Book Review: Overwhelmed…by Brigid Schute

I recently finished reading Brigid Schute’s book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has The Time. Overall, a well-researched book worth a four star-rating.  I enjoyed reading the book, and it came at a good time for me in my life.  

 

Stress over the past few years has driven me to feel quite negative physical impacts – upset stomach, inexplicable headaches, and more.  This stress was caused by feeling a lack of control and feeling that, as it is defined in the book, leisure time, was impossible to find.  I was working 10, 12, 14 hour days and working part time on a graduate degree. I made some changes to my life to help the situation, but while they were great first steps, they weren’t enough.   I had to make lasting changes.  Some of the themes I picked up on spoke to me about some of the lasting changes I am working on making in my life each and every day moving forward:

 

  1. Busyness as a status symbol. Who was I trying to impress? Busyness only caused me to alienate friends because I was difficult to schedule. How much was I actually getting done? The time studies Ms. Schute highlighted showed that we have more leisure time than we realize, but it is about how we use it that really matters. I need to think about what adds value to my life, my work, and my world, and put the rest aside.  Prioritize ruthlessly.  
  2. The “Ideals”. Ms. Schute did not use this exact term, but I use them to refer to the “Ideal Worker” and the “Ideal Worker” she described.  It hit the point that all the face time many work places seem to require result in behaviors that are less than ideal – working early and late causes them to not be as productive, and particularly if they are not recognized the risk of burnout is high. Ideal Mothers and Ideal Workers can neither be the same, there is too much pulling on either side, and this also applies to Fathers.   This brings me to the next point:
  3. Good enough is the new perfect. This is a realization I have had for years, but struggled to make a reality in my life fully.  The Ideal Mother, for example, strives to be the perfect Mother, because that is what society expects her to be.   In reality, perfect is not attainable. We need to get to the crutch of what matters, and dedicate the minimum amount of time to THAT.  Good enough is good enough.
  4. Embracing life in face of ambiguity. I love structure, so this is another topic that takes some time to wrap my head around.  We don’t have all the data to make decisions all at once.   Sometimes the data we do have is conflicting.  We must remember that data is there to support decision making, and decision making is what needs to be done. Over analyzing leads to paralysis; we need to keep moving.
  5. Self efficacy. Believing in yourself is one thing, it is important to have the follow through to take action and develop the skill sets to do what one needs to do.  I feel so many in my generation are waiting for someone else to solve their problem instead of stepping up and taking action.
  6. Unrealistic expectations. THIS is very closely tied to #2 and #3 for me. What I’ve learned about myself is that it is important to communicate expectations clearly, because what I have in my mind for expectations is on occasion wildly different than what someone else thinks. Just as real estate is about location, location, location, relationships both personal and professional are about communication, communication, communication.
  7. Rythym. As humans we work in cycles – I’ve realized this but never had much to describe how I felt personally until reading about the rhythms described in this book. Optimize where you can, and take breaks frequently. Intensity is key to productivity, and just as with hydrology (study of water’s movement in relation to land – think water cycle), intensity cannot be sustained for long periods of time.

 

This book gave some great insights and helped me feel better about not only not being alone in feeling overwhelmed with life, but that the changes I am trying to make to improve my life are on the right track.  The descriptions of life in Denmark sound like an alternate reality, and unrealistic to this American without children.  I would recommend this book to anyone curious about where their time goes and who wants to gain control of time.  I read most of Overwhelmed on and coming home from my honeymoon, where having time to read in large chunks of time was truly luxuriously relaxing!

Use Tomorrow, Today

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“After all, tomorrow is another day.”

– Scarlett O’Hara, from Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

 

Tomorrow is the start to another year in the western calendar, a cause for great celebration, reflection, and reveling in possibility.

In other calendars used around the world, tomorrow is just another day.

As Americans, we focus too much on using the start of a New Year, or quarter, or month as a catalyst to change.   For change to truly happen, we need to focus on it every day.  Any when failure happens, as it often does, waiting for a new turn of the calendar is the wrong approach.  While reflecting on the failure in a light where we can learn from misgivings and mistakes provides great learning opportunity, there is no need to dwell on lack of achievement or mindlessly drift further from where you started.

If today we wander off the path to success, all is not lost.  We can start again tomorrow.  If a new goal or opportunity presents itself, we don’t need to wait for improvement – start today, start tomorrow.  Get a fresh night’s sleep, take a few moments to plan and set yourself up for success, and start tomorrow.

Tomorrow is another day. There are only 365 days in a year. If we wait, we waste them.  Learn from today, reset, and start again tomorrow.

Top 5 Tools to Successfully Prioritize

One of the skills I’ve developed as a professional that helped make me unique from peers is my ability to correctly prioritize tasks according to who needs them and when.  The five tools below have been developed through years of practice, listening, and sometimes learning from mistakes.

  1. Create an Editable To-Do List – I create and then update a typed to-do list that is separated by project and organized by who the responsible party is or to whom I am responsible. I cross out tasks as I complete them, and then hand-write the new tasks as a result of one being done. Every few days, or when the handwriting isn’t as clear as I need it to be, I edit my saved to do list so that I regularly have a fresh sheet of paper to take notes on and track progress. The bonus of a typed list is that I can much more easily make the edits I need quickly, without re-writing all of the tasks I haven’t yet accomplished. As a good practice, set aside 15 to 30 minutes at the end or beginning of the week at a minimum to allow yourself time to do an update.
  2. Conduct Periodic Self Check Ins – As tasks are finished and contact is made with colleagues, clients, and vendors throughout the day, I adjust the list. Sometimes priorities change, and I make those updates to the to-do list, sometimes manually, sometimes in Word. I try to limit email checking while in the middle of a task, primarily to focus on completion.  When I do get to emails, I make an effort to move them to the to-do list if they require an action, rather than keeping “as new”. Without doing this emails get trapped in a never-responded black hole.  These check-ins allow me to re-prioritize if something came up during the day, whether by human interaction or email.
  3. Pick a “Top Five” – I try to pick three to five tasks every day that I know I can accomplish well. These are not items like “complete business proposal”, but rather “Edits from Boss for Proposal”. Breaking down the tasks makes it much easier to feel like I am continuing to dominate and actually make progress! Five tasks is a reasonable upper limit for goals.  Anything beyond that isn’t creating priorities.  Take a moment to think about who needs something, when, and why. To help me focus on these tasks, I will highlight them in a certain color on my to-do list so that when I take a look at it on a check-in, those priority tasks are quite obvious.
  4. Time Out What I Need to Get Done / Set Deadlines – As a support to the Top Five mentioned previously, I estimate how much time I think the task needs to be completed. I make sure to add contingency time in case I need to work with other people on completion, particularly if they are hard to get for a few moments’ time.  Doing this will help you realize when tasks need to be broken into further steps or if you don’t have enough time to get everything done (see #5).  A good rule of thumb is to limit yourself to two hours per task.  You’ll need a break every 90-120 minutes to refresh the brain, so might as well break your tasks up to work optimally! One step to help get you closer to success is blocking out the time for each task in your calendar – when that invite pops up 15 minutes ahead, you can get ready to succeed!
  5. Ask For Help; Don’t Spin Your Wheels – This was one of the first pieces of advice I received out of college, and one that has stayed with me. At 22, 32, or 52, we aren’t expected to have all the answers.  If you truly have too much on your plate and can’t narrow to a Top Five, Check-Ins become overwhelming, or there isn’t enough time to get everything done and still get some sleep, talk to your manager or the people in charge of the tasks.  It is okay to admit you don’t have time or have competing pressures.  Sometimes that is a decision for someone else to make while you do your best to execute.  It is better to admit confusion or needing help than making the wrong decision, though at times you may have to make a decision based on the limited knowledge available to you.

Implementing these tools will help you to rise – you’ll be better at executing the right tasks, at the right time, done the right way, no matter what level you are in the organization.

Don’t let procrastination hold you back!  Knowing what needs to get done is the first step.  Developing the best plan to execute, by using your own skill sets. Builds confidence in yourself and from others.

What else would you add to this list?

5 Pieces of Advice to Me at 20, From Me at 30

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As I grow up, I am fortunate to learn from my mistakes and develop intuition on when a situation isn’t right.  I also learn more on the positive side – getting better at things I love, and gaining confidence in areas where I may not be as skilled (yet).

Life has changed dramatically over the past 10 years.  On the occasion of recently turning 30 this summer, I’ve been reflecting on the major themes of my growth.  I’ve become a more confident and happier person because of mind set changes.  I can still be a good person by focusing inward – if I’m not ready to support myself, how can I be ready to support and contribute to the world around me? Five themes emerged from focusing inward and the changes I’ve made since 20:

  1. It’s okay if things aren’t perfect. One of the greatest concepts I have learned is “satisficing.” This is the anti-drug for struggling perfectionists. It is simply accepting what is, as satisfactory! It is “good enough” without all of the heartache of not being perfect.  If you’re a math person, I equate this to the graph for “1/(x2)”- it looks like as you dedicate more time on the positive x axis you are getting closer to the “zero point” of completion, crossing the y axis, but with infinite numbers you never get there.  That’s what perfection feels like – continuously working to improve with nothing to define what is “perfect.” The beauty of having to meet deadlines and needing sleep as an adult after college forced me into this – and my happiness has improved immensely.
  1. Live in the moment. I have always been a planner, and at 20 if things weren’t going according to plan it would cause a panic, anger, and disappointment in myself. I was too hard on me (see item #1!). Over the last decade I refocused not on what was going wrong with the plan, but what I could accomplish or change in the now.  Certainly I looked at secondary effects of my choices, but made decisions assured of what was going on right then.  I couldn’t change the past, the future hasn’t happened, but I can impact my immediate life with a positive outlook and understanding current constraints and opportunities.
  1. Remain open to opportunity. Living in the moment made opportunity possible.  Instead of focusing solely on developing my technical skills as a young engineer, I opted to take on an assignment that developed my early project management skills.  Without that work, despite sometimes being in over my head, it made every project later easier and more accessible because I had that endeavor on my resume.  At times when I felt like a failure, like getting laid off in the midst of a recession during my first job, this attitude let me be successful in the face of less ideal conditions.  I started learning that I don’t have to have 100 percent of all requirements for a job, or anything else, to start reaching for it.
  1. Understand that people see you differently than you see you. We can’t keep everyone happy, and not everyone is going to like us. You can be the “most authentic” person out there and still have haters – you are “too” authentic, or maybe not considered authentic enough in the right way. Personalities and values differ greatly, and then you need to add in wildly varying life experiences, generational, geographical and cultural divides – you start to see where lines can be drawn in the sand.  Not everyone is accepting or interested in bridging these distinctions, so the sooner you learn to be confident in yourself, understanding not everyone will like you, the better off you’ll be; I certainly have been.
  1. You’re not bound to anything. Unless there is a contract without an exit clause, you are never bound to anything. Certainly you make promises and commitments along the way, but this needs to be a two way street.  And sometimes, those two way streets change in ways we can’t understand.  Jobs, bad boyfriends, cell phone and gym contracts – all things that can be escaped from!  The key is to know when the two-way street isn’t there anymore. Sometimes you discover it, and sometimes you are told.  Finding an out when things aren’t going strong anymore can be extremely freeing.  If you can escape the boundaries, trusting gut instinct or other indicators important to you,  life becomes a true joy – nothing holding you back!

When I reflect at 40 on this next decade in front of me, I’m sure there will be plenty more to be learned than just the above.

What have you learned in your last 10 years about yourself and life in general?

Why You Need a Peer Career Advocate

With all the articles out there suggesting career development is accelerated by mentors and sponsors, we tend to look “upward” in our networks and companies for career support.  I won’t deny the importance of mentors and sponsors, because they can make a labyrinth a far straighter path, or at least provide some direction to navigating.

We do forget the importance of our peers in advocating for our careers. There are a few reasons why peer career advocates can add value to our lives and professional paths:

  1. They understand your pain. My Maid of Honor and I are, outside of our fiancé and husband, are each other’s’ peer career advocates.  I’ve felt frustrations in the past of not advancing as quickly as I want – and so has she.  She’s been forced to manage up – and so have I.  Because we’ve both experience what it’s like to be 5-10 years into a career at the same time, we understand the challenges we face, even if the environment and circumstances are unique to each of us.
  2. It’s timely, real, and more relevant. This is more of a part be to #1 than a true #2 – but K, as I’ll call my Maid of Honor, isn’t relying on memory to know what it is like to manage a large project for the first time. We’re doing it at the same time.  When I express joy or fear related to an event, she knows it, and is genuinely supportive instead of generally supportive. This is learning in the moment – same as with mentors and sponsors we are getting lessons learned as we go.  However, the lessons learned are a bit more raw, in detail, and current to the present time instead of 10 years ago when, for example, millennials weren’t in the work force the same way.
  3. Discussions can get personal. A lot of times, what can hold us back is not necessarily ability or passion or connections, but what is going on “at home.” There can be distractions with a sick family member, a new baby or relationship, a friend in crisis, or un-diagnosed or treated mental health issues. With a peer who is also a career advocate, you can get to these root causes and try to find solutions.  Your boss, even if you have a great boss, can only go so far – peers/friends can be the informal therapist and tell you to see a professional.  That same conversation at work doesn’t always have a positive outcome.

Peer career advocates are easy to find because you probably already talk to friends and colleagues and career development, opportunities, and obstructions. It is important to look for factors in these peers like positivity and a focus on solutions – otherwise, a cycle of complaints without improvement continues to be perpetuated.  In this case, it may take some effort or re-connection to find the right person or group of peers.

Supposedly, we are only as good as the five people we spend the most time with. Are you spending time with the right friends and colleagues to create a network of peer career advocates?  Have you been more successful with your peer career advocate if you have one? Who is that person for you?

The Peace of Planning 

wp-1469273300739.jpgIf there is one thing I am good at, it is planning. I plan out major projects for work. Scheduling the a month out for my household is done at least on a weekly basis. The guidance of a nutritionist has made meal planning more “fun” and “adventurous.” I recreate budgets on a monthly basis. Workout plans are always undergoing rewriting.
With planning, there needs to be given thought to contingency. There needs to be flexibility in adjusting for “the real world.” Forgiveness and understanding to self create peace in the planning process.

I used to beat myself up for not achieving perfection according to plan. It was frustrating and sometimes demoralizing. With time or wisdom or age or my mom repeating the advice or maybe reading enough related articles, I’ve learned that life gets in the way. To paraphrase the Robert Burns poem that was John Steinbeck’s inspiration, the best laid plans often go awry.

I believe an internal locus of control helps me successfully execute on plans. Something I take pride in is planning and working to achieve the goals I set for myself. My failures have been small, thankfully. However, it takes grace and understanding to recognize that not all is in my control.  There are external factors, though I may be able to influence, I cannot control. Taking a step back to reflect on why goal progress may not have been as desired or anticipated helps me to realize that yes, some of the responsibility is in my hands, but sometimes, and I make sure not to fully rest on this, other people and the environment behave in ways contrary to my goals. Sometimes purposefully and for reasons that may be for greater good rather than my personal gain.

Planning allows me to put myself in a position to take advantage of opportunity. I am not a believer in luck as in being lucky, but that hard work and being prepared opens more doors.

Most of all, I find a peace with planning. I’ve given my best effort to put the best foot forward. It’s on my to execute, and it’s comforting to have a road map. Sometimes I get redirected by GPS, sometimes I take a wrong turn, and sometimes I change the destination. I know that I’ve been thoughtful and thorough in understanding what I want and how to get there.  With plans in place I can do what I need to do and take advantage of my developing ability to roll with what happens.

Are you also a planner?  What do you get out of planning, or, being more spontaneous?

4 Easy Approaches to Enjoy Networking

Today I had the opportunity to have lunch with a former co-worker who has been engaged in high-profile transportation projects.  We realized that there was some overlap in our projects and have the ability to work together collaboratively over the next 18 plus months.

One week ago I had the opportunity to meet dozens, out of a group of 750, of women who, while each her own individual, were collectively dedicated to our shared purpose in Alpha Gamma Delta.  I admired courage to speak one’s mind. I was in awe at how protective we are of each other.  I watched intently how others mentored protégés. I listened to the creative ideas of others to push continuous improvement.

Last month I had the opportunity to have dinner with a college friend and former teammate who was elevated to a position at work she’s coveted and been training for.  At the conclusion of dinner we shared a mutual goal – we’ve yet to take action on it, but I know I have an ally when it is time to execute.

The power of networking brings me personally a joy inherent in being surrounded by people of ambition, zeal, and intellect. However, walking into a room of unknown people is challenging, and sometimes the size or position of the players in the room can cause fear.  When the comfort of sweat pants call at home, it can also be exhilarating to make new connections and learn what makes someone actually interesting.  There are a few approaches I have to make networking easier.

  1. Smile – approachability can make a difference in breaking into groups of people, or have someone walk over to you if you are alone.  This is also a little bit of “fake it until you make it” advice to become more comfortable in an uncomfortable environment.
  2. Be ready with an introduction that you are proud of  – “I work in redevelopment” is a lot less engaging compared to “I’m in real estate development for apartment homes with a focus in redevelopment and asset management – I’m working to create a better way to live for our residents”. Pride is an indicator of confidence, and confidence is a draw to others; they want to be near you and hear more about you.
  3. Ask questions – enough about you, ask about them! While important to share your story, understand that most people love talking about themselves.  Asking deeper questions (without being accusatory) can help others open up, be confident themselves, and provide more insight into how you might be able to work with each other.
  4. Offer help – if you’re sincerely interested in the work of another, and getting involved doesn’t jeopardize your own paying job, offering to help can elevate others’ views of you and create instant worth of you in their world.  It potentially makes another’s life easier and gets unique experience for the person offering.

 

Tomorrow I am attending a Red Sox game with former co-workers to learn how they are doing personally and professionally, and to share some laughs, sunshine, and hopefully celebrating a David Ortiz homerun.

Next week I am attending an industry event in Boston. While I’ll be with co-workers whose company I enjoy, I hope to get to meet many in the industry and see where things are headed in my own and other sectors of commercial real estate. If I meet the right people I hope to learn more about getting involved in committees.

In two weeks I am sharing brunch with two more former co-workers who were incredible mentors in times of challenge and success.  They are smart, experienced women who are also funny and great to be around.

As an extrovert I thrive and energize on seeing other people.  Professional (and personal) success is not achieved in a vacuum, and it takes meeting and developing lasting relationships with others, with giving in both directions, to see transformative change and growth.

Amazement!

Who doesn’t love a beautiful, lush, green lawn?  It’s summer in New England and as soon as the sun comes up or starts to set the sprinklers are out. This mesmerizes me.

A few years ago I had a conversation with a former college professor, who researched and taught in environmental engineering.  It was a mind-blowing conversation, even though it was short and simple.

The water we splash over our lawns, in our toilets, and fighting fires is potable water.  Water we use for non-drinking purposes is high enough quality to drink. Billions of people in the developing world struggle to find drinkable water and we are growing grass with it!

It is the beauty and privilege of living in a well-developed, first world country with regulations to protect our water supply and investments in taking care of the environment and public health of its citizens.

We go about our daily lives without thinking about all of the amazing things that come together every day. We move a lever or twist a knob, essentially, and have water instantly. It waits, in our pipes, with adequate pressure to reach the heights of 50 story buildings to have a comfortable shower.

Roads are paved, and stop signs and traffic signals are placed to get us where we need to go safely, quickly, and

Medicine has advanced, and this was even years ago, to give humans organs from other humans – and even mechanical or “manufactured” organs.

A switch is flipped, and light fills a room.  Around the world people are entertained by light emitted from a slim box.

This is all amazing! The quality of life is so high for us Americans, and it is such an expected thing we don’t realize all the things that have to go right every day to live this way.

Sometimes it is nice to revel in the little things that are actually so impactful on our lives.

Be amazed!

Learning from the Pros

At the end of March I attended a WPI Alumni Association event entitled, “From the Cubicle to the Corner Office”.  It was a moderated panel with an alum from each of the three decades: Andrew Aberdale, 1989; Deb McManus, 1997; and Michael McHugh, 2003.  The panel conversation was largely driven by attendee questions, and these are my key takeaways:

  1. Careers are winding and trans-formative – what you went to school for likely isn’t going to be what you are doing 5, 10 or 20 years later.
  2. Culture can be understood by listening rather than jumping in head first. Learn the values of an organization and talk to people of all levels.
  3. Gender shouldn’t impact the work.  “Do your job” and stand up for yourself.  Get your name next to something and sell it.
  4. Direct change by getting buy in and charging forward with the “why”. Communication cannot happen often enough with change.
  5. It is okay to be lost in our careers.  Find what inspires you and build confidence. Networking is key, not just for jobs but for learning what is out there.  Keep looking at your skills, particularly your best attributes.
  6. Mentors are important, but natural relationships result in the greatest success, as opposed to a formal set up. Mentors “provide direction but don’t steer the ship”.
  7. To ensure contributions are recognized, deliver quality, develop relationships, be vocal but not cocky, fake the confidence if you have to, and keep building reputation by succeeding on tough projects.
  8. Conflict resolution is best achieved by speaking up, taking charge of performance management, lifting up the team, treating others well, and saying sorry.

Each of the panelists was a consummate professional and successful in their roles.  They welcomed change and challenges.  They balance home life and work life and always put values first.  They found niches in their companies.  I was thoroughly impressed with what Andy, Deb, and Mike had to offer and ultimately proud to share my alma mater with them.  While I anticipate a different path than what any of them followed, I hope I can learn from their lessons and succeed in my own right!