Getting Things Done QA

Help! I Have Too Many Meetings to Get Things Done

We’re excited to welcome David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, as a contributor to The Crucial Skills Newsletter.

Dear David,

I can’t help but realize that I never get any of my long-term stuff accomplished. I spend so much of my time in the weeds, trying to put out fires and get through my daily tasks, that I rarely think about, let alone find time to accomplish, the goals, vision, and purposes I want for my life. How in the world will I ever really achieve what matters most to me when all that seems to have my attention is email and meetings?

Sincerely,
Floundering

Dear Floundering,

Welcome to a very big club! Most everyone I know, especially those involved in a busy, professional world, easily fall victim to the “latest and loudest”—those things that are yanking our chain and hijacking our attention. Email and meetings are two especially prevalent culprits in this regard.

Now, email and meetings are extremely important tools for most of us, and can be highly effective for getting things done productively and efficiently—let’s not “shoot the media.” But, what’s the real problem? There are at least two:

1. The purpose of emails and meetings is often unclear—maybe even unnecessary.
2. You have not made your higher-horizon commitments adequately operational, which promotes getting sucked in to #1.

Problem #1 is pervasive, for sure. Emails are often spewed out (especially if you’re in the cc: group) to “keep everyone in the loop” when in fact, the reason is due to a lack of clarity around who’s really in charge, who really needs to know, and when action should take place. The same applies to meetings. Too often, groups of people are brought together to address something that could have been handled if responsibilities and their ownership were clear. Bad meetings lead to bad emails, which lead to bad meetings, ad nauseam. (This is a topic for another newsletter, for sure.)

Problem #2 is the real culprit, and there are multiple aspects of this issue. First of all, do you have a clearly articulated inventory of your goals, vision, and purposes? If not, that’s your first job. If you haven’t yet, get pen and paper or your computer and write out your best guess at your life purpose. Then, craft an ideal scenario (in several paragraphs) about what future “wild success” would look, sound, and feel like for you. Finish by identifying the key things you would need to accomplish in the next year or two to make that happen.

Once that’s done (and perhaps you’ve done that already), the key question to ask and answer for yourself is, “What’s the next action to make any or all of that happen?” If you had nothing else to do in your life right now but take a very specific, visible, physical action toward your desired outcome(s), what would that action be? Sending an email? Conducting a web search? Holding a conversation with a partner? What?

See, long-term for most people means, “Someday, I might really want . . . ” Whereas a really committed-to outcome is a now thing. It’s a goal you do something about now that just might take longer than some other things to be completed.

Without those specifically defined next actions, you will fall prey to all the distractions of your everyday work and life. That’s because it’s easier to let these daily agenda items give you a structure and stability and a short-term sense of productivity (as sub-optimal as it is), versus having to really think and decide what you actually need to do to make your vision a reality.

Once you are clear about where you really want to go, and precisely the next action(s) you need to take to get there, it becomes much easier to assess the value of the bright baubles in your world that can be so distracting. That doesn’t mean you can avoid meetings and email. You’ll just have a better handle on how much time and energy to give them, and trust that you’re still moving the needle for yourself in the right direction.

I can’t help but also suggest that one of the greatest obstacles to what I have suggested above is the lack of capturing, clarifying, and organizing all the things that have your attention now—little or big, personal or professional. This creates a mental backlog, which in turn makes you feel overwhelmed. This, then, greatly reduces your inspiration and ability to reflect on the relationship between your bigger game and your day-to-day realities. Once you implement the GTD® methodology, it is a lot easier to integrate and navigate all of those commitments.

Best of luck in reaching your big-picture goals.
David

Want to master these crucial skills? Attend one of our public training workshops in a city near you. Learn more at www.vitalsmarts.com/events.

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Confront a Liar

Dear Joseph,

Do you have advice on how to confront a liar? Normal confrontation does not work as they just spin more lies.

Signed,
Being Spun

Dear Being Spun,

Do I know how to confront lying? Hey, I raised five teenagers. You’ve come to the right place!

You wrote only two sentences, so please forgive me for parsing your words in an attempt to be helpful.

1. Master your story. You asked, “Do you have advice on how to confront a liar?” First, stop seeing them as a “liar.” You have reduced their identity to a label. You have zero possibility of creating an atmosphere that will invite them to acknowledge their dishonesty if you see them as nothing more than a sum of their worst behaviors. You’ll have made progress if you can come to see them as “a person who lies” rather than a “liar.” You’ll have made even more progress toward the possibility of dialogue if you can come to see them as “a person like me.” Negative labels are carriers of disgust. Nothing provokes defensiveness more than the sense that others view you with disgust. Disgust communicates that the other person is different, less than, worthless. Ask yourself, “When did I tell my most recent lie?” Perhaps yours are less stark than this person’s, but if you’re like me, you lie. You dress up the truth. You withhold your true feelings. You fail to correct misunderstandings that are favorable to you. Look for ways you are similar to this person and you’ll find a place from which you can feel understanding and even compassion rather than judgment and disgust.

2. Give them a reason to come clean. Acknowledging terrible mistakes is hard for anyone. Lying is one of the hardest of all. Since deceit is often connected to a deep sense of shame or fear, you’re asking someone to shine a light on a terrifying part of their character. They’re unlikely to do it unless there is an upside. For example, the possibility of redemption, forgiveness, a better way of working together, etc. If you are unwilling to offer any of these, don’t hold your breath for an admission of fault. Perhaps they will do it purely out of a desire to feel morally clean again. But I wouldn’t count on it if this is a long-standing and intentional pattern, as you suggest.

3. Master the facts. I recently watched an argument between two people in which one was accusing the other of lying. It went the way they usually do. The accuser cycled over and over through the same vague evidence. “You did it. I know it!” The other person denied having been deceptive. “No, I didn’t!” The accuser repeated the same vague evidence even louder, followed by louder denials. One of the reasons we fail to persuade others during crucial conversations is that we’ve spent too much time thinking about our conclusions and too little time laying out the data. If you want to help someone come clean, it’s best to lay out the strongest case you can absent judgments, accusations, and other hot words. Don’t start with, “You’re lying.” Start with, “I was sitting outside the laundry room the whole time my laundry was in the drier. You are the only one person who went into the room while I was there . . . ”

If you’re confronting repeated behavior, be as prepared to describe the pattern as you are any specific instance. As you lay out examples, refer again and again to the pattern you are trying to draw attention to.

4. Control yourself, not the other person. Prior to engaging in the conversation ask yourself, “What new boundaries will I draw between us if the lying continues?” Even if you share your suspicions as effectively as possible, and even if you are correct about the allegations, the other person may persist in denial. If this happens, your job is to protect yourself by drawing new boundaries. If you don’t do this, you’ll consign yourself to the misery of trying to control the other person. You can’t. And attempting to do so punishes yourself as much as the other person. If you’ve settled it in your mind that the other person can’t be trusted, you need to take responsibility to take care of yourself in this reality. For example, you may decide to distance yourself from the person at work, avoid working on shared projects, or involving them in risky tasks for which you are responsible. The most honest way of moving to this new reality is to do so openly. Tell them you are still unconvinced by their response. Let them know you don’t like carrying this conclusion but that until you can be persuaded otherwise, you will be operating differently toward them. Then specify how. But conclude with a sincere willingness to continue the conversation.

I hope something I’ve said above is of use to you as you navigate this troubling relationship.

Sincerely,
Joseph

Getting Things Done QA

Tips for the Forgetful

Dear Justin,

I can’t be the only one who makes trips to the grocery store only to kick myself when I get home because I forgot half of the items I needed. This same problem happens at work, too. I’ll have important items to discuss with my boss and forget to bring them up during my hour-long one-on-one meeting. Why can’t I seem to remember the important stuff in the moment that it matters? I chalk it up to being forgetful, but there’s got to be a solution. Please help.

Signed,
Forgetful

Dear Forgetful,

Don’t worry, you’re not alone. This sort of thing used to happen to me all the time. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pulled up to the grocery store, walked in the front door, literally stopped in my tracks and thought, “Why am I here?” It’s not only unproductive, it’s frustrating. Let me share two things that I’ve found contribute to this problem as well as a pretty counterintuitive solution.

1. You haven’t written the items down.
Perhaps the most important advice I could give you is that keeping track of stuff in your head is the last place you should keep track of it. David Allen likes to say, “There’s usually an inverse relationship between how much something is on your mind and how much it’s getting done.” So, that’s the first hoop to jump through. Be sure that when an errand comes to mind or someone asks you to pick something up, write it down or record it some place you look at regularly. I won’t get into too much detail here, but you can read more about it in my last article.

2. The way you organize your to-dos makes it hard for you to see that errand in the right moment and at the right place. The way people typically organize to-dos and tasks is either in one big list or by topic. The problem with the first approach is that I’m guessing you don’t just have 25 to-dos. If you did, then one list would work. Rather, I’m guessing you have 100 to 150 to-dos in your personal and professional life—maybe more. So, when it’s time to get things done, you end up spending more time sifting through the massive list to figure out which task to do in the moment considering your location.

With the second approach of organizing by topic/project, we run into the issue of context and resources. What I mean by this is: if you’re jumping into your car and the only work you could reasonably do is to make a few phone calls, you’d have to sift through all your different topic/project lists to see what calls you could make considering how much time you have. We’ve found that those who are the best at getting things done don’t organize in one big list or by topic/project, instead they organize by context.

Here’s the principle: make it much easier for you to see tasks you need to accomplish. Organize them not by project, or even a running list of to-dos, but rather by the location you need to be in, or the resource you need to be connected to, in order to complete the action. For example, have a list of calls to make. That way, the moment you jump into your car and have a few minutes to make some important phone calls, you can glance at this list and know exactly what you can accomplish in the time you have available. A few of my own lists that fit this structure are @Home, @Office, Errands, Calls, @Christina (my wife), @Work computer. Other helpful lists might be things like @Grocery store, Anywhere, @Airplane, Offline.

What this system allows you to do is get the right things done in the right place with the time you have available. You don’t have to waste time recalling why you’re on that specific errand or combing through to-do lists to find that item you wanted to chat with your partner about. Instead, when you jump in your car to head to the store (or when you arrive at the store), you can take 15 seconds to review your “errands” list to make sure you don’t miss anything. When you sit down with your boss for your weekly 1:1, you can open your agenda list (@Manager) that has all the items you specifically want to discuss with her.

Now, you might be thinking: “Justin, what if I forget to look at my list?” I knew you’d ask that, because I had the same question. Many apps now use geolocation technology, a great feature that solves this problem. This allows your phone to notice your location and whenever you get within a certain radius of your preferred store, for example, it will notify you of your errands list.

The approach of organizing by context was very counterintuitive for me, but once I tried it out with both feet in, my productivity was never the same; I’m convinced I’ll never go back to organizing by project, topic, or one big list.

When you organize by context or resource, your focus is on the actions you could take, not on sorting and sifting . . . and that’s really the point of getting things done.

Good luck,
Justin

Kerrying On

The Intuitive Social Scientist

June, 1954. It was a glorious Saturday afternoon—one of those rare spring days in Bellingham where the clouds pull back and provide a glimpse of Her Majesty in all Her splendor—the sun, that is. On this particular Saturday, the sun was effortlessly converting 800 million tons of hydrogen into 750 million tons of helium (every single second) and in so doing, sending radiant heat into our family’s 1939 Ford, where I was practicing my latest stunt. More specifically, I was standing on my head on the car’s backseat.

Mom was driving my brother Billy to a birthday party while I happily prepared for a career in the circus. In truth, I was riding in the wake of my brother’s excitement. The party we were headed to was being hosted by one of Billy’s friends, not mine, and he was going to the party, not me. Nonetheless, I was satisfied just to be cruising along Cornwall Avenue—proud, warm, and upside-down.

At age 13, my brother had found his own way to distract himself. He stuck his right arm out of the passenger-side window, fashioned his hand into a wing, and flew it through the Ford’s airstream. He did this while making loud engine noises, muttering rude comments about the pedestrians, and thinking he was cool. He was cool. How could he not be? He was wearing his brand-new Converse All Star tennis shoes. Those alone, would make him the hit of the birthday party.

Sadly, our cavorting came to a halt when Billy turned his airplane into a tomahawk, his engine sounds into a series of yelps, and his unspoken comments into a racial slur. Something about the looks of one of the kids walking down the sidewalk appeared wrong to my brother and he reflexively responded with a harsh comment about the inferiority of the boy’s heritage and appearance—in full voice, out the car window. Billy was trying out a racist comment he had heard at school a few days earlier. Not fully recognizing the odious nature of what he had said, Billy was attempting to make Mom and me laugh. It didn’t work. I didn’t understand the comment and Mom wasn’t the least bit humored.

With his unique combination of yelping and name calling, Billy set into motion an experience I’ll never forget. Hearing her son use a foul expression hit Mom like a ton of bricks—causing her to slam the brakes. Bill flew forward and bumped his head on the dashboard. I rocketed upside-down into the space behind the front seat, earning a crick in my neck.

“What did you just say?” Mom asked Billy.

“I said . . . ‘Ouch! You hurt my head!’”

Before I slammed on the breaks, what did you say?”

“High-dough-noo,” Bill whined.

“You do know. You just made fun of that boy back there—something about his Native American heritage and his clothing. Am I right?”

“Maybe,” Billy managed to say in a voice that was both defiant and fearful.

“I think it’s time for a field trip to visit a friend of mine,” Mom explained as she angled the car left and headed west. The party gift would have to be delivered another day. Today, Mom had bigger fish to fry.

As the Ford puttered west along the north shore of the bay, the scenery slowly changed. At first, I didn’t notice the houses deteriorate with each mile we passed. However, when the road eventually switched from blacktop to gravel, even at the age of eight, I knew that we were now on the “other side of the tracks”—the ones even further off the beaten path than my own neighborhood.

“Do you see that gray house up there to the right?” Mom asked. “What can you spot in the backyard?”

“There’s a dog,” I exclaimed.

“To the left of the dog.”

“It’s a water pump.” Billy answered.

And thus, began a discussion of the Lummi Island Indian Reservation and its dwellings. The house Mom singled out had a wood stove, not central heating. It drew water from a well, as evidenced by the hand pump. It had outdoor plumbing, enough said about that. The three of us discussed what it might to be like to live under such sparse circumstances. Until that moment, I had never thought about (or appreciated) central heating or running water—or what it might be like to live without them.

Next, we turned our attention to a group of men who were feverishly preparing for the salmon run. They were dressed in bland, functional clothing along with utilitarian shoes—nothing flashy, and certainly nothing sporting a star. Without notice, a woman I had never seen before appeared next to the car. Mom introduced her as Sadie, the lady who sold us salmon every fall. She was carrying handcraft material, mostly leather and beads.

“I’m making these for a ceremonial dance,” Sadie explained as she caught mom staring at her leather project. “Originally our ancestors wore them for hunting,” The intricate beading and detailed leather work reflected years of careful practice. From there, we walked to a community building where we spent time watching men working on their nets for the upcoming season. One fisherman showed me how to mend the net and then gave me a chance to do so. The twine dug deep into my fingers as I pulled the shuttle through its course.

“Try doing that for a couple of weeks,” he kidded.

Later that day, long after the birthday party had ended, Mom asked us what we had learned. Realizing that lecturing us about the evils of racism was likely to be ineffectual, Mom, the intuitive social scientist, chose a different influence tool. The moment bigotry raised its ugly head, she gave us an experience with people who were different from us. We got to experience a different culture first-hand and visit with her friend, Sadie, face-to-face. We got to see a different way of life, one that was in some ways much harder than ours and in some ways more rich and beautiful. Mom said nothing of Billy’s inappropriate behavior, instead we discussed how different traditions often lead to different interests and tastes. This, we learned, makes people who are different—interesting—not wrong. It also makes them fascinating, not inferior.

Finally, as Mom headed the Ford for home, Billy turned to me and asked: “Did you see the shoes that lady was making for her husband?”

“You mean the leather moccasins?” I asked.

“Yes,” Billy said, “The kid I shouted at was wearing them, and not Converse All Stars. That’s why I made fun of him.”

“But aren’t moccasins just as cool?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Billy answered. “I guess they are.”

“Is that right?” I asked Mom. “Are moccasins just as cool?”

“Yes,” she answered, “especially when you walk in them.”

Other

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Crucial Conversations QA

How to Motivate an Undervalued Workforce

Dear Joseph,

Currently, the large organization I work for is undergoing a change of ownership. There are many employees and leaders here who have been with the company for 20+ years. With the change of ownership, the financials are being scrutinized. We are told there will be layoffs—which there have been every year for the past six years. Leadership is saying we need to “get on the train” and get behind their message. We are being told all employees are replaceable and there is no need to retain talent. I have a strong team who do an amazing job without asking for more. However, we can’t keep going at this pace. We are going to lose talented employees. They will go to places where they feel valued by executive leadership.

How do I keep morale up while my team is told they are all replaceable?

Signed,
Train Conductor

Dear Train Conductor,

Let me summarize quickly what you’ve told me:

1. Management doesn’t care about retention.

2. Your employees have options that would offer them more job security.

3. You want them to stick around and be engaged anyway.

If I understand your question correctly, you’re asking me to help you manipulate your employees to do something that is not in their best interest. I decline.

But perhaps you are asking me a different question. Perhaps you are saying, “Some of my employees want to stay in full knowledge of the risk. How can I help them derive enjoyment while working for a company that has no commitment to their interests?”

If this is your question, I offer the following vignette and counsel.

I worked with a remarkable leader named Mike Miller years ago. He led a group of 3,000 IT professionals on a mission-critical project to work themselves out of a job. Essentially, they were consolidating billing systems in a large telecom company in such a way that within 18 months, fewer than half of them would be needed. In spite of assured job insecurity, the team delivered on time, on budget, and on spec—and with stellar employee engagement. How?

1. Mutual commitment. Mike demonstrated that he cared about the interests of his employees. Now, Mike was not the CEO of the company. It’s possible those above him saw all of his people as “replaceable.” But Mike saw them as people. He loved and respected them. And he promised to do all he could to give them maximum flexibility in finding their next assignments. So they trusted him.
2. Reframe the deal. He was candid that for many of the team, this would be a project—not a career. Fortunately, many in the IT world are comfortable with this arrangement. He built trust by being honest about what was and was not available.
3. Be transparent. Mike knew that what his team valued was predictability. They could control their financial lives if they could avoid surprises. He ensured that people knew far in advance when layoffs would happen—and whom would be affected.
4. Make it about the work not the company. I once worked for a defense contractor who made some of the coolest military equipment in the world. Many of the employees were deeply cynical about management. They would lumber dejectedly into the massive parking lot outside the factory toward their car after a long day’s work. And yet, if on any particular day, one of their products was being tested in the adjacent proving ground, these same employees would stop in their tracks and stare in pride and awe. They may have hated the company, but they loved the product. Mike built a sense of passion and pride in his team by focusing them on the unprecedented technical challenge they were taking on. He framed it like President Kennedy did about putting a man on the moon. And his argument rang true—he caught talented employees’ imaginations in a way that helped them want to engage in the task itself—in spite of the company that saw them as tools.

If there is meaning to be mined in the work you do, and if you are willing to put the interests of your people on par with the interest of the company, you have every possibility of retaining your morality while engaging your people in the work you do.

Best wishes,
Joseph

Crucial Conversations QA

Crucial Conversations via Email

Dear Steve,

Having successfully used and trained Crucial Conversations for many years, I believe in its efficacy for making difficult communication easier, more respectful, and more productive. My question is around whether it’s ever preferable to preface a crucial conversation by using email. Might this pave the way for a more congenial exchange later on by allowing you to express your ideas without risk of having them interrupted mid-sentence, and also allow the other person time to digest, process, and formulate his or her reactions to your communication without feeling the heat of the moment (and with it, the natural fight or flight response)? Or, because of the one-way, nonverbal nature of email communication, might this approach do more harm than good as a starting point?

Signed,
Pondering a Preface

Dear Pondering,

A while back, I found myself surrounded by unions. I frequently worked in unionized environments in a number of different organizations. The group dynamics in these environments were, well, “interesting” (feel free to insert your descriptor here based on your own experience). Sometimes, it was more interesting and sometimes less. But, regardless of the organization, it always became more interesting the closer it got to contract negotiation time.

At one point, I worked with two different organizations on issues related to hammering out a new contract. And in one of those organizations, it felt like a literal hammering. They referred to the negotiations as, “The blood bath on the lake shore” (it’s original name was too long and not family-friendly, so they shortened it to this).

In the other negotiation, it felt completely different. The atmosphere was collegial, rather than adversarial. Instead of preparing for battle, they prepared for agreement. There was a lot of similarities between the two: Both involved well-established, relatively strong, unions. Both organizations were similar in size. Both were considering touchy subjects and controversial positions. And yet, the whole mood and feel surrounding the negotiations were noticeably different. Why?

I was so taken aback, I asked an HR director at the non-“blood bath” organization if the actual negotiations were as pleasant as normal, everyday interactions seemed to be. The response: “Well, since Randy become Union President, they have been. He’s changed the whole way we go about the negotiations.”

We talked about a number of different things, but the practice she seemed to think made the biggest difference was almost insignificant. She said that before each big negotiation, he emailed exactly what they would ask for in the meeting. “I don’t want there to be any big surprises in the meetings,” he would say. And he always demonstrated his true intent was cooperation by sticking to those items he sent in advance, and/or advising of any shifts or amendments prior to the meetings.

Now, this didn’t take all the crucial out of the conversation, but it went a long way to reduce the strong emotions that arise from feeling like you’ve just been ambushed. And so, while there are some conversations that should never be conducted over email, there are ways you can align your email use with Crucial Conversations principles.

Before we jump in to appropriate uses, let’s pause for a Crucial Conversations caveat. If you think it will become, or has the potential to become crucial, it’s best to hold conversations in-person so you can pick up on non-verbals and adjust the level of safety as necessary. When it’s not possible to have face-to-face meetings, then opt for a tele-conference (phone or video apply here). And as a last option, settle for email. Are you getting an idea of the principle here? Use email to augment, not supplant your in-person discussions. So when and how can email be used?

While the most frequent application for email is as a follow-up to a crucial conversation to ensure we have a documented form of who is going to do what and by when, I think the more interesting application is the way the Union President used email during negotiations. In terms of crucial conversations, I think this approach is especially useful when working with creating Mutual Purpose and STATE-ing your path. And because I think the union example fits nicely as a Mutual Purpose application, I’ll focus on the STATE side of things.

When you have a Left-Hand Column (see the work of Chris Argyris for more on this concept) that’s occupying a lot of your mental capacity, it can be useful to write it out in an email prior to the pending conversation, but only if you complete the following pre-work before hitting the send button.

Write it out and pare it down. When using STATE, it’s helpful to remember that we’re not trying to prove our Left-Hand Column, but rather help the other person understand how we got to that conclusion. You want your perspective to be as concise as possible without losing the meaning of how you really feel. Try to capture the essence of the Left-Hand Column in two to three sentences.

Once you have it distilled to the essence, then work on making sure it’s tentative and that you’ve built enough safety around the concern to avoid having others spiral off into the misinterpretations of intent. And because you won’t be able to be present to see when and if people start to feel unsafe, it’s a good idea to go a little further than usual to create safety. Make sure you clarify your positive intent in sending the email, or provide some context as to why you are sending the email in the first place. Or even send an email indicating your desire to send an email about your Left-Hand Column.

If you try prefacing the actual conversation with an email only to find that you’re spending a good deal of time explaining/justifying why you sent the email, or finding that you’re spending more time than usual working to establish safety during the conversation, then back off the email and return to the face-to-face approach. And just remember, when you’re thinking about whether or not to use a preface, it’s used most effective when it is pre face-to-face. See what I did there?

Best of luck,
Steve

Want to master these crucial skills? Attend one of our public training workshops in a city near you. Learn more at www.vitalsmarts.com/events.