3 steps when goals seem out of our reach

I think back to the most frustrating times of my life and I felt exactly like David Whyte standing in front of a ravine, desperate to be the other side and with palpitations because it seems impossible.

Whenever we feel frightened it helps to visualize the ravine.  And draw the ravine on a piece of paper.

  1. What is on the other side that we want so deeply?
  2. What is the gap and the frayed rope bridge that seems too dangerous to use?
  3. And where are we now?

I want to be clear: when we are really frightened, we forget to do this.  And we chide ourselves for forgetting!  But we shouldn’t – we are anxious because our dream is important!

When we remember, our task is to imagine the ravine and draw, or jot down, our answers to all 3 questions.

Then we concentrate on question 3 and write down everything we can think about where we are now.  We might want to concentrate on the other two questions.  That is understandable but we should write down point after point about HERE & NOW.  Set a goal – write 1, then write 2 more, then write 2 more, until we are on a roll.

Lastly we underline the parts that work well. This is important.  We go through our list of HERE & NOW and underline what works well.

And if you don’t think of something that will move you forward, write to me and complain!

But I guess you will write to me to say how well this method works.

Come with me!

  • Think of your biggest dream that you have put aside to attend to your obligations or because you think you have to be cautious during the recession.
  • Feel your fear and honor it!  You only feel fear because this goal is important to you.
  • Then draw the diagram and remember to write down in detail where are now  Finally, underline what works well.

Are you feeling better?  Can you see a way forward?

Prepare for a winning week!

First step to setting my goals for the recession

manchester airport
Image by rogerbarker2 via Flickr

The recession is like a plane journey

When I lived in New Zealand, I flew a lot.  Thirty-six hour journeys in the main.  After a while, it was possible to get it down to a fine art.  Everything was just where I needed it.  I knew the oddities of the airports en route, and the vagaries of a chain of flights through countries with their own distinctive cultures.

I walked into an aircraft, put my hand-luggage overhead, and sat down with exactly what I needed – book, hard case to protect my glasses, pen and passport if I anticipated filling in forms before we touched down.

And then someone sat down next to me and started bobbing up-and-down. First, they had forgotten this. Then they had forgotten that!  My heart would sink!

What can psychologists tell us about being cool, calm and collected?

Why is that some people cannot get their act together?  Why are others cool, calm, collected, and seemingly in control of every thing going on around them?

Action theory

Yesterday I listed three types of initiative described by Michael Frese of Giessen University.

Self-starters are quick to action and equally quick to figure out what works and what doesn’t. In an aircraft, they get their junk into an overhead locker quickly, clear the aisle, help other people, hold up no one, yet are comfortable and ready to go.

Proactive people think ahead.  They have what they need in the outer pockets of their hand luggage.  They are dressed for a wide range of cabin temperatures and take off a jacket or put on one without a fuss.  They know that alcohol will worsen the cabin-induced dehydration and they claim all the water they can see.

Persistent people are amazingly flexible.  They know that they are not in control and ‘read’ what is happening around them, less to join in, and more to help everyone else get settled.  They know they can get back to enjoying a quiet and peaceful flight when every one else is settled.

Can we be self-starting, proactive and persistent all at once?

Of course, we would like to be!  We all like to be in control, calm and dignified!  But can we be prompt to act, yet planful?  Can we be flexible, yet persistent?

The three styles of initiative are brought together with three key psychological concepts: goals, plans and feedback.

Goals are amazing.  When we decide what we really want to do, we become self-starters.   We jump into tasks and nothing can stop us.  Oddly everything becomes very easy too – or as we say, ‘the universe conspires to help us’!

Plans allow us to anticipate the various ways something can pan out.  So we learn to allow for other people’s needs and we budget a little time and energy to help them out.

Feedback tells us if we are on track.  If we have a realistic mental model of what will unfold, we can say to ourselves – my long term goal is to have a restful flight and my short term goal is to help my neighours get settled.  Then we can follow both plans simultaneously.

German and American psychology

The big difference between German and American psychology is the recognition of these three concepts.  American psychologists talk a lot about goals and to a lesser degree about feedback.  Germans place a lot more emphasis on plans.

We are able to make plans when we understand how the world works.  Hence, education is important.   So too is experience.  So is a good attitude to errors.  An error simply alerts us to the possibility that something needs to be understood.

For example, on several occasions as I stood exhausted and bleary-eyed in Australian passport queues, something went wrong with their computers and it took over an hour and a manager to sort it out.  The third time it happened, I stepped round the counter and watched how they resolved the problem.  To cut a long story short, it seemed that the clerk had entered the country code for my passport incorrectly.  I could see that this would happen again.  Thereafter, my passport proudly carried yellow stickies with the message “The code for xxxxx is yy!”  Understanding the objective world and the priorities of others is so important to maintaining our own bearings.

When I understand the “noise and whip of the whirlwind”, I find it so much easier to deal with the “noise and whip”, or to use another metaphor, to give unto Ceasar.  Dealing with distractions, interruptions and errors may take a little time, but I don’t muddle them up with a commentary on what I am doing.  I deal with the distractions on their own terms, and register as feedback solely whether or not I am free to pursue my own goals!

When I am aware of what is going on around me and I have dealt with the odd things that come up, then at last I can act more like a self-starter – pursuing goals, doing what needs to be done immediately, being more mindful, and finding flow.

All three – goals, plans and feedback – work together.  Sometimes I am on a learning curve.  And I need to get through up that curve to arrive at a point where I am self-starting, proactive and persistent – or to anyone else – cool, calm and collected!

So what should I do about my disorganized neighbours?

Well, neigbours on long-distance flights, as in life, can be interesting or dull.  They can genuinely require help, or just be the most feckless, disorganized wretches that it is possible to imagine.

It doesn’t matter which they are. They are. They simply ‘are’.  We take them as we find them.  I’ve found myself reading for hours to an 8 year old travelling alone and on another flight, moving seats to allow an engineer travelling from Melbourne to Rwanda to use my seat to sleep.  I’ve shared a beer with a fireman from 9/11 and translated for seamen determined to drink the bar dry as they flew from Cape Town to Beijing.

They each had their goals, their plans based on their understanding of their world, and their judgement of the situation.  They’ll settle soonest if they can explore the situation they find themselves in, learn what works, and balance up alternative plans.  The sooner they can do that without distraction from me, the sooner they will settle.

And talking about the recession?

Like most people, I am exasperated by the mess made by the banks.  I am not even sure why we continue to pay people who are manifestly not competent in the business they have chosen.

I am also looking forward to the point where more people around me are ‘up to speed’ on what is happening in the world of international finance.  I’ll even be happy when more people around me are actively trying to find out what is happening.

I would like to see people setting positive goals.   Too many goals seem to be persistent in the wrong way  – hanging on to what we thought would happen – and no longer relevant to what is happening.  As we learn about this new world, we must find goals that are attractive in spite or even because of the mess. We will still have to deal with the mess, but it won’t bother us half as much if we have our own goals on the horizon.

And then we will find ourselves more active – less inclined to groan when the alarm clock goes off.

The truth is achieving goals is simple – the universe really seems to help us.  Deciding on our goals is the hard part.


Come with me!

So I’ve begun.  Today, I flicked open my SEO notebook at the back and started jotting down key figures on the British economy as I found them in various articles.

How are you learning more about the financial system and the economy?

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Complicated is horrible. Complexity is beautiful.

Oh, I am so irritated.  I’ve been doing tax returns all day.  They have to be one of the most irritating things in life, and not because someone is taking money off us.  They are irritating because they are convoluted, fiddly, and complicated.

There are plenty of other complicated things in life too.  Airports with signs that send you anywhere except where you want to go.  Bosses who change their minds quicker than change their socks.  And road signs!  Zemanta, the Firefox Addon which searches the web while you write your blog, found this humbdinger of signage from Toronto, dubbed ‘The Audacity of Nope‘.

The opposite of complicated is complex

Instead of the stop-start sensation we get when details are allowed to disrupt the flow of the whole, complexity is when the parts come together to make something bigger themselves – like the mexican wave in a home crowd.

Is eliminating complicatedness and creating complexity the essence of professional life?

Do architects create buildings where we flow, never having to stop and scratch our heads, or to backtrack?

Do brilliant writers grab attention our attention in the first line and take us with them into a world where we follow the story without distraction from out of place detail?

Do leaders describe our group accomplishment, and draw us into a collective adventure, to play our part without constant prodding and cajoling?

How do you create complexity in your work?

In what ways do you help us experience the whole where parts fit in without discord?

  • What is the ‘whole’ thing that you make?  If you can’t name it, can you visualize it, or hear it?
  • What are the essential parts of the whole, and the linkages between the parts that are essential to form the whole?
  • What are the signs that you look out for that the whole is ‘forming’, or ‘not forming’, as it should?
  • What are the extra bits of help that from time-to-time you add for the whole to come to fruition?

I’m interested in the complexity you manage, and the beautiful and satisfying experiences you add to the world.

Come with me

Share your experiences with us?

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Frazzled? Get a one line job description

I don’t know about you, but the last two weeks have been pretty busy for me.  People are coming-and-going, new projects begin, tax returns are due (January 31 deadline for individual online returns in the UK) and I have all those New Year resolutions swirling around my heads, too.

Poet, David Whyte, talks about being so busy that every one around you appears to be too slow.  The person walking in front of you on the street is in the way; your partner left dirty dishes in the sink, again; you colleague, superior or subordinate has dropped the ball, again.

I hate it when I feel like that. I feel like that now, and I know my ‘job description’ is to blame.   It’s just too busy!

Prune

In December, I ruthlessly cut out anything that is rushed or disorganized.  I learned this trick from commercial bankers.  If you are in a hurry, the answer is No.  You are obviously disorganized and your project will fail.

And lest I forget, I staple evidence of disorganization to the front cover of the file!

But I have pruned and pruned, and still, I have too much that I want to do.

Prioritize

I spent much of my life working in universities.  It surprises most outsiders (and students) that the main job of university lecturers is not to teach.  They are required to teach adequately – I was even told by my Dean once – CHEAT don’t TEACH.

Research is their main task.  It is the only thing they can be promoted for and to protect this priority, people get up to work early in the morning and it is a big no-no to disturb any one ‘working at their papers’ or ‘in the lab’.

Admin or community service comes a poor last and tasks are shared and rotated.  Even being Head of Department is rotated.   You do your share, perfunctorily.  That’s it. And it is done in the afternoon.

I’ve tried priotiising, but I don’t have three goals.  I don’t even have five.  I got down to nine and the list has lengthened since the New Year.

My difficulty is that when I am doing one task, I am worrying about the others.  Once we get beyond entry level jobs, it is not the tasks themselves that is important, it is the interrelationships between tasks that are critical.  To shift sectors, triage is more important than task.  University lecturers add value by showing students where a field is going rather than by reciting the lecture they gave last year and the year before.

Picture

As yet I have never found a system that allows us to track the inter-related progress of several projects and whether we will achieve our grand plan.  What I do, when I need to work at this level, is draw my goals in a circle and imagine bringing all the goals in successfully at the same time.

Pictures are great for seeing interconnections.  Systems theorists are pretty good at drawing pictures of how the world fits together.

What I did this morning was to write my job description in one line.  A job description should only have ONE goal, shouldn’t it?  Basic Fayol.  This how it begins

My job is to achieve, simultaneously, .  .  .  .   .   .

I took a blank piece of paper and put 2009 in a circle in the middle and started putting my sub-goals in circles around the page.  Hey, presto, they fell neatly into five groups.  I thought some might fall away but they grouped quite naturally.

My next test was whether I could I set quarterly and monthly goals for each of the five groups.  I took another page, put 2009 in the middle and drew FIVE spokes, marked off quarters and months for the first quarter, and jotted down some notes.  Yep, this works.  And I got better names for the spokes, making it clearer what I do, why I do it and how each spoke makes the others possible.

And best still, the pull on my attention seems to have resolved a little.  The tasks that have been getting short shrift, somehow feel like they should be done first thing in the morning, though some can be prepared the night before, and the tasks that I enjoy doing but have more elastic timescales can be done in the late afternoon.

Mmmm, definitely worth trying.

Come with me

a) I’ve already said ‘no’ to one or two people this year (amazing), though in each case I’ve been able to follow through with a good introduction or significant friendly help.

b) My prioritization has sucked, but at least I’ve been aware of it. I’m feeling a bit better.

c) I’m testing out my one line job description: my task is to achieve simultaneously .   .   .

A picture would be better still.

Can you state your job description in one line?

Relaxing into my New Year’s Resolutions!

Tomorrow is the last day of 2008 and most people will spend a little time day dreaming about what they would like to see happen in 2009.

The Press will remind us, it is a standard story (!), that most of us will not keep our resolutions.

Do you keep yours? I keep mine.  This is how I do it.

I set targets for the end of the year and write them down in a place that I am likely to stumble over in the second half.

For example,

By the end of 2009, I will take pleasure in exercise.

ONE

This gives me time to achieve the goal and allows for the stops, starts and false turns that are inevitable.

TWO

I am focusing on what I enjoy.

If I go out to play tennis, or take the stairs instead of the lift, then I tend to think about the part that was fun.  After a while, I associate the activities with fun and look forward to doing them.

THREE

And I write down the goal in a place, I don’t look every day but that i will find by accident months from now.

I usually write my resolution on the front inside cover of my diary.  At some time, I will probably use the calendar to plan something, or I will open the diary when I am hunting for my driver’s license number, or something like that.

The double surprise of finding my resolution and discovering that I have done something about it,  is enjoyable.   I begin to think of myself as someone who gets things done (eventually), and as someone who truly likes exericse (in this case).  It’s a good feeling.

And if you don’t have the energy to be willful, pop back here tomorrow and I’ll summarize a positive psychology approach to your new year review that is altogether more fun than this!

Will you join us in our Contribution to the Recovery?

I am pleased to announce the formation of

ROOI LIMITED

Psychologists working with Social Media

Our mission is to put social media at the service of businesses, colleges and communities to help focus on “the good and the true, the better and the possible”.

We have a clear goal.  As the clock strikes twelve on the 1 January 2010, we will will be looking forward to a year of work and study that is more vital and connected than we had ever thought possible.  I hope you will be there with us!

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Making molehills out of mountains

Oh! I do like this expression. How do we solve large problems or answer large questions? Break the question into as many small questions as we can.

And if we are group or a family, do the same thing. Brainstorm the question and ask everyone to contribute, “two or three (neither more or less) specific things” about how they will be affected by the big question.

Bang on time – this will be useful this weekend!

UPDATE:  Bang on time again.  This is an important hack to add to a manager’s quiver.  2 or 3 specific things (neither more or less) about how they will be affected by the big question!!

Distance lends enchantment to the view

Burning out?

Advice from an ‘old hand’ to a ‘new teacher’ whose class got the better of him: in Goodbye Mr Chips, which I watched over the weekend.

“You have some hours before prep starts. Go out. Out there under the sky. Look around. What is the saying? Distance lends enchantment to the view. Go out. Come back refreshed.”

Paulo Coelho offers the same advice. Don’t spend the day looking down. Look to the horizon.

David Whyte has the same advice. Sometimes the answer depends upon a walk around the lake.

Then go out, look out, reach out

Whenever life is bad, look to the horizon. Close your eyes and listen to the furthest sounds that you can hear.

And if you can, do it when you first awake in the morning.  Do it in short 1 minute break at work.  Do it commuting on the way home.

Is that why you pay so much for a house or office with a view?

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Law of attraction, positive thinking . . . how old is it?

A long back story

I took out Goodbye Mr Chips from my local library thinking it would be nice to relax for a couple of hours with this gentle, slightly sentimental, very inspirational movie. For non-Brits, this is a classic pygmalion, teacher story with romance thrown in. Think To Sir With Love, History Boys and Freedom Writers. I think when Yanks write pygmalion stories they are typically about basketball coaches. Britain has teacher stories.

Goodbye Mr Chips is a double-pygmalion story. Mr Chipping is an awkward “Latin master” in a “public school”.  If you are non-Brit, read exclusive private school (or prep school in Americanese – a prep school here preps you to go to public school which takes you to the army academy or university).

Mr Chipping has two mentors. A charming relaxed fellow teacher and his wife. They are the catalysts in allowing Mr Chipping, or Chips as he comes to be called, to incorporate the softer side of his nature in his teaching style, reform the rugged-masculine-bullying culture of the school, and to encourage boy-after-boy, and their sons after them, to blend the feminine sides of their nature with the masculine demands of their school and obligations to country.

I thought I was borrowing the musical version with Peter O’Toole from the library.   When I got home, I discovered I a new version with Martin Clunes, the star of the TV show, Doc Martin. He makes a marvellous Mr Chips with the mixture of clumsiness and kindness that we also see in Doc Martin. (He doesn’t sing btw, and nor do we hear the boys singing which we did in the earlier version).

The story seems slightly different too – but so be it. After this long back story, this is the quote I wanted to give you.

“I found that when I stopped judging myself harshly, the world became kinder to me. Remember I told you once, go out, and look around the world. Do that now. Only this time, let the world look at you. And the difference, I assure you, the world will like what it sees.”

Positive psychology is more than positive thinking

This is the concept which takes positive psychology far beyond positive thinking. It has echoes of the pygmalion effect, popularized in the musical My Fair Lady in which a flower girl becomes a lady. It includes the Galatea effect, ably researched by Dov Eden, who also researches the pygmalion effect in work settings. Basically, the Pygmalion effect is the effect of other people’s expectations on us. So a teacher creates clever pupils by expecting more of them. A teacher creates dull pupils by expecting failure and subtly communicating doubts and restricting the resources and time we need to learn. The Galatea effect works the other way around. It is the effect of our own self-perception.  It is not that seeing is believing. But that, believing is seeing.

Is this new?

George Bernard Shaw wrote Pygmalion 100 years ago. 150 years ago Goethe wrote:

The moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.
Goethe

The idea that we shape the future is so new to us in the west. The idea that the universe comes to us sounds a little new age.

Of course, we cannot do anything. We don’t want to do anything.

But there are some things, we want to do. And if we can imagine those things, if we believe in them deeply without effort, if they make sense, if they seem right in themselves, if we believe in them enough to take the first hesitant step,

if we believe in them enough to take the first hesitant step,

then the universe conspires to help us.

Skeptical?

This is tautological, of course. It will work because it is right and it is right because it works.

Ask only whether what you want is right, and why you would want anything that doesn’t work!

“Go get your things. Dreams mean work”

I discovered Paulo Coelho this year. I am amazed I spent this long on this earth without finding his books.

His stories have mystical settings. By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept is about a woman and her childhood sweetheart who meet up again in their twenties to make a hard decision: should they get together or should he follow his vocation into a Catholic seminary and a life as charismatic and healer?

All Coelho’s books (I think) have a happy ending, but not a silly ending.   After many trials, the protagonists resolve to take the high road: living in solidarity with this world. These may be mystical stories, but they are neither fantasies nor escapist.

And the trials faced by the characters are never gratuitous. Each in itself offers a perspective on relating to the world and, I think, the tension between commitment and uncertainty.

They are a remarkably “open” read too. He has a light style that draws you into the story. And then releases you from time to time to ponder what he or one of his characters has just said.

Wikipedia describes the book as “a week in the life of someone ordinary to whom something extraordinary happens”. Read it at the end of a long week to ponder extraordinary people who live ordinary lives.