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.

Influencer QA

What To Do When Coworkers Monopolize Your Meetings

Dear David,

I work at a university where there is significant group work in the form of meetings or committees. In some of these meetings, a few people have a significant and vocal opinion about every agenda item. Every single one, every single time. I’ve noticed that these opinionated individuals speak to the point of soap boxing. Those of us who are indifferent or aren’t as vocal have grown tired of waiting our turn and check out of the meeting. It feels rather unproductive and pointless to hold a meeting since these gatherings are no longer about hearing from everyone but about hearing from the vocal minority. In addition, it has become an unsafe environment to voice a dissenting opinion—creating a lot of tension. What suggestions would you have to break up this meeting monopoly?

Sincerely,
Exasperated

Dear Exasperated,

I think we can all relate to your situation: sitting in endless meetings that accomplish little other than destroying participants’ motivation and morale. And certain kinds of environments foster the worst kinds of meetings where people act as if they were at a debating society or a congressional committee meeting. The good news is that fixing meetings is relatively straightforward. I’ll suggest a few actions for getting started.

Take ownership for the meeting.
One thing I’ve noticed about bad meetings is that everyone hates them, but few take responsibility for their failures. Begin by recognizing that your acceptance of bad norms reinforces those very norms. Change this situation by meeting with the meeting leader and suggesting the changes I’m going to recommend—as well as any other changes you believe would help. Don’t blame the leader for the bad meetings. You are all responsible and must all work together to create new norms.

Name the problems and create ground rules.
Create a list of the problem behaviors that derail your current meetings. Be prepared to describe the impacts these behaviors have on decisions, wasted time, and morale. And think about a small number of ground rules that would prevent these problem behaviors. Try to limit the ground rules to five or less.

Schedule a special meeting or agenda item to discuss these problem behaviors and proposed ground rules. Use this meeting to model the ground rules you’d like to see adopted. Your goal is to get buy-in for testing the ground rules. Post a sign that labels the problem behaviors and the ground rules. Be open to changing the ground rules as you see which of them work and which don’t.

Example: “One of our problems is a lack of balance in participation. Some people tend to dominate, while others don’t say anything. As a ground rule, let’s limit comments to two minutes and check in with people who haven’t spoken up.”

Use an agenda with topics and time limits.
Every meeting participant should receive an agenda at least a day in advance. This is especially important when you have introverts and others who prefer to prepare in advance, rather than speak off the cuff. In addition to beginning and ending times, the agenda should have time estimates for each topic. Participants and the meeting leader must then use these time limits to manage time during the meeting.

Example: A meeting participant says, “We only have 10 minutes left on this item. We haven’t heard from Suzy and John. Why don’t we get their perspective and then move on.”

Decide how to decide.
Many of the problems I’ve seen in meetings stem from confusion over what participants are being asked to provide. Often, there is misunderstanding over who owns the decision rights. Are team members being asked for their input, or does the team have the authority to make the decision? If they do own the decision, how do they decide among options?

Make the decision process clear for each topic on the agenda. The main alternatives are:

  • Command: The decision has already been made and the team is being informed about it. Often the decision maker wants the team’s help in implementing the decision.
  • Consult: Team members are being asked for their input. They may help to identify and evaluate options, but they won’t be making the actual decision.
  • Vote: The team is making the decision and is voting to decide among options. Voting favors efficiency over dialogue, so it only works when all team members feel they can support whichever option wins. In my experience, voting is rarely used.
  • Consensus: Talk until everyone honestly agrees to one decision. Consensus is appropriate only when dealing with a.) High-stakes and complex issues, or b.) Issues where everyone must support the final choice.

Example: The participant who has a particular topic on the agenda says, “This is a consult. I want your input on . . . ”

Hold each other accountable. Don’t rely exclusively on the meeting leader to keep the meeting on track. Participants need to speak up when they see problem behaviors and to remind others of the ground rules.

Example: “John, we’ve heard from you already. Let’s stick to the two-minute rule and see what others might add. If there’s time, we can come back to you.”

Tips on stopping soapboxing.
I’m guilty of this myself. I enjoy thinking on my feet and I talk when I’m thinking through an idea. I don’t mean to dominate. Not really.

Here are some tips to stop people like me from doing all the talking.

  • Take notes on a white board or flip chart. Document the person’s point, and then stop them from repeating him or herself. Paraphrasing can serve this same purpose, but isn’t as effective as writing down what the person has said.
  • Give everyone two-minutes of silence to think about, and write down, their ideas on a topic.
  • Use a two-minute speaking rule to force people to be concise.
  • After the person has spoken, have several others give their input before allowing the first person to speak again.
  • Ask the person to provide further input after the meeting, perhaps in writing.

This is a topic that is familiar to many readers. Can everyone pitch in to help by sharing your best tips for keeping meetings effective, efficient, and on track? To share your best meeting tips, comment below.

Best of luck in getting your meetings back on track.

Sincerely,
David

Influencer QA

How to Help Your Child Change His Behavior

Dear Joseph,

For the past four years, my son has been training in martial arts and loves it. In the past few months, he has gotten called twice on his “bullying” behavior. The instructor has told us that if there is one more instance of bullying, he will not be allowed back. We don’t want to diminish the importance of respectful behavior or sound like we don’t think this is important. However, we think the instructor sees our son as a “bully” and not as a person who lacks skills and needs training. We want people in his life who will hold him to a high standard—something he can’t get if the answer is just to kick him out.

We are having crucial conversations with our son. He understands why his actions were perceived negatively even though that wasn’t his intention. He wants to keep trying. How do we help the instructor see that our son needs skills and not expulsion?

Signed,
Expelled

Dear Expelled,

I’ve got a few thoughts for you. Please understand that I am limited to only the information you have shared and may draw some erroneous conclusions. However, my intent is to be helpful—both through encouragement and challenge.

First, I’m going to make an assumption that a martial arts instructor would not use the term “bullying” if the behavior was subtle. I’ll assume it involved physical aggression of some sort. I’ll also assume the class is relatively small—as most martial arts classes are. You say he has been called out twice for the behavior. If it is a small class that would mean most of the kids would likely have witnessed the behavior on both occasions.

  • 1. Consider Others. I would encourage you to care as much about the other students as you do about your son. Given that the bulk of your note argued for the interests of your son, I worry that you have given less thought to the feelings of the other students and parents who are affected by your son’s behavior. The martial arts instructor has clearly attempted to consider both—otherwise he would have expelled your son after the first instance. He is exposing the other students to the bullying behavior for a third time. You will have little influence with the instructor if your sole interest is the prerogative of your son and not the psychological and physical safety of the rest of the class. I am not suggesting that expulsion is the only right answer. I am simply suggesting that if you want others to care about your interests, you must be willing to commit to securing theirs.
  • 2. Think about what you really want. You seem very focused on ensuring your son does not get kicked out of class. Is that what you really want? Is this about helping him learn about life and consequences or staying in a specific martial arts class? You state that hurting others was “not his intention.” You may be right—but life is not about intentions, it is about actions. And if his actions hurt others, life is about accepting consequences. It could be that the best life lesson to help him become a compassionate and responsible man is for him to lose this opportunity. Are you willing to consider that? If not, then your motives might not be what you think they are.
  • 3. Let him own his own problems. Once again, if your goal is to help him become compassionate and responsible, I suggest you stop trying to solve this problem for him and let him solve it for himself. Having been a martial arts instructor myself, I can tell you I would be far more impressed with a remorseful student asking me how he can regain my trust than with a persistent parent pleading that I overlook his threatening behavior. The best way to help him increase his empathy skills is to let him connect personally with those he has wronged—both the teacher and the other students. Don’t rob him of this growth opportunity by trying to engineer an easy outcome.

I can tell you care deeply about your son. Nothing is more difficult or uncertain in life than determining how best to influence another human being. I wish you the best as you make this important decision.

Sincerely,
Joseph

Getting Things Done QA

Help! I’m Buried By My Inbox

NOTE FROM EDITOR: We are excited to announce the launch of our brand new training course, Getting Things Done®. In the month of August, we will highlight the skills and principles from Getting Things Done in our author Q&A article. Enjoy!

Dear Steve,

Can you help me better understand how, and more particularly when, I should clarify new items that come into my email inbox? It seems like it would take less time to scan my emails for the most important ones I need to take care of, and leave the less important issues for later. I’d appreciate any advice you could offer.

Sincerely,
Stuck in Clarify

Dear Stuck,

Recently, I was at a session where we discussed the number of emails currently in our respective inboxes. The first person to respond had 151 emails. Before she even finished saying, “One-hundred-and-fifty-one,” the person to her left cut her off with, “Amateur!” As it turned out, he was sitting on 5,000!

As we dug in further, we found that much of that backlog was a result of how he interacted with those emails—and surprisingly little to do with the raw number of email he received. And he’s not alone. Many of our GTD® participants own up to having email inboxes that range from full to overflowing. To shed some light on this common challenge, I’ll refer to the CCORE skills from Getting Things Done. CCORE is an acronym from GTD Training that stands for Capture, Clarify, Organize, Reflect, and Engage. Let’s bring some clarification to Clarify.

The overarching principle behind Clarify is to be familiar with what inputs are coming your way and, more importantly, what type and amount of effort they require of you. To do this effectively, you have to do some thinking and make some decisions regarding those items before taking action. While it may seem like a nuisance to add in this thinking and decision time to your email work, realize that you can either think and decide when things show up, or when they blow up. Of the two options, the preferred choice seems pretty obvious, right? So why, would anyone choose the latter of the two options? No one says, “Let’s see . . . I prefer to only deal with things once they’ve either fallen through the cracks or blown up into a crisis.” But unfortunately, it’s rarely framed this way. Usually, the dilemma comes packaged in an efficiency wrapper: “Why spend all that time ‘thinking’ about getting things done when I could actually just get things done?” People who succumb to this half-truth spend a lot of time engaged in emergency scanning.

Emergency scanning is the process of looking through your inbox for any high-priority emails and responding to those while leaving the others for later. And it’s not that this practice is necessarily evil. It’s great when you’ve just stepped out of an all-day meeting and have a few minutes to figure out if anything urgent requires your attention, or if the person you’ve been waiting to hear from has responded. The problem is when emergency scanning becomes the only way you clarify. Working in this mode ensures that you address only the high-priority items while creating a healthy backlog of less-urgent emails that grow to fill the available space (Parkinson’s fourth law of email). Each of these backlogged emails require multiple touches to re-clarify and re-figure out what needs to be done about it so by saving them for later, you are not getting rid of them. Rather, you are duplicating the amount of work it takes to read them, clarify them, and take any necessary actions.

However, if you take the time to Clarify on your first read—i.e. make decisions about what each email means to you and how you’ll respond—you can either get the task done immediately, file it away for important use later, or add it to a project with the next action clearly identified. Most importantly, you can move on from that email, release its hold on your mental to-do list, and start getting work done.

Clarifying once, and only once, when things show up in our inbox not only creates a proactive bond between you and your stuff, it’s also an efficient way to evaluate your workload and prioritize your commitments. Now, to make it a little easier, you may find it’s useful to clarify with your email in off-line mode. That way, you won’t feel tempted to go back to the top every time a new message makes it’s Pavlovian entrance (bing!).

If you find you have a backlog only a mother could love, I suggest something a little different. Pick a date in the past (two weeks or older works well), and move all those emails out of your inbox and into a folder titled “to be clarified.” This way, you’ll still have them (for those of you who’ve grown attached), and you can chip away at them over time as you maintain a more healthy load.

In one organization, teams that engaged their GTD skills reported an average of thirty minutes of “extra” time they hadn’t enjoyed previously. And where did the majority of that new time come from? A good chunk came from not having to touch their emails multiple times before taking action on them.

For those just beginning, it might take you a little longer to grow accustomed to the new discipline of clarifying. But over time, you’ll find clarifying becomes easier and quicker. And, the biggest benefit you’ll find is the direct link between how clear your next actions are and your ability to take action.

Best of luck,
Steve

Getting Things Done QA

How to Say “No” and Reclaim Your Career

NOTE FROM EDITOR: We are excited to announce the launch of our brand new training course, Getting Things Done®. In the month of August, we will highlight the skills and principles from Getting Things Done in our author Q&A article. Enjoy!

Dear Emily,

How do you say “no” to requests and projects that come across your desk? I want to be helpful and do everything that’s asked of me, but if I said “yes” to every request I received, I wouldn’t actually get to my top priorities and that would reflect poorly on my performance. How do I balance urgent requests with long-standing responsibilities?

Signed,
People Pleaser

Dear Pleaser,

I started my life as a people-pleaser. I had a strong sense of perfectionism and I wanted to be liked. Put the two together, and I would do just about anything to keep from letting someone down. I didn’t want to disappoint anyone, ever.

These motivations served me well in my career for many years. I developed a reputation as someone who could be counted on, someone who produced results. But then, several years into my career, I had an important realization. My career wasn’t mine any more. My career belonged to all the other people who made requests of me. I was doing what they wanted or needed me to do, what they asked of me, rather than doing what I wanted or needed to do.

So, I learned to say “no” and I learned to disappoint people. Because, if you never disappoint someone, it means you aren’t living your life, you are living the life other people want you to live. Getting Things Done® provides a framework for balancing all of the inputs in your life—those generated by others (requests they make of you) and those generated by you (things you want to do). Here are three ideas that have been helpful for me.

Survey all your options.
David Allen says it this way, “You can only feel good about what you are not doing if you know what you are not doing.” Capturing all your inputs, both those that come from others (i.e. requests people make of you) and those that come from yourself (i.e. ideas and thoughts you have) is the key to making sure you know what you are not doing. Until you have a clear picture of everything you could be doing, it is impossible to make a good choice about what you should be doing.

Think of it this way: if you are sitting at your desk and an urgent email request comes in from a coworker, your natural inclination will be to see it and evaluate its importance in a vacuum. Is it important? Yes, so I will do it right now. But, if you have captured (and subsequently organized) all of your inputs, you can look at that email coming in and say, “Why, yes, this is important but when I compare it to the other things on my list, it is not as important.”

Getting a clear, documented (i.e. written down) picture of all of your inputs is the first step in creating the space you need to choose what to do rather than simply react to what is in front of you. Just make sure you write everything down—including the projects and tasks most important to you. Your “to-do” list has to include all the things YOU want to do; not simply what OTHERS want you to do.

Make “no” a decision rather than a delay.
For most of us, there is simply no way to do everything everyone wants of us. We have to set boundaries and say “no” to some things. To minimize the impact on others of saying “no,” it is best to say “no” quickly and clearly.

  • Quickly: When a request comes in, it should take only a couple of minutes to read and evaluate. If you truly have a clear picture of all your choices, you can easily place this new request in the context of those choices and decide whether you can take it on or not. That decision can be made quickly. Don’t procrastinate saying “no.” Doing so increases the pressure on you to say “yes” and leaves the other person with less time to get the help he or she needs from other sources.
  • Clearly: Here I will borrow from Yoda: “Do or do not; there is no try.” With the best of intentions, I sometimes find myself saying to someone, “I have a lot on my plate right now but I will try to get this done for you.” This response helps no one. It puts pressure on me because I have made a commitment I know deep down I can’t keep. On other side, the person making the request hears this response as a “Yes, Emily will do this.” Think of saying “no” like ripping the Band-Aid off: there is far less pain if you do it quickly and clearly.

Understand the true impact of saying “yes.”
Most of the time, we consider only the impact of saying “no.” Keisha asks me for help. If I say “no” that will put her in a bind. This makes me feel bad and tempts me to say “yes.”

But what is the impact of saying “yes”? This might include:

  • Less time and energy for more important projects I want to focus on.
  • A missed opportunity for someone else on the team to develop and grow. When I say “yes” to something, it means someone else doesn’t get the chance to say “yes” to it. There might be others on the team or in the organization who could handle this work or who would like the opportunity to step up and take on this type of project.
  • Failure to keep commitments to others. I say “yes” to Keisha and the impact is I have to tell my daughter I won’t make it to her soccer game after all.

Saying “yes” to people is important. Helping, mentoring, and teaming are all hugely valuable uses of our time. The key is to make sure we make conscious choices about how to use (or not use) our time so we are controlling our choices not ceding those choices to others.

Best of luck in using your new skills,
Emily

Getting Things Done QA

Is Your To-Do List Keeping You Up at Night?

NOTE FROM EDITOR: We are excited to announce the launch of our brand new training course, Getting Things Done®. In the month of August, we will highlight the skills and principles from Getting Things Done in our author Q&A article. Enjoy!

Dear Justin,

The worst feeling is waking up in the middle of the night in a panic, worried I’ve let someone down or dropped the ball. Unfortunately, this happens far too often to me. I’m pretty good at managing my time, but the demands of work and family are so intense that the fear of dropping the ball keeps me up at night. How can I better manage that stress and ensure I’m really getting it all done?

Sincerely,
Sleepless and Stressed

Dear Sleepless,

I couldn’t agree more. There are few things more frustrating than recalling unfinished tasks when you’re in no position to resolve them—like when you’re lying in bed after a long day. What’s more, these recollections are often soon forgotten again so we fail to act on them when we’re in the position to do so. For example, the other day it occurred to me to pick up something at the store—while I was in the shower.

Let me provide a little background on why this happens as well as simple steps you can take to clear your mind and alleviate stress over all your to-dos.

In the 1920s, a Soviet psychologist named Bluma Zeigarnik noticed an interesting phenomenon as she ate breakfast at a local café in Berlin. She found that waiters could remember vast amounts of information for unpaid orders, but very little about orders that were paid and closed. She and her colleagues studied this further and discovered what came to be called the Zeigarnik Effect. To summarize their discovery, our brains easily release completed tasks, but when we leave tasks unfinished our brains will not let them go. We are literally wired to get things done, and we can’t rest easy until we do.

Now, this can be stressful if you have even five to ten unfinished commitments in your life, but the typical person is beholden to dozens if not hundreds of tasks on any given week, many of which don’t get completed. As you can imagine, such mountains of uncompleted to-dos cause the mind to constantly whisper, “Don’t forget to . . . ,” or, “Hey, you still need to . . . ,” or, “You haven’t taken care of . . . ” This buzz in our heads saps our focus and prevents us from being present with the people and moments we care about most. Unfinished commitments, in other words, own a piece of us. And this involuntary self-nagging over all we HAVEN’T done results in anxiety. David Allen says, “Much of the stress people feel doesn’t come from having too much to do. It comes from not finishing what they’ve started.”

Case in point, I bet that as you’ve been reading this, you’ve thought about some task or commitment you need to take care of. And yet, you’ve taken no steps to actually move it forward. This demonstrates how we waste time and mental energy when we’re preoccupied with life’s “open loops.”

Sweep Your Mind

One simple way to begin decluttering your mind is to perform a mind sweep. Clearing the mind is crucial to cultivating a creative and unworried mental space. As David Allen says, “The mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” I recommend committing this truism to memory.

Here’s how to start. Grab some paper and a pen and set a timer for 5 minutes. During that 5 minutes, write down everything that’s pulling at your attention, any “should” or “ought to” items in your work or personal life. These might be errands you need to run, calls you need to make, emails you’ve been meaning to send, projects you want to start or finish. Don’t worry about quality, go for quantity; write down as many items as you can. Most people scratch down a list of 20-30 items, but this really only touches the surface. There is so much more we hold in our heads.

At any rate, review what you’ve written down. How do you feel about those ought-tos and to-dos now that they’re on paper? You probably feel a little better. You may have a sense of greater control or feel a little less stressed. Why? Did anything about those items change? Did you complete the tasks? No. You merely shifted how you engage with all that stuff. You are no longer juggling mental debris.

Capture Things in Buckets

Mind sweeps can empower you and enrich your life, especially when done daily. A clear mind is able to do what it does best—originate and consider ideas. As you develop the habit of sweeping your mind, continually write down new items that land on your agenda and fresh ideas that occur to you. And write them where they’re easily accessible. David Allen carries a notepad in his wallet. I like to send myself a quick email. You might keep a pad of paper by your bed or on your desk at work. You might use a note-taking app on your phone or tablet. These tools serve as buckets for capturing ideas. Using them keeps your mind open and free, so you can continually receive ideas and better live up to your ongoing commitments. But be sure to limit the number of tools you use. The fewer tools you use, the fewer buckets to empty each day. When people tell me they are “dropping balls” or things are “falling through the cracks,” it’s usually because they capture inputs and ideas into too many disparate locations, or buckets. Or, worse, they don’t capture them at all.

Now, knowing how best to execute your commitments and manage the items in your bucket requires another discussion (see future posts on clarifying and organizing your inputs). Until then, this is a good place to start.

In short, your time and mental space is too precious to be preoccupied with what you’re not doing. If you better handle what holds your attention today, you’ll free up more of that rarest of gifts: your undivided attention. Which you can devote to people you cherish and activities that matter.

Best of luck,
Justin