjoyable the adventure will be.  And the better you will set things up for the next positive surprise.


How Much Work Is Enough?

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

Well, how much work is “enough”?

And how much is too much?

And how much is too little?

Work is both bigger and more important than “what the boss tells me to do.”  Even after you retire, some work, some of the times will need to be part of the picture.  How much of it you need in your life is not going to be the same as what your spouse, mom, kids, or best friend needs.  Work is a uniquely personal thing, yet we don’t often look at it that way.

What’s the most important thing about work for you?  The chance to excel?  The confirmation of competence that comes from getting paid?  Money to pay the bills?  The opportunity to make a difference? To solve a complex problem?  Knowing what’s the most important thing about work for you gives you a much better shot at being satisfied when you work.

It also will give you good clues about “how much is enough?”  If you are in it for the extrinsic motivators–a paycheck, a title, or recognition within a community, enough to get that will be all you need.  If you are in it for the intrinsic motivators–the chance to solve a problem, make a difference or be part of a highly productive team, the limiits are higher.  And the challenge of keeping your work  in balance with the rest of the things you want in your life is greater.

But how much is enough?  That, too, is personally defined.  The crazy thing is that we are all married to this “fulltime” mindset without any real evaluation of what would work best for us as individuals.

Have you ever had to work fewer hours–for less pay–because of a downturn?  Did you like having that extra time for other things?  Could you live on that number of work hours on an on-going basis?

Others of us are working ourselves to a frazzle because we’re among the few left on board after deep and repeated staffing cuts.  Does the job do enough for you overall that you want to continue that unbalanced crazy race?

Some of us were forced into retirement–or took  it willingly.    Is not working at all working for you? Are you doing working you aren’t calling work?

We all need work.  What kind and how much is a far more personal decision than we usually make it.


You DO have enough time–REALLY!

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

It’s not “how much” time we have, it’s how we use it. Most of us spend our days trying to get more done than there’s time for.  When we retire, we have time in our days but we start to see the whole of our remaining lives as too short to do the things we want to do. Both of these approaches rely on the mistaken idea that “There’s not enough time.” Most of what we blame on the amount of time we have is really the result of not using what we have effectively.

Have you ever been in a tight spot time-wise where you had to get a lot of things done quickly? Your performance goes up two notches. You focus on only what must be done with laser-like sharpness. Quite often, everything gets done with time to spare. If you can do that in the extreme circumstances, why can’t you do it every day? Because we don’t take charge of our time that way on a day to day basis.

You can “have enough time” if you do these three things:

  • Be clear about what you really want to be spending it on.

If your ten-year-old son (or grandson) walks in the door bleeding profusely because of an accident with his bicycle, your time needs to go in a new direction. But when he asks you to drive him to the skate park? Too often, whatever anyone else asks of us gets priority over what we really want to get done. Some of those things are unhealthy along with being off path. (Office gossip, smoke breaks, and petty arguments and gossip fests are easy examples.) Nobody wins when we do that. Letting other people take whatever of your time they choose puts your own life on hold. Not fair—and in the case of children, a really wrong message to send about how the world works

But what if it’s your boss that’s doing the asking (or telling)? Well, there are times to draw the line there, too. How much of your week should legitimately be dedicated to your job? For many of us, that number is well beyond “40 hours a week”–but it should not be infinity. “Okay” may need to be replaced with “I can do that, but which of these other things do you want me to leave undone to get to it?”

  • Be strong in saying “no” to things that aren’t part of your priorities.

Your best friend calls suggesting a Saturday shopping trip. You’ve been planning to redo your garage storage with your sweetie that day. Do you say yes to your friend because, well, she’s your friend? Or maybe your sweetie tries to opt out because one of his buddies has suggested a golf game. If you get that laser focus going, you can do both, but do the thing with the priority first.

Your success with “no” is going to be a function of how you go about it. Sometimes you don’t even have to say it—you just have to not say “yes.” Sometimes the “no” that you need will come out as “Thanks for that input. I need to get back to this project now.” Sometimes it will be “Great to see you” as you walk the person to the door. Kindness and saying “yes” aren’t synonymous. True friendship rests on mutual respect and good business relationships depend on sincerity. If you don’t want to spend time on the interruption, say so with a smile and get on with what you need to do.

  • Commit to spending every single second of your time well.

We assume we need huge chunks of time to do big projects. Quite often, the small bits that are available in the everyday routine can be just as effective if you use them regularly so the word done can accumulate. Every big job is a collection of little jobs that need to be done in a particular order. This is just as true of writing a novel as putting in a vegetable garden. Ticking off one or two of those little things several times a week will get you a lot farther than waiting for that big chunk of time. Those rarely materialize.

Committing to using every minute well becomes even more essential when you retire. It’s easy to fritter away the remaining decades of your life doing “whatever.” Most of us have no idea how long our lives will be. It’s far better to plan for the long run and die before you get it done than die years after you ran out of things you wanted to do. Make a long list. Add to it again and again. Be bold–if you want to get a degree in paleontology the year your turn 87, go for it!

Your time is yours. Covet it. Use it on purpose.