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Archive for August, 2012|Monthly archive page

The Outside Job

In Work/Life Balance on August 22, 2012 at 8:32 pm

Can you blame Mini Darth? I’d take a telework day too if this were my morning view.

For unexpected reasons (hint: I was hit by a car over the weekend and wound up with a bum knee but thankfully nothing beyond that), I found myself unable to go into work this week.  As bruised as my body may have been, my mind was sound and felt restless in the confines of the house, even with the prospect of filling some of the time with my writing project.  Not to mention that I had anticpated a busy work week and there were things that I simply needed to get done. Enter into the scene one of most intriguing developments in the modern workplace over the last 20+ years: telework.

I have to admit that I have hesitated in embracing the telework trend, despite the increasing ease of doing so over the last year or so in my workplace.  Now don’t get me wrong here – I firmly believe that employers should judge their employees by the extent to which they reach their clearly defined work and output objectives ala the much lauded Results-Oriented Work Environment.  As my mother would say, BIC (butt in chair) managers are so seized with making sure that they can keep track of their employee’s whereabouts that they forget about the reasons why they have said employees: to get things done.  BIC managers are inefficient and often insecure, which is what leads them down such a dangerous management path.

At the same time, telework is still such a new concept, and if utilized in the wrong situation, it can be awfully hard to determine what exactly it is that an employee is doing with their time.  This is especially true in situations (such as my own) where employees are working without clearly defined and measurable objectives.  Add to this an incredibly laid-back managerial style, and you have the recipe for a potential telework disaster.  (Not all of us have situations like the one that NextGov.com describes at the Defense Information Systems Agency, where telework standards and methods of evaluation are clear and equitable.)

I can’t be the only one who, over the past few months, has witnessed the results of people teleworking in these less than optimal situations.  One of the classics is the “telework vacation,” that all too common situation when someone “teleworks,” but somehow never manages to send or respond to a single email, can’t be reached by phone, and somehow never finishes whatever it is they set out to do in the first place.  While I hate to use things likes emails and phone calls as proxies for real work, the fact is that when you work in a situation without clear deliverables, you have to resort to something.

Yet another is the “out of office” telework day, in which the individual puts up an out of office message to let their colleagues know that they simply won’t be as responsive today – after all, they are teleworking.  And unsurprisingly, they really are not very responsive at all.  It’s the perfect self-fulfilling prophecy.   These “out of office” teleworkers drive me almost as crazy as the “vacation” teleworkers.  The whole point of telework is that you are as responsive and productive as you would be on any other day, plain and simple.

Witnessing these and other examples of telework mis-use, I was loathe to add myself to the same pool.  I have, however, been delightfully surprised to discover this week that not only can telework be enjoyable and preferable to sitting in a dusty old cube all day (and listening to co-workers deal with their personal issues over the telephone), but on top of that, telework can actually be ridiculously productive.  With the right environment (for me, my quiet living room with music playing softly in the background), away from the distractions of the workplace (and drive-by taskers from the higher-ups), and with the right method of focus (mine’s simple – I love making prioritized lists and yes, I am a strong J in the Myers-Briggs), I have discovered that telework actually really does work.  And truth be told, it seems to work even better than my normal work.  Amazing.

The reality is that I work in a situation where I really do need to be in the office at least a few times a week.  And I love it, if it means meaningful interactions with a dynamic group of co-workers.  Yet, if I’ve discovered anything this week, it’s that I could afford to shake up my workplace routine by adopting some kind of regularly scheduled telework.  Maybe once a week, maybe once every two weeks.  Someday, maybe it’ll even be up to several times a week.  Either way, it’ll contribute to my overall workplace satisfaction, drive up my productivity, and will help me regain some of the focus that seems to disappear in the day to day crush of normal office life.  That will translate into extra time, energy, and focus that can then be used for some of the other important things in my life. And finally, if the GSA is right, it could even save my employer some serious money too.  Everybody wins.

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Stop Reflecting and Start Writing

In Writing on August 12, 2012 at 11:07 am

Too much reflection can sometimes be a bad thing.

“Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.” So said Émile Coué, a famous French psychotherapist, who was strongly believed in the power of the unconscious thought for transforming our lives. This quote came to me this morning, as I was thinking about motivation and ways to create lasting, effective daily habits, particularly in relation to my writing. We’ve been told in the past by great minds such as the late Stephen Covey that it takes at least 21 days to create a true habit. In the scheme of things, 21 days doesn’t really seem that long. After all, it’s less than a month, and you can almost count it using both all of your hands and toes. (In the realm of kindergartners, this must make it very approachable.)

Yet when I think about my life and about the busy schedule that I build up for myself – work engagements, happy hours, birthdays for friends, dinner parties, music shows, travel, exercise, and the myriad of other things that fill the hours of each day – those 21 uninterrupted days seem much more daunting than previously thought. Especially when, as seems to be the case with my writing, it may mean having to cut back on something important, such as sleep or time with my partner. When you look at it that way, not only is the 21 days harder than initially expected, but on top of that, it requires some serious prioritization and tough decisions to actually implement.

Tony Schwartz has a number of thoughts on the subject. One of his biggest pieces of advice, which I first read in his excellent book The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working is that if you are truly committed to making a new habit, it is important to actually schedule it. It’s not enough to say, “I’m going to go swimming twice a week” or “I’m going to write 5000 words a week.” If you do this and only this, the likelihood of that commitment turning into concrete action is minimal at best. If you take that commitment, however, and make it more specific and time bound, say “I will go swimming every Tuesday and Thursday morning at 6am,” and then put it on your calendar, then you really might go through with it. Based on my personal experiences, I find this to be true.

On top of this, Tony Schwartz is also a big advocate for reducing the number of conscious decisions that we need to make on a daily basis, in order to better utilize our limited capacity for focus. In a HBR blog post titled “Why You Need to Make Your Life More Automatic,” Schwartz writes: “the sheer number of choices we must make each day — what foods to eat, what products to buy, what information merits our attention, what tasks to prioritize — can be overwhelming.” Feeling overwhelmed, it appears, it only one side effect of this multiplicity of choices. One of the most harmful effects, as I see it manifest in my own life, is that when I begin to feel overwhelmed, I simply do nothing or, sometimes even worse, fall back into a deep self-reflection mode that replaces all action with thinking, thinking, and more thinking until I’m effectively paralyzed. Schwartz’s advice in this scenario is to slow down, take stock of one’s emotional state, and then work towards automating the things that are most important to us in life. In my case, this would mean rather than waking up each morning and asking myself the question, “should I write today? or “what are my reasons for wanting to write today?,” I should just wake up every morning and just do it, simple as that.

But even with these important tips, I’ve still struggled with making writing a regular part of my life. First of all, my prioritization seems to sometimes change from week to week, which throws my carefully planned writing schedule out the door. Secondly, I am a chronic over-thinker. If something doesn’t seem to work at first, I’m more likely to retreat back into brainstorm mode than to continue implementation. Thirdly, I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that for me, it is not enough to say that I’ll do something only a few times a week, even if I’ve actually taken the time to schedule the activity. If I do that, the reality is that after a week or two, I’ll fade back into my old habits and whatever I was trying to achieve will fall to the wayside. It appears that I am not the only one in this respect. In a recent blog post, Gretchen Rubin, happiness guru extraordinaire, writes that “’It’s often easier to do something every day than to do it some days.’” She believes this so strongly, in fact, that it’s one of her basic Secrets to Adulthood. Here, Rubin’s point dovetails nicely with what Schwartz recommends. It boils down simply to this: if you really want to do something, then do it every day and make it as automatic/unconscious as possible.

When I look at this solution, I can also begin to see why I sometimes struggle with forming new habits, despite my good intentions. Habits, at their heart, are about unconscious action, which follows from a period of conscious self-reflection and decision-making. In my case, I tend to over-emphasize the self-reflection portion of this process. First, I reflect. Then I make a resolution. Then I self-reflect some more about why I made the resolution. Then I start to implement the process, but end up doing so very consciously, constantly questioning and self-reflecting along the way. Two or three weeks into the process, it’s no surprise that rather than forming a habit, I’ve only managed to fill the pages of my journal with all kinds of questions about my motivation or lack thereof. Eventually I give up, begin another period of self-reflection, and soon after, make a new resolution…and so the process starts itself all over again.

The good news to all of this is that now that I am conscious of my tendencies, I can now begin working to improve them. Over the next month, I’m going to put these pieces of advice to work. I will create a daily writing habit, at the same time every day, and I will do so automatically. No more giving myself the option to write or not, no more hitting the snooze button or pretending as if I will do it later. No more writing page after page in my journal about how I can’t seem to drum up the motivation to write. Thinking is great, up to a certain point. But this next month is all about action. My mantra will be simple: automatic is easy.