Ever had the kind of day where you just collapse face-first into the couch, pull a blanket over yourself, and cry?
I was having that kind of day. A nine-hour workday including four hours of meetings, a half-hour gap, and then a two-hour meeting for my volunteer commitment. So tired I couldn’t see straight. I couldn’t get warm and my hand tremors were back, one of the lingering after-effects of COVID.
I had hit the wall.
It’s the same thing in marathon training. You hit your physical limits, and just when you’re already exhausted and in pain, a whole new set of fun symptoms pops out of the closet. Oh, you thought that was a wall? Nope, it turns out it there’s an entire room on the other side!
There I lay, trying to will myself to get up and get camera-ready (which did not, in the end, happen. Take me as I am). My hubby came over and started rubbing my back.
“It’s only Wednesday!” I wailed.
I’m not a crier, as a rule, unless I’m running a distance race. For some reason, running sets off all my emotions. I cry because I love my friends so much, I cry because the weather is so beautiful, I cry because I just set a PR, I cry because I can already imagine the giant meal I’m going to eat at the finish line. None of that bothers me.
Crying when I’m ill, though, is something I find humiliating and pathetic. One more thing that makes me feel worse when I really don’t need anything else.
I got up after ten minutes - which feels like a long time when you’re bottoming out - and started getting my equipment set up. I was so tired I kept forgetting stuff. “I just made eight trips back and forth for four things!”
Then I logged on to my meeting, and everything changed.
There were the faces of my friends, colleagues, and companions. This is what gets me through, the same as it does on the race course. Connecting with people I care about somehow taps into a well of energy, even when I’m at my lowest physical ebb.
This was a transition meeting, a sort of farewell to the previous year, passing the torch to the new team. Everything is a relay when you think about it.
I didn’t feel like I had anything to offer that night. What advice did I have? Uh, try not to die in office? Don’t be me? I felt like I had failed at every single one of the big plans I had at the beginning of the program year. I had campaigned on a platform, and I hadn’t made progress on any of the grand plans I had, nary a one.
When I looked back over the past year, I didn’t know how to avoid cataloguing my woes and tribulations:
“Let’s see, I started this journey with a root canal and sutures in my mouth, we moved, our dog died, I had an antibiotic-resistant staph infection, had surgery and four stitches in my midsection, was on four separate courses of antibiotics, my husband almost went blind in one eye, and then I almost died of COVID-19. Any questions?”
(You’d never guess from looking at me that I recently developed the medical file of an elderly person)
But then we went into discussion, and here were the new recruits, so bright and ambitious and excited about the year before them. I welcomed them to start asking questions, and that’s when it turned around for me.
Because it wasn’t about me.
I never had to rattle off my piteous tale because it was irrelevant to the discussion. Nobody was asking me to explain myself or make excuses for why I didn’t reach all my personal goals. Nobody likely even remembered my platform from last year.
What mattered was that somehow or other, we made it. We made it as a team. We kept things together well enough to pass them on to a new group, a new group who wanted only one thing from us: information.
Well, actually something more, something that a new group never really realizes they are asking for, which is encouragement. This is one thing I can claim about my leadership skills, that I work hard to make an emotional connection with my team and help reinforce their confidence in their own intuition, their own judgment, their right to lead in their own style.
It helps to start out with the assumption that the people you are leading are smarter and more talented than you are, that they’ll surpass you, and that when they inevitably have your job they’ll do it better than you do. If any of that is true, it will mean that you’ve done the most you can do, which is to make others stronger and better than they started.
At the beginning of the year, I probably would have pictured myself in full makeup, dazzling everyone with a packet of materials and a carefully polished inspirational speech. Instead I sat at my dining table, wrapped in an old afghan. It was fine.
It turns out that what inspires people, one way or another, is all the parts of your personal example that you can’t control. People will form impressions of your behavior that you may never know. (And may prefer not to find out!) What my team shared about working with me was how lucky they felt to be a part of a tight-knit group. In my mind, they built that, and in their minds, I did.
Looking back, I have to remind myself of how far I’ve come in four years. I started out so afraid to stand up and speak that my whole body would shake - and now I’m worried about a little hand tremor? I had never even heard of any of the offices I wound up holding or any of the awards I would go on to win. I never dreamed I would serve in a leadership role at all, much less one during a time of such turbulence.
I’m still tired, about as tired as I’ve ever been. I still doubt myself and whether I can handle whatever it is I’m currently trying to handle, just as much as I’ve ever doubted myself. Somehow, though, it seems that I keep feeling tired and doubting myself after bigger and bigger accomplishments.
This is why it’s important to acknowledge the wall. There is definitely a wall and it definitely feels as materially tangible as any other physical object. Walls, though, can be climbed. They can be toppled. They can serve as infrastructure and you can paint them and grow vines on them.
I hit a wall, because I was worn out and feeling sorry for myself. Connecting with other people helped remind me that sometimes we wear ourselves out for good reasons. Just because I’m tired doesn’t mean it’s time to quit, or that I have nothing left.
The next time I hit the wall, I wonder where I’ll be and what I’ll be doing?
For all the advice out there to Find Your Passion or Follow Your Bliss or whatever, there is very little recognition that most people don’t actually know what they want. Most people don’t have a passion! Rather than feel motivated or inspired by this kind of talk, they feel inadequate, like they’re missing something. The truth is that it doesn’t require anything like passion, motivation, or inspiration to find happiness and live a pretty great life.
Also, it isn’t as hard as it seems to figure out what you want.
What most people do, when asked what they want, is to start talking about what they don’t want. Seriously, if you charged them a hundred dollars each time they said what they DON’T want instead of what they do, they would notice and they would keep doing it anyway.
It’s simply the natural reaction when people don’t have a clear picture of something they would like better than the status quo.
This is why it’s so helpful to write these things out on two separate and distinct pieces of paper. Paper, so you can put them in your journal, tape them to your wall, clip them to the visor of your car, carry them in your wallet, post them on your fridge, or pin them up in your cubicle at work.
What’s your favorite color? Okay, that’s the DO WANT list. If you don’t want to use a solid color of paper, then make a colored border around the edge or use colored ink. Or not. This is your first choice, your first opportunity to express your preferences.
What’s a color you don’t like? Can’t think of one? Okay, then use beige or gray. That’s the DON’T WANT list.
Every time you think of something that you DON’T WANT, write it on the ugly page with your don’t-wants.
The pretty page is only for stuff you know you DO WANT.
Whenever you start getting wound around the axle about things you don’t want, you can put the ugly page and the pretty page next to each other, then drag them farther and farther apart. Remember that what you do not want has nothing whatsoever to do with what you do want.
When you go out for tacos, you don’t have to think about pizza or sushi. It’s not on the table. It’s not up for consideration.
You’ve chosen. It really is that simple and straightforward when you know exactly what you want.
Almost all choices are non-zero-sum. That means that just because you choose it, does not mean you’re locked in. If you get tacos on Tuesday, you can have sushi on Wednesday and pizza on Thursday. No problem. You can even do one for lunch and one for dinner, or go nuts and have all of them on the same plate!
Almost all choices are minor and inconsequential, as well. Whatever it is that you’re planning to eat for dinner, it will only change your life if you get food poisoning. If you’re the kind of person who worries about that as a legitimate option every time you go out to eat, maybe you could… learn to cook your own meals? Just saying.
Worrying about What If all the time tends to destroy most options. Decision paralysis can take so long that the option expires.
My brothers and I got into an argument one evening. The one didn’t want to go to a restaurant where all three of us had been recently. Fine, we said, Where do you want to go?
I don’t want to go [there]! he replied.
Right, fine, we’ll go anywhere you want. You pick. Where do you want to go?
We went back and forth like that about eight times, and finally we agreed that we would just eat separately. It was nuts. Now, when the three of us get together, we often cook at home. It turns out that my brother’s “I don’t like that restaurant” energy was really more of an “I am willing to make my own beer-battered onion rings and bake my own bread” energy.
This is why it can be tricky to differentiate between the do-wants and the don’t-wants.
“I don’t want to be single anymore” is very different from “I want to marry someone who already has at least two kids” or “I think I might be into polyamory” or “Hmm, maybe I should get a roommate.”
The more specific you are, the easier it is to get what you want - because you know what it is!
One great way to break free from a stuck paradigm is to start asking people about themselves. If you can’t think of what job you want to do, get everyone you meet talking about how they chose their job and what they like about it.
If you don’t like your town and you think you want to move, ask people what they do and don’t like about their hometown. Weekend trips to various cities can be similar in cost to a weekend of going to the movie theater, getting brunch, and going out for drinks back home.
Try things out! It’s a good way to get information without feeling forced into a commitment.
I’m an extremely decisive person and I feel like it makes my life much easier. None of my choices are the end of the world. My clothes, what I eat, what I read, what music I play, what movie I will see, all of these rate an absolute zero on difficulty of choosing. I did put a lot of thought into it before I got married for the second time, but I haven’t regretted my choice of husband or my choice to remarry. That’s because I knew my page of DON’T WANTs was only 10% of the information, and I needed to be clear about the DO WANTs.
Knowing what you want is fine. It does not have to be selfish or greedy - and remember to write down all these negative thoughts on the DON’T WANT page. Good information. What job you have, where you live, your choice of workout, and what you like to eat really don’t impact anyone else. It doesn’t take anything away from other people when you get what you want. It is perfectly okay and safe to have preferences, and if all you’re doing is writing them down, then nobody even has to know.
This book is a gem by one of the all-time greatest motivational speakers and writers, the inimitable Mel Robbins. It’s more than inspirational, though. It provokes insight and emotional breakthroughs that are impossible to forget or ignore. Usually we know what we ought to be doing to move toward our dreams, so the question is, Why aren’t we? Stop Saying You’re Fine helps to answer that.
A key point to the book is that we already have all the information we need. Almost every dream is a dream that someone else has, too, and chances are that millions of people have done it before. That’s what I told myself when I was training for my marathon. If millions of people have done it, then surely I can, and I did, even when I was being passed by various para-athletes such as a blind runner with a seeing eye dog. The instructions are there, the workbooks are there, the teachers and coaches are there. When we finally decide to move forward, we will do it surrounded by resources, information, and support.
The problem is what we call Resistance. It’s the feeling of not wanting to do something, even though you believe you should. Resistance comes up in different forms for everyone. For instance, I feel it most when I have to make a business call. I’ll happily wash someone’s sink full of dishes or fold all the laundry on their couch if only they’ll make calls for me. Once we start recognizing the feeling of Resistance for what it is, it becomes easier to call it out and to catch ourselves acting out boring old patterns.
The solution that Mel Robbins teaches is to figure out a bunch of small steps toward your goal, pick one, and then TAKE ACTION within five seconds. This trains the impulse and strengthens the connection between thought and implementation. If I think, I should call my friend, and I do it, then I’ve done something positive. If instead I let that impulse slip away without calling, I may start to replace my positive feeling with guilt. I’ll then waste the time I could have been chatting with someone I like, and the exact same minutes could go toward reinforcing a negative impression of myself. When I do something within those five seconds, I get two rewards, the satisfaction of doing the thing and the freedom from beating myself up after procrastinating.
Mel Robbins is a coach, and this book comes from years of working with individuals and conducting workshops. This stuff works. I even used it to get this review written. If you have a tendency to procrastinate or you feel stuck on something, please treat yourself to the delightful and transformational experience of reading this book - Stop Saying You’re Fine.
Everything you could ever need to live the life you want is right there at your fingertips.
You are very powerful when you put your mind to it.
The snooze button is the perfect symbol of human resistance, and the emblem of anyone who feels stuck.
If you hear yourself ever saying “It is what it is,” that’s not the powerful you talking.
We are all stuck in some area of our life, pretending it’s not that bad so we can justify doing nothing.
If your mind can kill a great idea by dampening it with emotional turmoil, it will.
In any area of your life that you want to change, adopt this rule. Just do the things that you don’t want to do.
You need to hear this loud and clear: No one is coming. It is up to you.
Recognizing and seizing these moments is like opening a doorway into an alternate universe where your life is not governed by routine.
If there’s a way to avoid doing anything, you’ll do it, even though it won’t make you happy.
You’re actively trying to convince yourself that it’s okay to feel disappointed with yourself on a regular basis.
You will never just wake up with the motivation and fortitude that you’ve been missing for years.
The only choice you have is to force yourself to change whether you feel like it or not.
The only wrong choice is to do nothing.
The Third Door is an incredibly entertaining book. It’s also a story about how to create your own luck. Alex Banayan set out on a self-created quest to interview a series of famously successful people, even though he knew no one and came from a family of immigrants. What follows is The Third Door, Banayan’s account of blind optimism, persistence, doubt, failure, awkwardness, and, of course, dizzying success.
That’s what makes this book destined to be a classic, and guarantees that “the third door” will become a common catchphrase in entrepreneurial circles.
“The third door” is the one that geniuses create for themselves by bypassing the ordinary way of doing things. Most of us get the first door, the main entrance. Those born to wealth and privilege get the second door. During his interviews, Alex Banayan discovered that what the most interesting people had in common, even though they didn’t know it, was the initiative they took in making their own door.
You know, “Hey Kool-Aid!” *crash*
(If you’re too young to get that joke, congratulations! You have more time than you think and your whole life is ahead of you).
The Third Door could have been a compilation of interviews, and it would have been a good one, or maybe just an ordinary, mainstream one. Instead Banayan structures it around his quest, focusing on all the stumbles and bumbles and what it took every time he had an inspired moment or gained an ally. This book is about the thought process. It’s also about the emotional reality of committing to something big, a public quest, and how scary it can get every time it isn’t easy, which is most of the time.
Banayan’s process would probably work for anyone who is genuinely trying to create a third door of their own. Get an Inside Man, someone who will help you to connect with the person you want to talk to. Be grateful and polite. Stay in touch with and befriend the various people you meet. Be likable. Have people check your work and edit your cover letters. Get a mentor and pay close attention to their advice.
Perhaps most of all, do your research. Banayan’s biggest score came after an enormous amount of research to find someone he wanted for a mentor. He made several guesses as to the person’s email address, got a two-line response, and dropped everything to accommodate that person’s schedule. He trusted his gut, but only because he had done so much research beforehand.
Banayan had a lot to overcome. Shyness and stage fright, social awkwardness, lack of resources. Really a boy like him had no business even thinking about this project, much less attempting it. He did it anyway, figuring out the rules as he went along.
I loved The Third Door as an example of possibility thinking. I also loved it as a madcap adventure story. It’s a fun book that would make a perfect gift for a young graduate.
The Achievement Habit is a completely amazing book with the potential to change lives. It joins the exalted ranks of Books I’ve Followed My Husband Around Reading From. There is so much here about creativity, fixing persistent problems, fighting procrastination, and developing a bias toward action.
Bernard Roth is my new favorite professor-I-never-had. His book arises from decades of teaching experience. While technically his field is design, there is no limit to the applicability of the ideas here. What he considers ‘design thinking’ is a way of adopting a completely new perspective.
The first assignment Roth would give his students is to find something in their life that bothers them and fix it. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is, and how very, very few people are actually willing to live this way. My clients will tolerate persistent problems the likes of which an ordinary person can barely imagine: Living for years among a rat infestation, sleeping on a tiny strip of a mattress that is piled with clutter and food waste, breathing black mold, horrors beyond description. They will hear “do something about this” from literally every person who knows the truth, and they won’t. They always have their reasons, chief amongst which is not knowing where to start.
“Reasons” are a pet peeve of Roth’s, and they get their own entire chapter. The reason we claim for doing or not doing something is only a surface level reason, not the deeper, true reason. For instance, I have a serious phone reception issue everywhere in my apartment complex except for a small area near the entrance to the gym, and thus my voicemail asks people to text or email me because there’s no way I’ll know if they called me. My “reason” for being inaccessible is technological. A deeper reason is that while I might be able to find a fix, considering how many engineers I know, as a writer I am strongly invested in preventing interruptions while I work. “Fixing” my phone problem with additional money, devices, or software, or relocating, would give me an entire new problem. The real reason I can’t get phone calls at home is because I don’t believe I am obligated to. Right now, if someone wants to talk to me on the phone, they send me an invite and we schedule it. This is not wrong. Roth’s advice here is to use reasons externally but not internally, making sure that we are honest with ourselves about why we do or don’t do things.
The Achievement Habit is ultimately a book about high-agency thinking. We have the ability to live better than we do and we have the imagination to fix any problem, if only we decide for ourselves. Now I’m going to go look for a problem and fix it, just to keep my edge sharp.
In life, typically, the only one keeping a scorecard of your successes and failures is you, and there are ample opportunities to learn the lessons you need to learn, even if you didn’t get it right the first—or fifth—time.
It’s incredibly empowering to realize that you have the power to change your attitude toward anything.
Many reasons are simply excuses to hide the fact that we are not willing to give something a high enough priority in our lives.
You can’t know the reason for anyone’s behavior.
The best way forward is embedded in the design thinking methodology: manifest a bias toward action, and don’t be afraid of failure.
When something is a priority in your life, you have to be willing to walk away from anything that’s standing in its way.
...it is better to start to do something and fail than it is to do nothing and wait for the correct path of action to appear.
Be honest and notice the differences between your self-image and the ways you actually act.
You can make a decision right now to see yourself differently, and then to become different.
It’s a declaration of choice: instead of playing the role of passive protagonist in your life, choose to take charge of your future. Resolve to get things done, whatever it takes, and no matter how many valid “reasons” pop up.
I’m doing it again. I have two obnoxious projects I don’t want to do, and each of them represents about three hours of work. One is due in a week and a half, and the other is due in six weeks. The fresh hell that is chronic procrastination! I recognize myself setting up Future Me for a rough time, and thus I’m tricking myself.
I have a Decoy Project.
Next to me is a business card representing a phone call I should really make.
There are few things I hate more than making business calls. I’d rather disinfect my trash cans or clean the oven.
This call isn’t as high a priority, though, as the big projects. That’s why I’m using it as a decoy.
The card is propped up where I keep seeing it, directly to the right of my keyboard, junking up my line of sight.
I can’t avoid looking at it.
I can, though, avoid doing anything about it!
Suddenly, the yucky projects seem a lot less aversive.
Also to my right is a big vegan chocolate chip cookie.
I am currently wearing workout clothes.
This is the order of business. 1. Start the report. 2. Nibble at the cookie. 3. Finish the report. 4. Finish the cookie. 5. Work out.
A cookie is not a decoy project. My relationship with cookies and snacks and food in general may or may not work for other people, but here’s how it looks in my world.
I don’t keep junk food at home, as a rule, because there’s no room for it in the kitchen, and I just don’t know about storing bags of chips in the fridge.
I also can’t keep it in my work bag, because whenever I have done that, my dog has found it. Not only will he steal and eat my treat, he’ll scatter torn-up packaging all over the room and pull out everything else in my bag. This is more or less the same reason why we never leave laundry on the floor.
Another reason is that my husband is in the middle of losing 45 pounds, and it would be seriously unfair to ambush him with delectable goodies, or eat them in front of him.
We both eat four meals a day: breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack (protein bar, fruit, or smoothie), and dinner. We find this convenient, comforting, and cost-effective.
This thing with the cookie is, therefore, a productivity exercise. I don’t generally eat recreationally but I’m not above harnessing it for work purposes.
Okay, I’m set up. I have everything I need. I have the threat of the “if you’re not writing your report, then shouldn’t you make this call?” business card. I also have the treat of the big cookie, waiting for me to finish a section before I allow myself to take a bite.
Threats and treats!
Working out is my stress relief. I like myself better when I do a lot of endurance cardio. When I come in, I feel waves of delight radiating through me, the proverbial runner’s high. I get about three hours pain-free afterward, and I sleep better. My mood is improved. Wearing my workout clothes while I do something that I don’t really want to do is my way of promising myself that good times are coming.
I can also associate a bit of that runner’s high with the negative project.
When I lived near a regional park, I would run there almost every day. It remains one of my favorite places in the world. I would sometimes go up there when I had a phone call or email that I really didn’t want to do. I’d stand at the halfway mark, get the thing done, and then run home.
The trick is that FINISHING SOMETHING feels wonderful, while procrastinating feels terrible. Associate the pleasant feeling of one thing that you really love with the different, yet also pleasant feeling of finishing a project. This reinforces the good feeling.
The eventual goal is to simply do things, quickly and easily, rather than getting into the rut of feeling stuck and dreading the task. Just get it out of the way! Spend as little time as possible avoiding the thing, which merely adds to the precious life energy that you are spending on it.
Sometimes a list of tasks that are no big deal can serve as a decoy project.
For instance, I always get ready for a shower right before I scrub the toilet. That’s not a fun job, but it only takes two minutes, including wiping down the floor between the toilet and the wall. Then I step right into a hot shower, and by the time I’ve shampooed my hair I’ve forgotten all about it.
I take out the garbage and recycling in between loads in the laundry room.
I clean out the fridge and other odd chores while unavoidably on the phone.
Getting stuck on a lot of video conferences gives me plenty of time to put myself on mute, clean out my work bag and my desk drawer, and clear out my email inbox.
As few things as possible should have even a snowball’s chance of lingering in Procrastination Station. Just hustle and bustle through the day and try to avoid leaving a backlog. Because it hurts! Having a big ugly smelly to-do list is the sort of thing that can bother you all day. It eats into your mental bandwidth.
One of my goals for the day was to write this post, because my folder was empty. I didn’t feel like I had anything to write about, and I was distracted by the presence of the two big reports that I still don’t really want to do.
This whole post was a trick on myself, with the clever use of a couple of decoy projects.
Describing my situation, I finished my most time-sensitive task in only about twenty minutes. Now to take a picture of my work area, and done!
All I have left is to start my report before this cookie gets too stale.
The 10X Rule is the kind of motivational book to be read in cases of extreme reluctance and procrastination. It is the kind of book that can turn around someone’s entire philosophy of life. It is the kind of book to keep on your desk and flip open for a dose of tough talk on demand. You may not agree with everything Grant Cardone says, but it’s hard to argue with his overall message of dedication and drive.
Myself? I find myself nodding along with most of Cardone’s books, taking notes on certain outrageous yet wildly original ideas, and disagreeing with only a few very provocative assertions that I think he puts out there mainly to mess with people. An example of this would be Chapter 6, which I think is an extreme position that is not necessary if the goal is to teach the concept of high agency. (Read it and you’ll see what I mean). There is a difference between responsibility and accountability, and the latter is enough to get the job done.
Okay, what is the 10X Rule? Make your goals ten times bigger and go after them with ten times as much determination and energy. This is along the same lines as Peter Thiel’s statement that most ten-year goals can be completed in six months. It’s true! Why drag out the process of big goals like paying off debt, clearing clutter, or losing weight, when with intensive focus you can get it out of the way quickly and never think about it again?
(Why? Because most people aren’t very clear on what they want, they don’t have major goals, and thus they can’t summon up the fervent desire to push forward as fast as possible).
Competing is for sissies. Did you know this? This is one of Cardone’s contrarian ideas with which I agree. What would make someone want to target another person’s performance as their main goal? Why limit yourself? It makes me think of focusing on someone else’s head in yoga class for balance, only to have that person tip sideways. Better to focus over their head at a point farther across the room. Choose your own goal and keep plugging away at it. Choose something that is more worthy of obsessing over than what some other person might or might not be doing.
Cardone has a bone to pick with a lot of common ideas like “work-life balance” and “satisfaction.” He claims that the middle class isn’t all that middling, that most people’s financial goals are nowhere near sufficient to take care of themselves or their families. I only entered the middle class at age 32, and I’ve noticed that the “middle class” are the only people who rely on a single source of income, i.e. wages. Both poor people and wealthy people have multiple streams of income, the first out of sheer necessity and the second because they know how. The difference is desperation versus abundance.
The 10X Rule is already a classic of the motivational genre. That’s for good reason. Something in this book will reach out and grab someone, and it might be something different for each person. There are a couple of chapters that I feel I should have printed up as posters and hung around my apartment. I’ll definitely read this book again, so if you pick it up, let me know and we can read it together.
Almost every problem people face in their careers and other aspects of their lives—such as failed diets, marriages, and financial problems—are all the result of not taking enough action.
Average marriages, bank accounts, weight, health, businesses, products, and the like are just that—average.
No one will benefit from your failure.
Success Is Your Duty
To the degree that electing to do our personal best each and every day is ethical, then failing to do so is a violation of ethics.
Your four choices are:
1. Do nothing.
3. Take normal levels of action.
4. Take massive action.
“Small” thinking has and always will be punished in one way or another.
What are some ways you can expand that only require energy and creativity, not money?
People give their fears much more time than they deserve.
Most people have no clue what they are doing with their time but still complain that they don't have enough.
This post is a favor.
Someone tracked me down somehow and pitched for me to be her accountability coach. I’m not in that business anymore, and I posted on this blog about a year ago why I quit. It’s not for lack of clients; I believe that accountability coaching doesn’t scale. I also believe it doesn’t work. I believe it’s nothing more than a frustrating dead end, an illusion that will discourage the client and burn through money with no results.
That’s why I’m writing about accountability again, in hopes that it can help more than my personalized handholding might.
Now, I coach people every single day. I even do it for free! I hold a volunteer leadership position that includes six clubs, thirty-five officers, over a hundred members, and four protégés. I have absolutely no shame or guilt about how much of my high-value time I give away. I’ve always worked with pro bono clients as well.
I don’t use “accountability” to do it, though.
What I do is to help people tap into what they want and then help them refine their vision of what success looks and feels like. Sometimes they discover that they aren’t really as into that particular goal as they had thought. For instance, I dropped my goal of owning an electric vehicle when I realized how much I despise driving. I also dropped my goal of learning to play guitar when I realized my real problem was being a terrible singer, a situation too hopeless to resolve. A lot of people believe they have a goal when it’s really just one possibility among many.
There are two types of goals, prevention-focused and promotion-focused. Either someone is trying to avoid or stop doing something, or they’re trying to start or initiate something. Examples in the first group include quitting smoking, getting off medication, clearing clutter, paying off debt, losing weight, or getting out of a toxic relationship. Examples in the second group include getting fit, going back to school, changing careers, buying a new home, finding love, or starting a family.
What I’ve found through coaching is that people have a much easier time achieving promotion-focused goals. It’s quick and easy to let go of what isn’t serving you if it gets in the way of something you want.
When a recruiter calls you about your dream job, it’s easier to let go of office gossip.
When you have ten days to relocate to your dream home, it’s easier to clear your clutter.
When you fall in love with distance running, it’s easier to drop smoking.
When you fall in love with your life, it’s easier to let go of anything that doesn’t serve you.
My dog has a bit of trouble with this, though: If you give him a ball, he’ll hold it in his mouth. If you give him a second ball, he’ll continue to hold the first ball while trying to control the second ball. When the third ball comes out, he runs outside, catastrophically overwhelmed. Too many choices!
He’ll drop all the balls in a hot second if he is instead offered a dog treat.
Another example of this comes from Sesame Street: You gotta put down the ducky if you want to play the saxophone.
What happens with most people, though, is that they lack a compelling enough vision to step out of their comfort zone. They see the things they do as treats, rather than specific obstacles that hold them back. They see their default as juicier and more valuable than any of the alternatives.
They don’t want “it” enough because they aren’t even sure exactly what “it” is. Or getting “it” is too hard, and they aren’t willing to do what “it” takes.
I can share about my life, and see if you agree with what I mean:
I’m married to my dream man, who travels half-time. We’ve relocated to new cities four times in ten years, starting over each time.
I live at the beach, in a studio apartment with no washer or dryer.
We save half our income, and we don’t have a car.
We go on a pretty fabulous vacation every year, paid for by almost never dining out or shopping.
I wear a “size two” and I never drink alcohol or soda, or eat dairy products, breakfast cereal, or fast food. I virtually never eat chips, crackers, pizza, or desserts. Instead I eat a lot of cabbage, kale, cauliflower, and collard greens. BECAUSE I LIKE TO so sue me.
See what I mean?
It’s not zero-sum. Anyone can save tons of money, eat tons of vegetables, or make drastic changes toward the benefit of a goal. Plenty of people have lost a hundred pounds in a year, paid off $100,000 in debt, or cleared out their entire house over a busy, sweaty weekend. Basically any goal you can think of is a standard goal, a catalogue goal that millions of people have done, and continue to do every day.
They want to, and they know how.
It’s not accountability that gets things done. Accountability means abdicating your responsibilities to someone, anyone else. It means “I know I will never, ever, never never do this alone.” So why is it someone else’s job? How is any other person going to make you want something you don’t want? How is any other person going to make you do something that you won’t make yourself do?
Just admit that if there are no consequences to your not achieving your goal, then it literally does not matter to you or to anyone whether you do or don’t.
Just admit that you don’t really want it and you won’t ever do it.
Sometimes that moment can provoke a crisis. I have walked my students through this. Imagine that you ARE NOT ALLOWED to do this or to reach this goal. It’s illegal. Now how do you feel? A lot of people are relieved that they no longer feel pressured to do something that wasn’t their idea. Others feel a wash of regret or frustration. It helps to clarify, is this a heck yes or a heck no?
A “meh” is not a goal. A “whatever” is not a goal. If it doesn’t spark massive emotion inside of you, then the goal is not going to be enough to motivate you.
I have a “heck no” about surfing. I have a “meh” about learning to bake bread. I have a “heck yes” about getting more sleep.
Sometimes the problem with lack of accountability is general lack of energy. Anyone who is in poor health, who is not staying hydrated or eating well or getting enough sleep or exercise, is simply not going to be able to drum up enough energy to move forward. On the other hand, a magnetically attractive major goal will pull someone forward even in spite of exhaustion, debt, or illness! I’ve limped my way to the finish line enough times, and seen enough other people do the same, to know that this is true.
It’s not you, it’s not the goal, it’s how much YOU WANT that goal that matters.
You’d move awfully fast if the building was on fire.
You’d move awfully fast if your favorite celebrity was outside right now.
You’d move awfully fast to grab a $100 bill blowing past you.
Can you make yourself move that fast for anything else? Anything less tangible, anything currently invisible?
Can you tell yourself a story that makes your own goal more valuable and interesting to you?
You can, if you want to. I have great faith in you. Now get out there and impress me.
^^^ copy and paste into a text bubble and pretend you paid me to say that ^^^
“Your paycheck is your thank-you.” Every manager and employer seems to think this. Almost no employees agree. This is a huge mystery to me, partly because it takes a split second to say “thank you” and it costs nothing. Why would this be so hard to do? Check the box! Even the brattiest four-year-old is capable of begrudgingly grinding out a forced thank-you. Just say it. Geez. It’s basic good manners.
Beyond gratitude, I’m starting to find that there is one more free thing that most people find terrifically motivating, and that is praise. Even the tiniest amount of praise! It’s hard to come by in this world and people are hungry for it. They may not even realize that they’re orienting their entire lives around a chance to hear a few words of approval.
The art of the extremely specific compliment is something I’ve been honing for years. I’ve found that if you say something true and positive that is not necessarily obvious, you can utterly transform someone’s attitude. You can sometimes also transform their self-concept. They won’t be able to stop thinking about what you said.
I’ve heard from people years after the fact, that they remembered something I said about them, something I don’t even remember having said. That’s partly because I do this all the time. It’s a routine, like leaving a tip or waving goodbye.
When I started learning to give evaluations in Toastmasters, it amplified this art of the extremely specific compliment. It’s fairly easy to give someone one sentence about something they did well. Try extending that to two or three minutes, and it takes more thought.
It’s possible to give the same piece of advice in multiple ways. Say your feedback is that someone [isn’t talking loud enough] because [nobody can hear them in the back of the room]. Honestly that comes across as criticism. To a vulnerable novice who is feeling extremely nervous and inadequate, that feedback can be devastating! One piece of relatively mild critique instead of effusive support and praise can stop that person from ever trying again.
Slip that critique in between four or five compliments, and it’s easier to take.
Phrase it instead as helpful advice, something that explains how to fix the issue, and you have their attention.
“You can work on projecting by aiming your voice at the back wall. [Demonstrate posture and voice projection]. That will start to happen as you feel more comfortable.” Nothing about this comes across as a critique, because it isn’t.
THEN include the praise, support, and encouragement.
My goal is to mention at least twelve things the person is doing well. I also look for something unique, a special talent that this person may not realize is hidden in there, in amongst the insecurity and inexperience. I sometimes run out of time to point out all the things the person is doing well, so if I think of more, I’ll pull them aside and tell them afterward, or write them a note later.
This works. No fewer than four of mine just won first place in different speaking contests. If I had been more critical and less supportive, they might not be there at all.
I WAS RIGHT. My praise was technically accurate, precise, and correct. They knew it. They rose to the level of my expectations, which is what people always do.
This is what happens when you make a habit of lavish praise. People notice. They take it in. Their eyes glitter. The next time they see you, they sit up straight and wave. Make people feel seen in the best way, and they’ll never forget you.
Why can’t people do this at work?
There’s another trick that can be added to this art of the extremely specific compliment. That is to praise someone who isn’t there. If you’re consistently heard “spreading gossip” of the positive variety, it becomes clear that this is your pattern of behavior. It reinforces this concept that your praise is to be believed. If someone hears you say something positive and true about another person, and they agree with your assessment, it helps them believe the nice things you had to say about them, too.
People usually don’t believe it when someone pays a compliment. We’re taught to brush it off. We expect all performance evaluations to be negative and painful. Why, though?
It’s entirely possible to hold people accountable for their performance without going negative. If you get the motivation and incentives down right, though, you don’t usually need the accountability.
What’s wrong with the work world for a lot of people is that they’re expected to comply with someone else’s strict rules and regulations. They’re only really noticed if they mess up, by coming in late, missing a deadline, or doing a task imperfectly. They start to feel flinchy about even walking in the door. They start to wake up with dread in the pit of their stomach. They start feeling depressed all day on their day off, unable to stop thinking about how much they hate going in to work.
What does that do to performance? Seriously? How can that kind of emotional environment possibly motivate people to work harder or do a better job?
This is why I talk about the praise engine. When people are noticed for doing well, when they are praised for bringing something special, when it’s clear that they’re offering something unique and valuable, then they associate the work with their identity. They start working for pride and personal satisfaction. At that point you don’t need to motivate them to work - you need to motivate them to take breaks and go home, because otherwise you can’t stop them.
Not only that. When you start up the praise engine, other people start to learn to operate it. They learn by your example. You start hearing other people give evaluations and teach methods in your style. You realize you’ve created a culture that propagates itself.
Get yourself a praise engine. It fuels itself. It costs nothing to run. It builds copies of itself and does its own maintenance. It’s also a lot easier and cheaper than having to continually replace all your unmotivated, demoralized staff.
If you call it a to-do list, you might be doing it wrong.
Might be working on the wrong stuff
For the wrong reasons
At the wrong times
For the wrong people.
This is something I’ve been wrestling with lately. My task list has grown lately to the point that I’m exploding out of a textbook-sized day planner with pages for twenty distinct projects. Unlike my pants, it even has pockets.
These are the problems of the multipotentialite. Everything sounds good and everything seems possible. It IS, it is, just maybe not all at the exact same minute.
Darn you anyway, Time Dimension.
I’m working on a particular project, something big. It’s the kind of thing that takes six months to plan. I’m doing it because it fits into a larger plan that is really important to me. I’m doing it because the skills involved are directly relevant to my interests. I’m doing it because it gives me the chance to work with a good friend. I’m doing it because that friend really needs my help and I want to be reliable for her.
Other than that, everything about it is driving me up the wall. The WHY is perfectly in place, the HOW is a continual stream of hassles and frustrations.
Meanwhile, I have another set of potentially extremely interesting projects that I really want to do instead.
Just like the frustrating project, these interesting projects involve a lot of steps that are the kind of task I don’t like.
Focusing on only one thing at a time!
Reading complicated instructions in fine print!
Filling out applications!
Putting dates in a calendar!
Choosing photographs of myself! *ugh*
Why can’t there be a super-interesting, super high-value project that involves me sleeping late, reading in the bathtub, and eating cookies?
What I’ve found out so far about GETTING WHAT I WANT is that it almost always involves my three least-favorite things:
Travel. Foot races. Trainings. Workshops. Hikes. Even a panel interview I did recently - yep, Saturday.
Why isn’t there more worthwhile stuff to do late in the afternoon??
Poor me, highly ambitious person, born into the body of a night owl. (Note: owls do not usually wear shoes) (Also note, not one minute after I wrote this, a child walked into my cafe wearing an OWL HAT and RAIN BOOTS)
I’m doing what I can to cope with all of this. Not the owl hat, the burgeoning project list. Try to stay focused.
The first thing is to always subvert the project in some way. That means I look at the desired results and ask, is what I’m being asked to do really the smartest way to achieve these results?
Surprisingly often, it isn’t! Perhaps more surprising, my ideas for ways that I’d prefer to do these things, my ways are often accepted or regarded as an upgrade. The trick to getting this across is first to explain that you want the same thing as everyone else, the highly valued end result. Also compliment specific things that are going well and thank everyone for hearing you out.
Each instance in which you save other people time, money, or resources is an opportunity to build a reputation as a solver of problems and an idea-generating machine. (Problem: then they bring you more of their problems to solve).
The second thing is that if you can’t subvert the project in tangible ways, you can still do it privately.
There might be a requirement to do certain things or take certain steps toward your desired end result, things that you have no interest in doing. There is not, however, a requirement that you refer to them as ‘tasks’ or ‘chores’ or ‘to-do’s’ or ‘honey-do’s’ or what-have-you. You can call them whatever you want.
You can also abandon ship and abdicate on the project, if you really hate it that much.
As an example, I simply would not do something if it “required” me to wear high heels, cancel my travel plans for my wedding anniversary, work in a room with cigar smoke, or probably a bunch of other things. Nope nope, that’s a big nope.
What I’ve been doing lately is to shift more and more of my focus to the desired end results, while I try to forget that I am often doing annoying things early in the morning when I’d rather be sleeping.
This is why I call my “to-do list”:
JUICY PROJECT OPTIONS!
There’s something that I do that most people don’t, and that is to remind myself that I have control over how I spend my time. It’s my choice whether to work on something or not. I didn’t feel that way when I worked at a convenience store, but I did start to feel that way as a young office temp. I was broke as could be, I didn’t have two nickels until I was thirty, but I always felt that I had the power to walk away from a truly cruddy job or a bad boss.
I often did!
I figured, if I was going to be broke one way or another, at least I could choose the job with the least-bad boss and the least-worst commute. So I did.
It’s my sense of power, control, and high agency that has brought me forward, onward and upward.
One of the saddest things in the world is untapped human potential. It’s deeply sad when someone with massive gifts feels trapped, forced into a power struggle with a bad boss for low pay. Sometimes, of course, that is literally true - modern slavery is one of the all-time biggest targets for people with great gifts to tackle, should anyone be looking for a worthy project. Mostly, though, we are dragged down by the power struggle, to the point that we utterly forget about our ability to imagine something better into being.
This is why it is so vital that we reimagine what we are doing. This is why we need more... JUICY PROJECT OPTIONS.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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