How do you run a marathon? How do you climb a mountain? How do you make a journey of a thousand miles?
One step at a time. Repeat as necessary.
It will be obvious to anyone that’s a regular visitor here that I have been busy of late. Weekly updates haven’t quite been weekly. Sometimes, they’ve barely qualified as monthly. It has been a hectic year, overall. The last couple of months in particular, though, have been an exercise in endurance.
Four projects (and several wee sidebars along the way), three clients, two cities and several transcontinental flights later, I’m still here and standing–which I consider an accomplishment. But it’s not been easy.
And that’s an interesting thing to wrestle with in the face of the expectation to do the work. And it’s all well and good to say that work is visceral, that we need to do be prepared that when we the work, it’s going to be messy and difficult and awkward. But we don’t get a lot of advice and perspective on how to actually make it through to the other side, and to hang on to our sanity in the process. Neither of those outcomes are necessarily guaranteed.
A significant factor that we have to consider is what makes the work hard. Is it that we aren’t sure what a good outcome looks like, and we’re grappling with the problem of how best to structure, approach, present, layout or do the work? Is it what we’re struggling with the people we are working with, and their lack of clarity, alignment, focus, commitment and involvement? Or is it that we are overwhelmed with too much work, too many expectations and a feeling that we just don’t have the bandwidth and time to get it all done?
These are all unique challenges, and they play out very differently depending upon which is operative at any given point in time. When more than one of them are present, though, things get challenging indeed. Where do we start? What problem do we tackle first? What does progress even look like, and how do we know what we are making it?
Stick with those questions long enough, and they begin to get way too philosophical and abstract. But there are some very real and pragmatic elements that it’s important to assess and address. Starting is important. Knowing where to start is important. And when we get caught up in complex and difficult problems, we often get wrapped up in that the complexity and difficulty, with no idea of how to practically extricate ourselves.
Here’s the thing about human psychology. It likes order and structure. And our brains know when they don’t have it. This is why we wake up in the early hours of the morning, far before our alarm, brains a-whir and awash. What our psyche is essentially trying to do is remember all the things all the time, keeping the multitude of balls in the air constantly in motion. Our subconscious thinks it’s being helpful. We may not, of course, experience this as helpfulness. But that’s what it is.
What our brain is doing is exactly the same behaviour—and coming from largely the same place—as a dog at the window barking at everything that moves in the neighbourhood. It’s essentially saying, “Hey! Human! There’s this thing that I see, and I want you to know about it.” The easiest way to quiet the dog is to acknowledge that you’ve seen the thing. Same thing with our brain.
David Allen gives some lovely advice about this in his book Getting Things Done. (And yes, it’s a book that I’ve written about before. It’s quite awesome, and if you haven’t picked it up yet, I’d strongly encourage you to do so). There are two particular points that Allen makes that I want to highlight, and both are worth exploring.
First, our brains want to know that they’ve been heard, so it’s important to collect our thoughts in a trusted system. That immediately raises a high bar. We need to know that something has been captured. And we need to know that what has been captured will come out at the right time again, when we need it (but ideally, not before). How to do that varies for each of us. Allen offers one system (and I’ve certainly borrowed some—but not all—of his ideas). Solving this problem lies at the heart of each of our time management journeys.
The second point Allen makes is equally important. It’s also a relatively unique take on thinking about work (and projects). What Allen defines as a project is anything that requires more than one step to perform (which is a lot different than most definitions of a project that we encounter in the world). Whether it’s planning dinner on the town, a birthday party for our spouse or a major software implementation, more than one thing to do before the finish line makes it a project. What’s novel here is what he does with this. Allen doesn’t want you to plan the whole thing in detail; what he cares about most is defining what comes next. Know that one thing, and that will get you started. And that’s enough.
It also leads to the very next piece of advice that I can offer, which is—quite simply—start working. We all know what it is to procrastinate and put off work. And the more insurmountable the project, the more pressing the need to procrastinate, evade and avoid (and if you’re thinking of looking for a thesaurus to find more synonyms for “procrastinate,” there’s a good chance that you’re doing it right now). Worse, the more we put it off, the higher the mountain of expectations and incomplete work becomes. There is possibly no obstacle so great as a simple task that has been put off for months (or even years).
The laws of physics are true, and they make a point. A body in motion tends to stay in motion; a body at rest tends to stay at rest. Find the motive force to overcome inertia and get started, and chances are much greater that you will keep going after that. I heard a lovely interview with an editor who amusingly described the first 1,000 words of writing a long-form article as “throat clearing.” This doesn’t dismiss the importance of doing exactly that. It’s the same for musicians, actors or athletes “warming up.” It’s less about getting our bodies up to operating temperature than it is at getting them to do something. Once they’re moving, they’ll keep on moving.
At the same time, once you’ve started, it’s critical to be realistic about when things just aren’t working out. While I write regularly, it’s rare for me to outline and plan. I need a sketch of the whole, and then I can fill that in, and an outline typically doesn’t do that for me. Until I know what the finished product will look like, it’s incredibly difficult for me to move forward (and there’s every likelihood that if I do, I’ll hate the result, throw it out and start over again; that’s its own unhelpful exercise).
So there are times that I should be writing. When I have the time to be writing. When deadlines suggest that writing would be a very useful thing to do indeed. And where the words just aren’t coming. Where like Sisyphus, I feel like I’m pointlessly pushing a boulder uphill. It’s good to recognize these moments for what they are, and let go of the boulder. And the hill. And whatever else is before you at the time. Go for a walk. Read a book. If you must, go down the internet rabbit hole. Come back to it when you can (or when you have to).
What this relies upon is knowing your patterns and behaviours. Know how you work, and what working well feels like. Also recognize what not working well feels like and how that differs from being stuck or just not wanting to work. This requires a level of self-awareness and self-assessment, but it’s important to get a sense of it and calibrate. It’s tempting—and easy—to take bog-standard procrastination and slap a label of “I’m just not feeling it today” on it. And we’re the only one we’re lying to when we do that.
As you get started, also be realistic about what is possible. Set an objective, and make it practical, specific and accomplishable. I’m not talking about a great big to-do list here. I’m talking about a deliberate, specific focus of what can be accomplished right now. Something along the lines of “I’ve got 45 minutes available right now; I’m going to get this section drafted before then.” It’s not about finding all the time to do all the things. It’s about knowing what I can do with the time that I’ve got available right now.
All of that means that we need to be managing our time, and have a realistic sense of what time is actually available. That might also mean that we’re borrowing time from other activities and pursuits to get things done, especially when the stakes are high and multiple commitments are looming. In the past few weeks, I’ve been travelling enough that I’ve been able to use time away to focus on the work that is front and centre. That’s also let me shift my attention to personal commitments when I’ve been home. The juggle between our personal and work lives, and the other roles that we play, is never easy. Not setting hard boundaries (but still having principles I care about) has made that easier.
That’s also not to say that roles won’t bleed into each other, that problems won’t arise and that unexpected demands, wants and expectations won’t present themselves. Life isn’t predictable, and people don’t fit into nice, neat, manageable boxes. The other people in our lives have their own wants, hopes, desires, fears and anxieties. We might be overwhelmed, focussed and stressed, but that doesn’t mean that everyone else in our orbit is going to be all happiness and light. There are going to be times when you are most needed, and you least have bandwidth to be needed, and that’s just life. Prioritize what’s important now, respond to what is needed and manage expectations about what is possible.
That also means that we need to know ourselves and our warning signals. It can be be an incredible thing to be focussed and immersed in a task, particularly once we get going. And while many of us are motivated by impending deadlines, that doesn’t mean they get any less terrifying when they start looming over us (particularly if we sense or know there is a lot more work to get done). There is a fine line between the stress levels that are motivating and engaging, and the ones that are crippling. It’s difficult to walk that knife edge for an extended period of time. There is every risk—and expectation—that something will happen eventually that will nudge us from on-top-of-it to overwhelmed.
If we can recognize the warning signs of impending panic, that’s helpful–but not always possible. Accept that there will come a time when you feel overwhelmed. Accept that this is normal. Expect that you’ll move past it, and figure out what will help to do that. Take stock of where you are, what you’re trying to get done and what’s creating stress for you right now. Assess what can move and adjust to create the space you need. Recalibrate work, reassess capacity and manage expectations as necessary towards what’s possible and realistic. Panic is feeling out of control; the antidote is to find some, even a little, and to nudge further forward from there.
All of this takes a toll on us as people. Periods of overwhelming commitment are going to happen, but we can’t stay there forever. Occasionally, we can stay there longer than we think is possible or reasonable, but that doesn’t mean that this way of working is a long-term strategy for success. Surviving periods of intensity is pretty much that: surviving. We go through extremes, but need to come out the other end and find normalcy. And recognize that just because we can juggle all of the balls some of the time, that doesn’t mean it should be a steady state of being. Breathe, relax, eat, sleep, exercise. All of the stuff that’s good for you. Find a way to recharge. You can’t keep on making withdrawals, unless you also make deposits once in awhile.
It’s tough to keep going. There are times when it’s necessary, though. But there’s no useful guide to this sort of thing. There’s lots of macho advice about “dig deep,” “give 110%,” “go big or go home” and “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” Amusing rhetoric, perhaps. And to some, perhaps not so amusing. But still, at the end of the day, it’s rhetoric. When you’re truly into the marathon, you need practical strategies to keep going. Persistence is great, but persistence with perspective, support and some level of self-preservation is even better. Keep going when you have to, and stop when you can.