Whittling away at a Block of Wood (or several)

whittling-291014_1280This week I’m faced with a daunting challenge. I had numerous projects this week, none of which could be done in one sitting and all of which have high priority, plus the usual influx of email pounding my in-box like the water at Niagara.

Does any of this sound familiar to challenges you may have in the workplace?

The week is still not over but I am starting to count it as a success based on the work that I have accomplished. We all know that when tackling a large project we should break it down to small steps. But what about when you have multiple projects? But what about times when you cannot finish the project in one sitting, either because you are waiting for information or, you need to have a little bit of time to reflect and think about the next steps?

In my case this week I combined habit 3 from the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, First Things First, with some of the micro resolution strategies from Caroline Arnold’s bookSmall Move, Big Change: Using Microresolutions to Transform Your Life Permanently. First, I blocked out specific hours during the week that I would work on each project. Then I broke down the project into a series of smaller steps so that when the time came to start working on it I would not have to think about which step was first, second and so forth. If the steps still seemed too big or daunting, I broke them down into even smaller steps such as finding the right file or filling out some basic information on a form before I moved to the stuff I needed to put thought into.

I also attempted to avoid responding to tons of email as it poured in and out, until after the workday. The problem with responding to email as it comes in is you end up in several different conversations at once. It is the equivalent of having people drop into your office every 10 minutes for a “quick question,” (which, as you know are never quick).

Micro resolutions are rooted in the power of leverage. Many times we can find ways to get things done at work or professionally but still struggle personally such as in the areas of diet and nutrition, clutter, and punctuality. We all know that if we were to master these areas our entire quality of life would be improved tremendously. So why don’t we just go do that? Because it is one thing to know it is another thing to do.

  • Diet and Nutrition: one of the top New Year’s resolutions every year is to lose weight (Arnold 103), at least for Americans, which sadly is one of the most obese nations in the world today. The problem with most diets of course is that they work in the short term but they are not sustainable. Also, many diets are designed to offer immediate results so that you stick with them, but again this is not sustainable. For a diet to be effective it needs to be a lifestyle change, that is effective and sustainable over the long haul (you know, like the rest of your life).“The only way to succeed at eating less, is to be satisfied with less,” Arnold 104. It does you no good to lose 15 pounds in a month if you regain it back the next month, but if you lose 2 pounds and keep it off for life you should count that as a success (Arnold 104).Use micro resolutions: first, sleep. When you don’t get enough sleep you try to replace the lack of energy with food. Second, add some whole foods to your diet and start cutting down on the Pop-Tarts, commercial cereals, bagels and other carbs (Arnold 108). You don’t have to eliminate them completely just replace them with something else, sometimes. After a while you will see the benefits and will likely begin to eliminate more of these empty calorie foods. Third, drink – water that is. Many times we think we are hungry but we are actually just dehydrated. Hydration improves brain function, elevates mood, supports short-term memory, boosts endurance and enables athletic performance, plus helps keep you full and satisfied (Arnold 113).
  • Clutter: it does not matter how hard you try to justify it to clients, customers and supervisors, when there is clutter all over your workspace people just see inefficiency. It does not mean you need to be a neat freak but you should have a system for finding what you need to find, when you need to find it (and definitely before the deadline). Many people I know will try to tell me that they understand they have a messy workspace but they know where everything is when they need it. I love testing this theory and they always fail. The old saying that a clean desk is the sign of a sick mind (or whatever it is). That’s not true by the way – that’s a saying invented by people with messy desks.Use micro resolutions to start reducing the clutter. You don’t have to clean up your entire desk just decide that there is one little corner you’re going to defend as empty space. Do not allow anything there. Later you can start to add other areas. You will also need to build a few organizational systems so you know where you can put things and how to find them, both from a real paper perspective and a computer filing perspective. There are plenty of books on how to get organized but the key here is to understand that you don’t need to do it all at once. Just start with one spot, some space on your desk or a drawer.
  • Punctuality: I admit it. This is a big one for me. The other day when I mentioned that I would be showing up 45 seconds before a tee time, my dad commented “oh, you’re going to be early this time?” I have been late most of my life. Part of the problem I identified is that I don’t like showing up early and standing around waiting for everyone else. I feel that it is a waste of time, but as I have gotten older I realized that I am not respecting the people I’m meeting, because it is their time I am wasting by being late.I have found that preparation is the core strategy for combating lateness and that 15 minutes of preparation the night before is less stressful than 15 minutes in the morning (Arnold 197). Since I travel quite a bit I am frequently confronted with the decision to “do those last few little preparation things,” before I go to bed at night or decide that I’ll do them before I leave for the airport the next morning. If you want to be on time, do it the night before. In the morning there is less flexibility to account for variables like oversleeping, traffic, kid-emergencies, and also in the morning with additional stress levels and increased cortisol, your brain does not function as well and you are more likely to forget something.

Every year, the U.S. Navy flight demonstration team the Blue Angels gets together in El Centro, California to begin working on “the demo.” All of that precision flying that you see at an air show comes from hundreds of hours of preparation, preceded by thousands of hours of actual training and flying, but for the 18 inch wing tip to wing tip separation that the Blue Angels maintain, it takes hours of small corrections as they practice the maneuvers over and over again. They call it “whittling away at a block of wood.” Once they are done they have a spectacular show that has inspired thousands of young aviators since World War II.

Using the power of micro resolutions, while I did not accomplish every single thing I had hoped to accomplish this week, I did get the Big Rocks done and I set myself up for success in the coming weeks.

Over the past few weeks I have also used micro resolutions to make some other small changes, such as leaving just a few minutes earlier for appointments, slowing down when I eat to enjoy the taste and sensation of my food, rather than wolfing it down, and focusing more on some renewal time each day, even if that is just a few minutes of novel reading or a few minutes of mindless TV just to relax. I have noticed improvements in several areas of my life as a result. Once I feel these micro resolutions are firmly ingrained I will look to add a few more to keep whittling away at this block of wood.

Arnold, Caroline L. Small Move, Big Change: Using Microresolutions to Transform Your Life Permanently. NY, NY: Viking, 2014. Print.

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