Don’t be Blown Off Course

December 21, 2013

Full Moon SantaEach of us has a vision of how our day will go if things occur “as expected,” but then life happens: There is an accident, illness, phone call, weather related issue, burned food, delivery, robbery, injury, the boss walks in, and on and on.

We are forced to react to these changes and try to juggle the interruption as best we can to still try to accomplish the objectives for our day.

On most days, most professionals have this kind of planning chaos occur. We can mourn the confusion, but it is better to just realize that these interruptions or distractions are what give life its spice.

One idea is to try waking up each morning with excited anticipation. The feeling should be, “OK I have a plan and objectives for my day, yet I know there will be large and small ‘adventures’ that take me off track.

Some of these may actually be fun, but many of them will be things I would rather not do. I look forward to stepping up to the challenge of accomplishing my goals while dealing with the distractions as they come up.”

Give yourself permission to get a bit testy if the interruptions become extreme. It is OK to put barbed wire and flares around your desk when a critical task has to be completed and you cannot be disturbed.

You just need to establish a priority for each task and work your way through the interruptions until you are back on course.

One technique I find helpful is to get up earlier and earlier until I get caught up with the backlog. The hours between 1 am and 7 am are delightfully free from interruptions, so my work time is more productive. Of course, I need to go to bed earlier and earlier to get enough rest, but the habit really does help me from getting buried for long periods of time.

Of course, some people are night people and others prefer the morning.

If you are habitually overloaded such that you never really get caught up, that is a stress problem that may be impacting your health. Depending on your tolerance for work, you may need to readjust your activities to make more time and reduce the amount of activities you are trying to juggle.

Another helpful technique is to use the word “no” more often. If you refuse to be blown off course every day, then you will be able to manage the remaining activities in the time you have.

That is often easier said than done, because sometimes the interruptions cannot be denied. If your child has fallen and has a broken arm, you cannot say, “Well, sorry, I have this report that is due out by tomorrow; we will take care of your needs after I get it done.”

Another technique is to identify how much time you are actually wasting. Sure, we all need to rejuvenate, but often we get involved in some TV program or in reading a book and just spend too much time doing the things we want to do, thus leaving not enough time for the things we have to do. Each of us has to find the right balance.

Ironically there is a practice that takes time away from work that is a real trap for some people. That is the habit of complaining about not enough time to do the work we have.

I once knew a man at work who spent nearly half his time walking around the office complaining to other people how there were simply not enough hours in the day to get his work done.

That activity was not only blowing him off course, but it also tied up the person who was listening to his rant. The idea is to ask yourself seriously if you are truly applying yourself fully to the work. Sometimes you may be actually procrastinating, yet you feel overloaded.

My experience has been that when I truly apply myself, I can get more done than I would have thought possible on most days. What happens when I let the distractions lure me away from what needs to be done is that I fall short of my inherent capacity.

It’s not that I couldn’t get everything done; it’s that I didn’t get everything done. There is a huge difference between those two statements.

To be fair, we all need a down day every once in a while where we just choose to goof off. The problem is that some people tend to have a percentage of goofing off as part of each day. That means when they get blown off course, there is no reserve time to flex to the situation. That creates frustration.

If you compartmentalize your tasks and keep pursuing your original list of things to do with excellent application, you can usually survive the winds that would blow you off course for the day.


Communication Complexities

October 14, 2012

Most of us have played the campfire game where a bunch of kids sit around the fire and pass a message from one to the other. It never fails that the message coming out at the end bears little resemblance to what was started.

The same kind of phenomenon is going on when two people try to communicate. There are many steps in the communication process, each of which might be pictured as an individual cub scout sitting around the fire. Here are ten steps that happen each time we say something to someone else:

1. I have a thought that I want to convey to you.

2. I decide how I am going to convey that message to you with my choice of words.

3. I send the message according to my interpretation of how my words will translate my true intent. (I will discuss tone and body language below.)

4. The information goes out from me through the air in sound waves.

5. You then pick up some portion of those waves depending on your level of attention and your physical ability to receive them. You never get them all.

6. You process the information based on your interest in what I am saying and your current level of distraction.

7. You make an interpretation of the information based on your biases and filters about how you perceive the world and what you were expecting me to say.

8. You make a decision how to translate the input into reaction thought patterns in your brain.

9. You make a determination about what you are going to do with the information.

10. You then give some external reaction, comment, or action based on your thoughts.

In each of these steps, there is the potential for tiny modifications of the original thought. Each modification may seem insignificant, but just as in the case with the campfire game, if you add up all of the minute changes, the final meaning may be quite different from the original one.

If the communication is reasonably good, then the thought in my head would be planted in your head roughly intact. If one step in the process modifies the input slightly, the starting point for the next step will be different, and a significant distortion in the final received message is likely.

When you add in the infinite variety of signals included in tone of voice and body language, the complexity goes up exponentially. The complexity involved in getting the words right is a significant challenge, but studies show that the words contain only a tiny fraction of the meaning we get. In 1967, Albert Mehrabian measured that when talking about feelings or emotions, only about 7% of the meaning is contained in the words we use. The remaining 93% of content is in the tone of voice and body language.

If I say to you, “You couldn’t have been any better in that meeting this morning,” the message you will receive is highly dependent on my voice inflection and body language. The same words can have very different, even opposite, meanings.

Body language is so complex because we send signals on many different levels subconsciously. The meaning you get will be colored by my skill at accurately projecting the intent behind the communication and also your skill at picking up the signals and decoding them correctly. There may be cultural differences as well that can make the interpretation even more complex. That is why knowledge of and appreciation for the complexities of body language are essential for good communication.

When you consider the complexity of this process, it is not shocking that a fair percentage of meaning in direct communication does not even hit the target area, let alone accomplish a bulls-eye. I think it is amazing that we get as close as we do.

When miscommunication happens, it is a natural reaction to become frustrated and even angry. We may jump to conclusions about the worthiness of our partner in communication. We say things like, “You are not speaking so I can understand your message,” or “You never listen to me,” or “You just don’t pay attention to what I am saying.” All of these scape-goating expressions may make us feel better by putting the blame on the other person, but they do not identify or rectify the root cause.

What is needed when message content becomes garbled is a sense that the inevitable straying off message has occurred. It is not necessarily the fault of either person. It just may take more than one attempt to communicate a message. To mitigate the problem, we need to patiently verify the message internalized is the same as the message sent. That takes a verification step, either verbally or with body language. Since the original communicator is 100% sure of what he or she thinks was said, it seems redundant to go through a verification ritual, but it is really necessary, especially for important messages.

When communicating with another person, keep in mind the complex process that is going on. Use your powers of observation to detect possible visual or verbal cues that the communication did not work as intended. Try to not blame the other person, because the truth is, it is a system problem, and you are also part of the system. Work on improving your own system both on the sending side and the receiving side.


Time Out

March 25, 2012

Imagine that you had a way to tell the leader of a meeting that you were bored with the current discussion and wished the conversation could move on to a more helpful topic.  Now imagine you could share your thought with others to test if they agreed without getting them or the leader upset with you.  If that seems like a utopia, just read on; this article has the solution to many hours of wasted time spent in meetings.

I advocate that each team should have some kind of Charter that allows the participants of team meetings to establish a set of ground rules to be as efficient as possible. At any time in its existence, a team can establish a few rules that will save everyone an amazing amount of frustration.

What is required is that the team be a group of mature individuals who all have their mutual best interest at heart. It helps a lot of there is real trust within the team.  Then just a quick brainstorm can generate a few basic rules.  For example, here are three rules that can lead to a more effective group process:

  1. We will start and end our meetings on time.
  2. We will listen to each other’s input and not grandstand.
  3. We will not make jokes at the expense of any team member.

One incredibly powerful team rule is the use of the “Time Out” signal.  The hand signal is the familiar one from football, where the referee puts the tips of the fingers of one hand to the palm of the other hand to form the letter “T.” Once a group has established that it is safe to do this, something magic happens.

Each member of the team is now empowered to let his or her thoughts be known when the group appears to be spinning wheels.  The time out sign is merely calling the question by letting the leader know that at least one individual thinks the team would be better off moving to a different topic.  Because of the agreement that the individual will not be punished for making the gesture, team members are free to use it when the situation arises.

The team leader should now say something like this, “I see Jake is signaling that he wants to move on, are the rest of you in agreement?”  If most of the team members show affirmative body language or verbal response, then the subject can immediately be changed to something more valuable. Imagine how refreshing this method would be in those all-day meetings that seem to drag on forever.

Just this one hand signal can save a team hours of tedious repetition or arguments, once a team agrees to use it.  I advocate that you encourage your team at work to discuss and approve the use of the “time out” gesture and other basic rules. These rules can significantly improve the productivity and empowerment of any team.