- Greet everyone. Taking the time to say good morning to your team and close colleagues goes a long way to fostering a sense of appreciation and respect. At the very least, it acknowledges people’s presence and contribution, and beyond that it shows you are approachable and happy to reach out to them. With so many of us working from home now, a first-thing team coffee break or walk round the office to say good morning can be replaced by regular lunches on days when people are in the office, or calls to check in and ensure everyone is well.
- Deliver praise. While we often congratulate people on a job well done in a one-to-one meeting or by email, delivering praise for team members during group meetings is a great way to boost morale and give everyone a chance to congratulate their colleagues and celebrate the team’s successes. Don’t wait for annual reviews to pat people on the back – recognition is like vitamin C. We need it in regular doses to stay motivated and feel appreciated.
- Delegate with trust. No-one likes being micro-managed. It is stressful, infantilising and disempowering. So when you choose to lighten your to-do list (see this month’s blog) by delegating a task or project, do so with trust. Make sure you brief the person taking on the task thoroughly, making it clear that you are available to help if they need, and, depending on their seniority, schedule in some check-in meetings to follow progress, then let it go. Showing you trust your team will help them trust themselves, each other, and you.
What does your to-do list look like today? Is it long, short, detailed, written down, in your head? I generally have two going at any one time – one for personal tasks (on a post-it), the other for work-related items (currently experimenting with Trello). I love lists in general, as I find they give me a sense of order and control. To-do lists, in particular, are helpful when I feel overwhelmed. I find making a structured list of the apparently million things I have to do makes me feel less dispersed, disorganised and fearful of forgetting things.
However, the list also has a dark side. Like with smartphones and social media, it can be very easy to let the tool we have created to help order our life start to order us about. To-do lists, for many people, can become a source of anxiety, guilt, frustration and overwhelm. This is often the case when the list gets too long, or when we get too attached to finishing the list, or when we feel the list is not of our own making but filled with tasks dictated by our friends, family, the boss, society, or indeed our own inner perfectionist.
Keeping the list in its rightful place – a useful tool, not a stick to beat yourself with – can be achieved, however, with a few mental adjustments and some simple re-organisation techniques. Here are some ideas for ensuring the list serves you and not the other way round!
Any re-thinking of your relationship with the to-do list must start with relinquishing the idea that the to-do list will ever be empty. One of my personal gurus, Richard Carlson, reminds readers in his bestselling Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, “that when you die, your “in basket” won’t be empty” and that this is, in fact, a good thing. Having stuff on your to-do list means you’re alive and active, that you have projects on the go, that people rely on you. Once you accept that the to-do list will never be blank, you can release the idea of having a perfect day when you finally get it all done and clear the decks. That is simply not possible, nor is it what life should be about.
Once you’ve got your head round that, there are numerous ways to restructure or reorganise your to-do list to make it feel more manageable.
Turn your to-do list into a plan
There is an old saying that coaches love which states that a goal without a plan is just a wish. The same idea can work for The List. The idea is that, wherever possible, instead of adding items to your to-do list, you open your diary and schedule in a slot for doing the task. So, for example, if you have to prepare a PowerPoint for a meeting in two weeks’ time, don’t just write it on the list. Instead, block three hour-long slots in your Outlook planner. You can now mentally take it off the to-do list as the task has been allotted time and scheduled. I do this with a page-a-day diary that serves as my to-do list notebook (yes, I’m completely analogue with these things). This avoids me having one massive to-do list that I have to prioritise every day and gives me short, daily lists so each morning I just look at what I’ve planned for myself and get on with it. When I don’t get everything done, I simply move remaining tasks to another list, depending on when I have time in my schedule. Not every task on the to-do list can be planned in this way, but by working like this for as many as I can, I find that my floating “get that done at some point” list stays very short. Some days – whisper it – I even eliminate it altogether!
Change the title
When I was interviewing for university, a literature fellow had me analyse a poem then asked the slightly sadistic question, “How would this poem be different if it were called Ten Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead?” Given that it was a love poem about Anne Boleyn by 16th-century writer Thomas Wyatt, even my jaw-achingly nervous 17-year old self was able to recognise and articulate that the title change would make a world of difference to the reader’s expectations of the text and its meaning.
Changing the title of your to-do list can have a similarly huge impact on how you relate to it. What happens when you change “To do” into “Could do”, or “Might do”? How does that alter the way you look at the list? Clients who put this into practice tell me that, even though the importance or necessity of the tasks on the list has not changed, this new title makes them feel lighter and less beholden to the tyranny of the list. The linguistic shift turns obligation into possibility.
This is a particularly powerful tool if you have a “should do” list that you run in parallel to your to-do list. That one’s particularly pernicious. A client taking a sabbatical year to retrain while her wife continues working told me recently, “I feel like I should be making dinner every night”. When she reframed that to “I could now make dinner every night”, what felt like a guilt-provoking obligation became simple one of many options. She also remembered that she actually enjoys making supper, but by “shoulding” on herself about it, she had turned it into a chore. So, another alternative is to re-name your list the “I want to” list, or the “I get to” list. This takes it a step further and turns obligation into a pleasure. This works for me when it comes to particularly tedious tasks. “Book my daughter a dentist appointment” becomes “I want to take care of my daughter’s teeth and am lucky to be able to do so”. “I have to do my tax declaration” becomes “I get to declare taxes for money made doing work I love”. It sounds slightly Pollyanna-ish, perhaps, but much of the time, it truly does help re-frame the list and my relationship to it.
Create more lists
In parallel to the to-do list, it can be helpful to create a couple of extra lists that take the load off. How would it feel to make a “Things I am going to delegate” list? Being able to delegate to your team or even your colleagues is an important skill. There is no glory in doing everything yourself, in fact it can often give staff the feeling you do not trust them, and having an overflowing inbox makes you look disorganised and incompetent. Knowing how and when to delegate crosses items off the to-do list and puts you in a position of overseeing projects and tasks. In your personal life, it is important – especially for women, I find – to let go of control, and with it responsibility, and allow other family members do their bit. Other lists might be “Tasks I need help with”, or “Tasks that will take under five minutes” (once you’ve written that, enjoy taking an hour or two to blast through them all).
In the end, how you deal with your to-do list matters much less than your relationship to it. However you choose to keep, manage and complete the to-do list, just make sure it is serving you – helping you to ensure your life runs according to your wishes – rather than the other way round.
Managing your time and tasks better starts with some deep, inner work around letting go, relinquishing control, and prioritising your real goals and deepest values. Working with a dynamic and experienced coach to rethink how you structure your personal and professional activities can help you find greater purpose and free up time to create a life and career built with purpose and on purpose. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session.
- Aim for balance. No-one wants an uninterrupted flow of criticism during an appraisal, but neither do we really want a shower of praise. One kills morale and motivation, the other is mood-boosting, but offers no opportunities for growth. When offering feedback – both professionally and personally – aim for a balance between what the person did well and what they can still improve.
- Get specific. Blanket statements like “You do great presentations” or “You don’t run meetings well” are unhelpful and sometimes confusing. Tell the person you are evaluating what makes their presentations so engaging – so that they continue to do them that way and even develop their technique! Tell the person what it is about meetings with them that doesn’t work for you – maybe they always run over time, there are no agenda or minutes, conversation is allowed to become a free-for-all. Making feedback specific makes it easier for them to turn comments into action points.
- Offer suggestions. Speaking of action, don’t leave a person dangling with a couple of “well-done” and “must try harder” lists, make concrete suggestions to help them improve. If your teen really needs to level up their algebra, make the point then suggest a few ways they could work towards this goal. If your manager (360° feedback exists!) seems distant and unapproachable, make this point gently and suggest a weekly one-to-one meeting and perhaps a monthly team lunch.
“This above all: to thine own self be true
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
So concludes Polonius’ famous soundbite-filled monologue to his son Laertes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In other words: know yourself and follow your own counsel. This is sage advice indeed but, like many of the character’s platitudes (such as “neither a borrower nor a lender be”), much easier said than done!
The first step towards staying true to yourself – and the one that Polonius spectacularly fails to acknowledge – is, of course, knowing yourself. Self-knowledge takes myriad forms: it’s about knowing where you come from, where you are going, what you want from life, and – crucially – the values by which you choose to live. We all value different things, and we all differ in awareness of the things we cherish and respect. Becoming more aware of our own values is the vital first step towards ensuring we honour those values on a daily basis and thus stay true to ourselves and the things in which we believe.
What are values?
Values – simply put – are the things to which we attach value. The things we would fight for, the things we pursue and celebrate. Examples of commonly held values are friendship, generosity, family, education, citizenship, honesty, self-improvement, perseverance, security. However, these values mean different things to each of us and are often best expressed in word groupings. To one person, the meaning of “citizenship” might be voting / political activism / social justice / seeking change; while another person might think of it as participating in community projects / volunteering / neighbourliness / supporting local facilities. And there’s no right answer. Your value is your value, and it means exactly what you choose it mean. The only person who really needs to know and understand it for it to have power is you.
Because awareness of our values does empower us. Knowing what you stand for can make everyday decisions easier and turn dilemmas into no-brainers. It can also increase your sense of agency in life, since – unlike inherent strengths or talents – values are something you can actively choose to espouse or eschew. It can also help you stick to your guns when your choices are questioned since you are more conscious of the foundations on which you have based your decisions.
Identifying your values
So how do we identify our values? Here’s the stuff that Polonius left out of his little father-son chat. Values can often be teased out of our strongest memories, both positive and negative. So, think of a time in your life when you felt on fire, like you were functioning at 100% and exactly where you needed to be. What are you doing, who is involved, what impact is being made? Alternatively, think of a time when you were angrier than you ever thought possible. Often, anger is a result of a strongly held value being violated in some way. For each memory, consider what’s at stake and what makes it so vivid. What is being cherished or promoted? Maybe you’re thinking of the day you got a big promotion (so perhaps you value hard work, justice or financial security?); or a time when you stood up for a kid getting bullied at school (courage, solidarity, kindness, fairness, decency, dignity?).
How values can work for you in the workplace
When you know and own your values, you gain a solid foundation on which to base your decisions. This is the kind of sense of identity that businesses often seek to create with their mission statement and lists of company core values like “excellence”, “teamwork” and “innovation”. While companies may run the risk of straying towards meaningless buzzwords and empty promises, when used well and applied properly, values offer staff and other stakeholders important guidance about what a company stands for and – wordplay alert! – the kind of value it aims to create.
Values work in much the same way on an individual level. A manager who knows what they value is more likely to be able to identify and attract like-minded team members and will more easily create a sense of team spirit. This is especially helpful when managing multicultural teams within which working methods and communication styles differ significantly. By using coaching exercises that bring staff members together around common values that they explore and develop as a group, creating a kind of team charter, I have supported managers to ease tension and promote collaboration within previously under-performing and “hard-to-handle” teams. And on an individual level – whether you are in an entry-level or C-Suite position – knowing and honouring your values in the workplace can help you set boundaries, handle conflict better, make tough choices, and create healthier relationships with colleagues.
The value of values
Whether you are seeking to be true to thine own self at home, within your family, or amongst colleagues in the workplace, knowing who you are is the unavoidable first step towards owning who you are. By taking some time to identify your values and look at how you honour them, along with how you can reinforce their presence in your life and let them serve you, you offer yourself a significant decision-making tool. You strengthen the foundation of your behaviour in every aspect of your life – as a parent, manager, friend, partner, worker and leader – and, it must follow, as the night the day, that you can indeed more easily stay true to yourself and be false to no man.
Would you like to increase your sense of self, make better choices, and boost your satisfaction, both personally and professionally? Working with a dynamic and experienced coach to explore who you are and what you stand for can help you – and your teams – find greater purpose, determination and drive – for a life and career built with purpose and on purpose. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session.
- Don’t analyse it. When you’re in a great mood, do you roll your sleeves up and get to work figuring out why you’re feeling so chirpy? No. So don’t do it when you’re feeling low! Often it’s simply inexplicable, so trying to identify all the things that are bringing you down will only pull those things front of mind and make you even more miserable. Accept that today’s an off-day and have faith that this too shall pass.
- Get up, take a walk. Make a cup of tea. Do a yoga video. Bake. Physically extract yourself from where you are and do something to – as the old-fashioned saying goes – “take you out of yourself”. Doing an activity that induces the famous state of “flow” can be helpful: art, writing, skilled manual work, like crafts, DIY. All these things require your concentration and help take your mind of your foul mood.
- Sink into it. If you can’t shake it off, revel in it. Throw yourself a full-on pity party complete with weepy film, chocolate and portable black hole to climb into. I find that giving myself permission to feel the sadness or anger or dissatisfaction helps dissipate it; what we resist, persists. I also find that after a couple of hours feeling thoroughly sorry for myself, I get fed up or annoyed with myself and end up doing something productive that changes my mood completely.