“Elizabeth” had a big block. Lately she had been unintentionally sabotaging her relationships with her big clients She was worried that it was jeopardizing her business, and she was right. She needed to get rid of her block. But her block wasn’t quite what she thought it was.
Elizabeth works hard at everything she does. When her clients say they need something, she always takes on the project immediately no matter how unreasonable the time frame. Then she knocks herself and her staff out getting it done. She has taken that old adage to “underpromise and overdeliver” and thrown away the “underpromise” part. She promises her clients everything they want in record time, struggles to make it happen, and then finds that they don’t appreciate how hard she works. Of course, she rarely tells them how difficult it will be to meet their deadlines, so how could they?
She also overdoes things at home. Despite having a successful business making more than enough money, she does all the cleaning and cooking at home. She manages her seventh grade son’s schedule, personally making sure he gets to all his after school activities, attends his games, and hosts his friends at home at least once a week. And when he started struggling in math, she researched geometry books, got the one with the most recommendations, and tutored him herself. When her husband complained about their outdated kitchen, she hired the general contractor then made all the decisions and dealt with the inevitable problems on her own.
Today I want to give you a way to figure out whether your have a common block which can completely derail your progress. I’ll also give you a way to defuse it.
Although this block is common, it often manages to go unrecognized in most people since it only shows up when they start to make—and actually see—real progress towards their goals. That’s when it starts driving them to sabotage the progress they are making, which can be completely confusing as well as frustrating.
Why would anyone sabotage their own efforts just when they are starting to see some success?
Actually, it makes perfect sense that someone would sabotage themselves when they are starting to see improvement if the block they have is a fear of letting go of how they think of themselves. Take my client “Dominic,” an independent consultant who has a history of cycling back and forth between periods of expanding his client list and backing off from his business and letting it shrivel. He’s even been known to take a job in an entirely different field during a period where he is stepping away from his business. He truly loves what he does and wants to build a thriving practice, so we’ve been knocking down the internal blocks that get him off track.
After making some initial progress on his blocks, we decided to tackle his backlog of paperwork. Dominic had been letting his billing slide, which was doing a number on his cash flow. We made a plan, breaking down the project into several steps, then putting the steps on his calendar. We also made a plan for him get the billing done on a weekly basis going forward. What had seemed an insurmountable problem turned into something he could catch up on within a few days, then easily take care of after that. Dominic must have felt great, right?
Wrong. When I asked him how he was feeling, Dominic said with surprise in his voice that he was feeling “a little anxious.” As I asked more questions, he admitted that he didn’t know what it would be like to have his business running smoothly. He was a “flake.” Everybody knew that, including him. Who would he be when his business was thriving? He wouldn’t be that flake anymore. So who would he be?
Fear of losing…everything
When we have been holding a picture in our mind for a long time of who we are, anything that threatens to replace that picture can feel dangerous, even if on the surface we really want the change. It can seem to us, on some deeper level, that who we are will die if we change too much—even if we think the change is for the good. That’s extreme language, I know, but that’s how this block makes us feel. Then we will do anything, even sabotage what we want most in life, to avoid that frightening feeling.
Of course, we know that becoming more successful in our business or job will not make us die. But simply knowing that on an intellectual level does not change the emotional reaction we have to the “threat” to our self-image. And those emotions get triggered if we take a significant step towards change.
So if you notice that you start out full of good intentions on a new effort to move forward in your job or business, but pull back whenever you start to make progress, you may have this emotional block. If you have a pattern of doing something to screw up what had been off to a good start, you may have this block. Perhaps you just have a feeling that this might be a problem for you. If you have any of these indications, try this experiment.
What do you see when you visualize change, in detail?
Close your eyes. See yourself as more successful than you already are—maybe you are one more rung up the corporate ladder, or your business has a wait list of clients clamoring to hire you. Whatever you’ve been telling yourself is your next big goal, imagine you have achieved it and it’s effortless now. What do you look like? What does your workplace look like? Picture what you do during the day. Are you busy in important meetings? Traveling and giving presentations? Do you have more direct reports or people working for you? Who do you talk with and how do you interact with each other?
I assume that you will have more income. What are you doing with it? Imagine what it feels like to have more than you need to pay the bills, pay off all your debts, be able to go on more exotic vacations, pay for education, move to a bigger house, or donate more to your favorite charities—whatever you would do with the increase.
Now hear in your mind what the important people in your life are saying to you about your newfound success, whether that is your spouse, family members, clients, co-workers, bosses, or friends. Include important people from your past (your soccer coach, first wife, and brother you haven’t talked to in years). Don’t forget to “talk” to people who have died. Next, imagine what those same people are really thinking. Some of their thoughts will be the same as what they say to you, but some will be different.
If I’ve missed anything, be sure you put it into your picture. The goal is to really imagine all the aspects of your success. When you’ve spent some time getting a complete picture of this success and what it will change in your life, check out how you are feeling about it. You might expect to feel happy, excited, hopeful, even relieved, and you probably will feel some of those emotions. But if anything negative came up—like nervousness, worry, fear, heaviness, sadness, or overwhelm—some part of you is probably trying to avoid the loss of the “old” you.
Getting a negative feeling from inside yourself while visualizing your dreams coming true? Yep, you’ve got the block we’re talking about here.
Three simple steps to end the self-sabotage
One way to get around this block is to set aside time every day to do exactly what you just did. Visualize yourself as this more successful you, going through your day with all the perks of the success. You really only need to do this a few minutes at a time. But to make this work, you need to do three other things:
First, if negative things come into your visualization, like your boss yells at you, or you screw up and tick off your clients, or you are working too many hours, correct that part of the visualization. Visualize it again, but this time visualize the way you really want it to turn out (even if you have your boss acting out of character). After all, this is supposed to be the success you want, so see it that way.
Second, while visualizing, put each of your thumbs on the side of the index finger next to it and rub gently in slow circles near the base of the fingernail. This is a relaxation technique that will help you let go of the negative emotions that come up when you are visualizing your own success. This is key, since those negative emotions are the ones that are driving you to sabotage yourself when success starts to loom on the horizon.
Keep doing this exercise for a few minutes each day until the new you feels comfortable, and there are no more negative emotions connected to seeing yourself as successful.
We usually think that, to change how we think of ourselves, first we have to change what we do. It’s counterintuitive to think we have to change how we think of ourselves in order to change what we do, but that is exactly how you will get past this particular block.
So if you’ve discovered you have this block—you’re thinking of yourself as less successful than you want to be—it’s time to get started changing your thoughts. Until you do, it’s going to be nearly impossible to change what you are doing.
Last week I started a series on the practical application of Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism to improve your results in your work. Last week in my post What Optimisim Will Get You I explained why using an optimistic approach can get you past some of your blocks and when to use it. This week I’ll explain the three elements of the optimistic explanatory style that get you motivated and energized.
Optimism as Seligman describes it is not some sort of dewy-eyed, happy-go-lucky approach to life that someone is born with. Likewise, being pessimistic does not mean going around being grouchy all the time. Instead they are ways of explaining events in your life. And since you can learn how to use an optimistic explanatory style, you can get the benefits of being an optimist even if you’ve never thought of yourself as one before. (By the way, if you think of yourself as a “realist,” you most likely use a pessimistic explanatory style more often than not.)
We will focus here on ways to get unblocked by changing how you explain to yourself why bad things happen in your job or business. Explain setbacks the wrong way and you’ll feel helpless, like it isn’t worth trying anymore, and your career or business will suffer accordingly. Explain them in the right way and you’ll bounce back quickly from the same setbacks, sometimes with more excitement and energy than ever, leading to all sorts of good results at work. So identifying when your explanations are blocking you and changing them to more motivating language are important skills to develop.
Everyone feels at least momentarily helpless in the face of a failure. The pessimist decides he is helpless and gives up. The optimist looks at the same failure and thinks of ways to limit it so he can go on to succeed. To react to a setback with optimism, you need to look at the three Ps of how you explain what happened, or your explanatory style: Permanence, Pervasiveness and Personalization.
Permanence: Temporary (Optimistic) v. Permanent (Pessimistic)
First, Permanence. An optimist thinks of a bad thing as a temporary setback, arising out of temporary conditions that will or can be changed. A pessimist believes it is something permanent that’s going to last for a long time because it was caused by traits that will not change in himself, or the economy, or in potential buyers, or in “people.” To use the optimistic approach, look for ways that a situation is temporary or the conditions for it can be changed.
Instead of thinking “No one is going to buy from my company in such a bad economy; I’m doomed,” you might think “Yes, the economy is bad right now, but it always cycles out of downturns eventually. I just need a plan for how to get through this lean patch.” Or “What can I provide that people need now because the economy is bad.”
Instead of “That was terrible. I’ll never get the hang of sales,” think “I blew that sales pitch, but I can go back over my notes and practice for the next one, and maybe get some pointers from my friend on how to handle that kind of objection.”
Instead of “My boss ignored my idea at the meeting because she doesn’t want to try anything new. I won’t bug her about it anymore,” try something like “My boss has seemed pretty out of it lately. Maybe she has too much on her plate to consider my idea right now. I can check back with her in a few weeks to see if anything has changed.”
So if you catch yourself thinking people, or situations, or even you, are “always” or “never” a certain way, and will never change, find ways to limit your conclusions. Remember: situations and people change all the time, so “always” and “never” thoughts are usually wrong on their face. Dig deeper for ways change may happen.
Pervasiveness: Specific (Optimistic) v. Universal (Pessimistic)
Next, Pervasiveness. A pessimist thinks a setback in one area means everything is going to go bad in all areas. She sees it as a universal failure. An optimist sees the setback as limited to the one event. He sees the failure as specific. Here’s how those two explanatory styles might look:
“All bosses will throw you under the bus to save their own career (so I’ll just keep my head down” v. “This boss will throw me under the bus to save his career (and I better get my resume updated)!”
“My services are worthless” v. “My services are worthless to this guy, but maybe that guy over there needs what I do right now.”
“The job market is in the tank. No one is getting hired right now. I’m never going to get an interview” v. “The overall numbers don’t look good, but my region is picking up faster than other parts of the country” or “my industry is actually growing” or “I’m not getting hired by statistics; I just need one offer from one company with one opening. There is always turnover from people retiring, moving away, or even dying. Something will open up if I just keep sending out resumes and networking.
Personalization: Externalization (Optimistic) v. Internalization (Pessimistic)
Finally, Personalization. A pessimist internalizes the cause for a failure, saying “I’m the cause of this problem” and calls themselves names (“I’m such an idiot.” “I can’t sell lemonade to people in the desert.” “I’m a total failure in this job.”) An optimist externalizes the cause, blaming outside people or forces. (“My co-workers didn’t do their homework.”)
Two things to be aware of on this last explanatory pitfall. First, it is the least important, so if you have limited time to make changes in your own explanatory style, focus on the other two. Second, and more importantly, you will not improve if you do not take responsibility for your mistakes. If you caused a problem, or were a significant reason for a failure, own that. But don’t call yourself names. Instead look at how you can change, learn or grow from what happened. That’s the optimistic and effective approach that will lead to better results in your career or business.
For the next week, pay attention to how you use the 3 Ps when something goes wrong. Do you see it as a permanent problem that is pervasive throughout all areas that is caused by your personal failings? If you find you lean toward any of those pessimistic explanations, you will want to get started on changing your explanations so you can be more effective and energized when you want.
Coming up next, I’ll detail some of Seligman’s specific techniques for changing a pessimistic explanatory style to an optimistic one.
In the last couple of weeks three of my clients admitted that they had been avoiding looking for a new job because they were afraid of going on interviews. These clients had significant reasons to go after new jobs (e.g., financial distress, an unsupportive boss, being in the wrong industry) which they recognized, yet they were allowing their unexamined fears stop them. So we examined their fears.
Simple Interviewing Fears
“Adele” has been out of work for several years. At first it was a choice, but after her husband died it became harder to continue her same lifestyle. Lately she has found herself really pinched with unexpected health problems. She realizes she would do much better if she went back to work, she enjoys her profession, and she knows she is good at what she used to do. But in spite of all that she hasn’t been able to bring herself to look for a job.
When I asked why, she said it was because she was afraid of going on interviews. I got her to relax and think about being in an interview. Then I had her finish the sentence “The worst thing about an interview is . . . .” She surprised us both by answering “none of my clothes fit.” We had a good laugh, she said there was an easy fix to this problem and that she was ready to get started.
That wasn’t the end to the problem, though. It turns out that Adele is also afraid that she will perform badly in any tests she is given during the interview. Why? She keeps thinking of an interview she went on a few years back where she was out of practice and got so flustered when asked to perform that she couldn’t do what she had done for years. The pain and embarrassment she felt was intense. She has convinced herself that this will happen again so she avoids putting herself in any situation (such as an interview) where it might.
So what to do? First, Adele has to address the deficit in her closet by buying an outfit that feels comfortable and appropriate. Second, together we will work on that memory to take away the emotional sting. Third, Adele will look for volunteer work at an organization she respects that will allow her to practice her old skills until she feels she is ready for that interview (or gets hired by someone who observes her in action).
Fear of Failure In an Interview
Meanwhile, “Brynne” was feeling stifled by her current situation. Her boss wasn’t giving her any of the stretch projects she was seeking to grow and move up in their company. On top of that, the boss’s personal style was to mention only the mistakes, never giving recognition for Brynne’s many accomplishments. Brynne needed to move to a new position with a more compatible manager. Brynne had realized a year ago she needed that change, yet here she was with an out-of-date resume and all the excuses in the world why she couldn’t start her search now.
When pressed, she admitted the real reason she was avoiding her job search was that she was afraid of going on any interviews. So I got her to relax, then asked her to finish the same sentence I asked Adele: “The worst thing about an interview is . . . .” She thought about it and answered “I won’t be good enough and the interviewer will judge me.”
While this sounds logical, look at it more closely. Why should she care what the interviewer thinks, really? The interviewer is not going to report back to Brynne’s family, friends, or even her boss on her performance in the interview. They are not going to decide who Brynne marries, what college her children go to, or whether she gets into heaven. At most, all they do is decide whether to hire Brynne for the job or not. Big deal. Even if she really wants the offer, it will not be the end of the world if she doesn’t get it. There are other jobs out there, and Brynne (if she’s smart) wants one where they want her and she wants them. Figuring out whether there is that kind of fit is really what the interview is about. If the interviewer doesn’t want her, then — HURRAY — they’ve figured out there isn’t a fit before any harm is done.
With a little thought, Brynne agreed that it wasn’t about whether the interviewer would judge her as not good enough but whether she will judge herself as wanting. Brynne is a perfectionist, and the fear of not being perfect has been a stumbling block we’ve worked on before. Half an hour later, we’d eliminated that block to interviewing and Brynne was smiling at the thought of finding her next job. (If you have that perfectionism block, check out my earlier post on how to get past it.)
Fear of Succeeding and Getting the Job
“Clarice” was in a panic. She had done the unthinkable, applying for her dream job on a lark and suddenly finding herself scheduled to fly out for an interview. If she had thought she would actually get that far she never would have applied. What would she do if she got the job?!
First things first. We had to get her to calm down so she could actually think. I had her tap on acupressure points that work as a powerful relaxation technique. (If you want to know what they are, you can see them in this post.)
When Clarice was breathing again, I got her talking about what was so alarming. While she continued to tap, I had her start with “The worst thing about the interview is . . . ,“ and it all came out. What if she got the job? She’d have to move to a city where she didn’t know anyone, leaving behind the friends she’d made and groups she belonged to (not to mention a certain ex she still had feelings for.) And she’d have to stop playing small, doing a job that was easy and safe. She would no longer be a big fish in a small pond. She’d have to stretch and prove herself to the hiring manager, someone whose accomplishments she really admired. What if she couldn’t do the new job? And ultimately, she would have to find out if the dream she had been holding onto for so long was really what she wanted. What if she hated the work after all?
By relaxing her body while getting out all the fears she had about this job, Clarice was able to start thinking about them rationally, putting them in perspective. She didn’t completely lose her fears, but they became much more rational. She left looking calm, thoughtful, and — yes — a bit excited.
How to Lower Your Interviewing Fear
So what do you do if fear of going on an interview is stopping you from going after a new job? First of all, relax. Remember, just thinking about interviewing cannot hurt you! If you are having trouble relaxing, try the tapping exercise above or one of the techniques from this post.
When you are relaxed, finish this sentence “The worst thing about an interview is . . . .” What’s the first thing that comes to mind? Write it down. Relax again and fill in the blank again. Keep going until nothing else comes to mind. Next, go through your list one by one, keeping your body relaxed throughout.
You should notice a few things. First, usually just getting clear on what it is you are afraid of can bring your overall fear down. Second, some of those fears just won’t bother you anymore when looked at in the light of day. (Remember Adele and her interview outfit?) Finally, just staying relaxed while thinking about your fears may allow your mind to come up with ways to fix the problem. (Adele could work as a volunteer to practice her skills. Brynne doesn’t really care about the interviewer’s opinion. And Clarice can make plans to join groups where she’ll get to know people in her new town.)
So there you have it — a simple way to bring down your fear of interviewing so you can go after a job you really want.
Nancy Linnerooth has been helping professionals, executives and business owners for well over a decade to get rid of their internal blocks so they can meet their career and business goals.
These internal blocks often show up as repeating patterns of behavior that undercut what they’re trying to accomplish, like procrastinating; avoiding public speaking, cold calling and networking; choking in interviews; and becoming overwhelmed and losing focus.
Nancy comes to the world of coaching with a diverse background as a practicing psychotherapist of many years and a recovering attorney who got her JD from Harvard Law School. So she understands the demands of working in a high-pressured, high-stakes world.
Now that Fall is really here and summer vacations are over, it’s time to start thinking about your next vacation. Really. You need to take breaks from work in order to do your best. A good vacation will send you back to the office refreshed, energized, and more creative. Go without a decent vacation too long and you actually put your job or business in jeopardy. You can lose your focus, start making obvious mistakes, miss great opportunities, and risk getting into fights with co-workers, your boss, or your clients.
Now, if you are going to go to the trouble and expense to take time off from work, do it right so you get the most benefit from the break. Here is an excerpt from my as yet unpublished book (working title: Living Better Than a Lottery Winner) which sets out four simple rules to actually get the benefits you need out of your vacation. I know, I know, these rules are easy to say but can be hard to do. If you’re thinking that, consider this: if you don’t do what you need to in order to get an adequate break from work, part of you is probably already working against yourself and on track for getting fired or sabotaging your business anyway, just to get the break you need, so you might as well do what I recommend here instead.
THE RULES OF A GOOD VACATION
Rule Number One: Do not spend time with family or friends on your vacation.
I don’t care how close you are to your parents, how much you love your cousins, or what a great time you had with your friends five years ago. Just don’t do it.
I don’t mean you have to leave your husband at home or the kids with their grandparents, although some people do need that much of a break from time to time. I mean don’t go stay with your parents for a week and call it a vacation. Don’t even make plans to stop by your aunt’s and uncle’s house on the Big Island in the middle of your time off. Think of your vacation as time away from all obligations, including familial ones. If you don’t, your break will end up feeling like one more chore and you will end up feeling like an overwound watch at the end of the trip rather than the limp, relaxed dishrag you are aiming for.
When I was in the process of burning myself out therapizing non-stop, I still spent holidays with family. I called them vacations. I lied. I came back from such “vacations” as tense and tired as when I left.
Don’t get me wrong. I have a great family, including my in-laws, and I love them all dearly. It is always important, fun and enriching to spend time with them. But it is not, I repeat NOT, a vacation. When you spend time with your family, or even your friends, you are “on” all the time to a certain extent. You are watching your Ps and Qs, and inevitably missing a P here or a Q there and feeling like a failure for fighting with your father over politics again or for not helping your sister with the dishes or for thinking of ways to avoid explaining why you’re not married yet or . . . . You get the idea. A break is where you get away from most of the expectations on yourself, not where you exchange one set of expectations for another.
So, no family or friends on your vacation.
Rule Number Two: Schedule a two-week vacation.
I know—you can’t possibly take two whole weeks away from work. Your To Do list is just too long, and no one else can do any of the tasks on it right. If you’re gone that long your boss will think you aren’t really committed to the job and your performance reviews will slip. That amount of time will allow your coworkers to snap up all the good, visible projects that could advance your career. I’ve heard all the excuses for not taking a two-week vacation. Now it’s time you heard the reasons you have to have one.
First, at some point I read about some research done somewhere showing that people do not relax for the first week of the vacation. They are still thinking about what they did or didn’t do before they left, and can Roger handle that presentation on his own, and what if I don’t get the numbers from Gigi right away when I get back, and what did my boss really mean when he said not to worry about the project—is he planning to fire me? Apparently, we all need that first week of vacation just to decompress in body and mind. The second week of vacation is where the real regeneration happens.
Second, you need all the regenerating that happens in that second week. Only then can you go back to work with energy, enthusiasm, and new ideas so that you don’t just do your job, you excel at it, get handed the stretch project that gets you noticed, strut your stuff and finally move into the corner office.
Finally, the alternative to taking the time you need is that you continue plodding down the path you are already on. At best, you’ll stay stuck where you are. More likely, you will get more and more tired, make more mistakes, and have less ability to deal diplomatically with boss, coworkers, and clients, not to mention what will happen to your home and social life. If it’s bad enough, you may even unintentionally screw up enough to get yourself fired just to give yourself the rest you need. I’ve seen it happen with more clients than I believed possible.
So plan for two weeks away from work. Then do it.
Rule Number Three: Rule Number Two means you need to take two weeks away from work, and what that means is no contact with work.
I mean it. Leave the laptop, Blackberry, and phones turned off. Better yet, leave them at home. Don’t let the office know what hotel you are staying at. Leave no contact information whatsoever in the wrong hands—by which I mean with anybody at work.
This means you will probably have to do some groundwork at the office before you leave. If in the past it was expected that you would take “working vacations,” it’s time to disabuse coworkers and bosses alike of the notion. A working vacation is not a vacation; it’s just work. You won’t get any of the benefits you really need from your time off. Be gentle, be firm, be strident if you must, but let people know that you will be out of touch from the time you walk out the door pulling out your hair until the time you walk back in with a tan and a smile.
I’ve known people who had so much trouble with this rule that they had to go somewhere where they literally could not be reached. Some options might be staying in yurts while trekking through Nepal, floating down the Amazon by raft, or snowshoeing to the South Pole. If this isn’t in your budget, you will have to learn to be firm and make yourself electronically unavailable to the office. Or drop your cell phone in the lake on your first day out.
Rule Number Four: Go away.
Don’t think that staying home and remodeling the bathroom will give you the R & R you need. It won’t. You’re just exchanging one To Do list for another. This does not give your body and mind the space they need to do the healing you need.
You also will not get the right kind of break if you plan to stay home and not do any of the chores on your list. It sounds good. I’ve tried it before. I told myself “Hey, I’ll just act like a tourist in my own hometown for a couple of weeks. I won’t have to do any planning. I’ll save tons of money. I’ll get to see all the places I keep meaning to get to.” But it didn’t work out that way. I ended up hanging around the house feeling guilty that I wasn’t being more productive. Plus, staying in the same old surroundings kept reminding my brain of the same old daily thoughts, which simply were not that restful or stimulating.
I’m not asking you to spend a lot of money traveling to Thailand or other exotic parts. If the most you can afford is a trip to a friend’s lake cabin in the middle of February when he’s not using it, then do it. If you swear up and down you cannot afford a vacation of any kind, I’ll even take the stay-at-home vacation as long as you promise to go somewhere you’ve never been and do something new each and every day. (It’s better than nothing.) All I’m pointing out is that you need to get away from your everyday routine to get any benefit from your vacation.
By the way, if you only get two weeks vacation per year from your employer, it’s time to do a serious evaluation of your job. Okay, if you are just starting out and you have to wait a year or two before you get more vacation time you’ll probably just have to tough it out. However, if you’ve already been in the same job for seven years and this is all you get and all you will ever get, ask yourself if the job is really filling your soul. It certainly isn’t giving you much time to pursue other interests, so if the job itself doesn’t fulfill you, then look for another one that either does or that gives you enough time for a life outside of it.
This is just my personal opinion here, but I believe staying put simply because your job pays you enough to have a nice comfy retirement isn’t a good excuse for keeping a job that doesn’t give you time for a life now. What kind of life will you have left when you turn sixty-five, anyway? If your job is that wearing it is probably affecting your health, so how much time will you really have left even if you make it to retirement age? In addition, your mood and imagination are getting ground down daily. How long do you think it will take to get them back once you retire?
So there you have it. If you want to reap the benefits at work of a good vacation, start planning that mid-winter break trip now. And don’t forget to follow the rules!
Last week I described why demanding perfection from yourself can sabotage your work or business. You can waste enormous amounts of time and energy feeling bad that you don’t do your job exactly the way you think you should, or perform better than everybody else, or get more done. You may put off taking action—speaking up at a meeting, taking on a new project at work, or telling others about your business—and so miss out on opportunities that could come your way. So while working to improve your skills is an important part of growth and development, perfectionism is a major block to anyone hoping to advance in their career or grow their business.
If you recognize yourself as a perfectionist who is blocking your own success, then the technique I detailed last week of changing your internal message from “I’m not good enough” to “I am good enough” is a valuable approach to changing your perfectionist mindset. By all means, use it. But don’t stop there. To get even more powerful results, and get them quicker, try the opposite extreme for while. Start taking immediate action. Do things before you feel completely ready to act, before your plan is perfectly formed.
Leap First, Ask Questions Later
When you see an opportunity, step up and take it. If your boss says she needs someone to take on a new project, open your mouth and say “I’ll do it” before you have time to think of all the reasons you’re not the best qualified. If someone at the next table at lunch is talking about having a problem that your business handles, lean over, apologize for interrupting, and hand them your card instead of thinking of the other people out there who must know more than you do. Go ask your boss for something new to work on. In other words, leap before you look.
For the next month, try this as an experiment. Do not analyze all the pros and cons of doing things before doing them. You’ve already been doing that and it hasn’t worked for you —you fell into the perfectionist trap. So it’s time to try a new approach. Instead, act first then figure out how to do the best you reasonably can with the opportunity you now have.
If you are a true perfectionist, you are probably going into conniptions right about now, thinking “I can’t do that, what if I get it wrong? What if I don’t do it as well as the other guy? I’m just not ready. There’s not enough time.” Do it anyway. It is a fast way to get out of your old rut. The more you do it, the more successes you will have and the more you will realize that your old way of thinking (that you aren’t good enough at what you do and need to do everything better to be valuable) is wrong.
How to Leap First, In Two Easy Steps
If you follow a couple of steps, it will be easier to do this experiment.
First, talk and think about your goals for everything you do in a different way. Whatever your project is, whether it is fixing a process in your department that is too slow, editing an internal manual, or training your client’s employees in the use of new software, your job is to improve the situation and make it better than it was—not to make everything perfect. Remind yourself of this at every chance you get. When you realize that your goal is to improve things for your company or your client, then you will realize that every improvement you make gives value. In this way, every improvement you make is a success. Remember, perfection isn’t achievable. Improvement is.
Second, plan from the start to make changes to your project, whatever it is, as you go along. This is actually a deliberate approach taken by many companies because it often gets them better results than waiting to start work on a project until it is all planned out. That way they, and you, can make changes as they go along to meet the needs that become apparent only after they’ve been working on it for a time.
Case in Point: How Cal Built Momentum
For example, take a client of mine who realized he should be out networking for a new job but was having trouble getting moving. “Cal” had all sorts of excuses. He hadn’t updated his old resume. He needed to optimize it for the type of job he wanted to get. He needed to create a plan for who to contact in what order to get the type of job he wanted to get. Heck, he needed to figure out what kind of job he wanted to get! Every way he looked, he saw ways he could do it wrong, and that had him stymied.
To cut the Gordian Knot, he emailed an acquaintance, asking for coffee and the opportunity to talk about what kinds of jobs were out there. No, he hadn’t perfected his resume, his plan of attack or even his goal. But he was moving, and things started to fall into place. The acquaintance had heard of a couple of jobs that might do. They didn’t, but they got Cal thinking of some other places to look for job postings. Another friend offered to make suggestions for his resume and came up with changes that were far better than Cal would have made on his own. Soon he was clarifying what he wanted in his next job as well as getting a better idea of what was available. He was also sending out better and better resumes. None of these things would have happened if he waited until he had everything perfectly ready to go.
Your Assignment: Do This for 30 Days
If you are a perfectionist, here is your assignment. For the next month, whenever you get that familiar, uncomfortable feeling that you’re not ready, or not good enough, to take on a project, whether big or small, step forward and do it. (Okay, start with just a small project first if you need to, but as soon as it is complete do another.) Next, set a limited goal only to improve the situation you are working on, whatever it is, not to make it perfect. Finally, get started on it, knowing that you can and will adjust what you are doing as new information comes in.
(By the way, if you know that this is what you need to do to get out of your own perfectionist trap but you just can’t bring yourself to start the experiment, a coach might be able to help you dismantle the trap so you can move forward.)
Some part of all perfectionists knows that they can do more than they are allowing themselves to do. If that’s you, try this experiment and see how quickly you can strengthen that part of you and really start succeeding the way you know you can.
I love helping clients uncover and get rid of those internal blocks to their success that go very deep. It isn’t always easy, but it can be pure joy to start with, say, what they have been doing to sabotage themselves, follow it back all the way to its source and get rid of it. However, not all blocks are complicated issues that need serious detective work with a coach to untangle. Some blocks to doing what we need to in our career or business are simply “reflex reactions” built into all of us that can be avoided with some easy techniques—when you know the techniques.
In the past two weeks I’ve described two ways to get around those kinds of blocks, first, by making it a little bit harder to procrastinate and second, by making it that much easier to start the activity you want to be doing. Today’s tip is another way to get yourself going on something that you just haven’t been getting around to in spite of all your good intentions. (All three of these techniques and the research behind them are explained in detail in The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. I highly recommend reading or listening to it on your commute.)
Making choices can be exhausting
Science tells us that making choices lowers our physical stamina, our persistence, and our overall focus, and it lowers them a lot. (Each choice also lowers our ability to do math problems, if that is relevant to you). Each choice doesn’t have to be complicated or have enormous consequences resting on it to have those effects, either. As Shawn Achor puts it, it can be as simple as “chocolate or vanilla.” When we’ve used up our “choice energy,” we start making the easiest choices that take the least amount of effort, whether or not they lead to the results we want. Then it just takes time and rest to replenish our choice energy.
I recently read about a study that showed this choice energy being used up. The study looked at the parole system in an Israeli prison and found that the earlier in the day a prisoner’s parole hearing came up, the more likely he was to get released. The researchers concluded that because it was easier and safer for the members of the parole board to deny parole than to grant it, they were more likely to make the hard choice—to grant parole—early in the day before they had made many choices, and more likely to make the easy choice—denying parole—later on after they had already made a number of choices. The only exception was for the hearings that happened right after the board’s lunch, when there was an increase in paroles granted. Apparently eating can replenish your “choice reserves” somewhat, too.
Just this week a client gave me another example of what happens when you use up your choice energy. A few years ago she took a standardized test to get into professional school and didn’t do very well. The test takes over five hours to complete, with five multiple choice sections. The questions are tricky, designed to weed out those who don’t think the way that is required in school. By the time my client got to the fifth section, she was exhausted. She couldn’t keep her focus on the questions long enough to reason them through, so she just started filling in the bubbles randomly. Her stamina, focus and persistence were gone because of all the choices she had already made in the previous sections.
Granted, one of the reasons she got to this exhausted stage was a deep-seated fear of taking tests, which dragged her down and made the first four sections of the test that much harder for her than for others taking it. But even after we finish rooting out her test anxiety, when she re-takes the exam she will still have to contend with using up her choice energy. So we’ve made a plan. To make sure she has as much “choice energy” as possible going into the test, which is on a Saturday, she is going to limit the choices that she has to make for at least twenty-four hours prior to that. She’ll do things like lay out her clothes for Friday and Saturday on Thursday night. She has already picked out what she will order at lunch with her co-workers on Friday. She will ask her partner to choose Friday’s dinner without her input. He will drive her to the test site. Any choice she can make before that twenty-four hours, or give to someone else, she will.
Save choice energy by getting rid of choices—prepare in advance and make rules
You can use a similar strategy for any project that you haven’t been able to get going on. Let’s say you’ve been meaning to make some cold calls but never get around to actually doing them. Instead of just saying to yourself, “I’m going to make some calls tomorrow, without fail” and relying on your willpower to make it happen, make all the decisions you can the night before. Write them down and leave the plan on your desk. How many calls will you make? When will you make the first call? Who will you call, and in what order? Don’t leave anything to decide on the day you make the calls that you could decide the night before. Then, when you arrive in your office the next day, there is your plan sitting right in front of you. The decisions are already made. You just have to implement them.
Another way to get around draining your choice energy—and therefore your stamina, focus and persistence—is to make rules for yourself. When you’ve made a rule, you’ve already made your choice in advance so you aren’t drawing on your choice energy when it is time to act.
Example: Jessie’s big slump at work
A good illustration of these techniques was the situation faced by my client, “Jessie,” who wanted to get more productive at work. She liked her job and her boss, but she found she was doing less and less each day, coasting on her reputation from past successes. She knew she couldn’t keep going this way much longer.
Jessie recognized that a big obstacle to her getting anything done these days was her conversations with her co-workers over coffee when she first got to work. They had turned into b- . . . er, kvetch sessions about all that was wrong with the co-workers’ managers and their jobs. By the time she got to her desk, she was unmotivated and looking for the easiest thing she could do to make it seem like she was working. The problem was compounded at lunchtime when she would join these same friends for another complaint-filled conversation that would sap her energy for the afternoon. Making herself choose anything challenging from her To Do list under those circumstances was just too much.
The answer Jessie and I came up with was to implement three rules. The first was not to have coffee with her co-workers until after 10:30 am. That way, she had at least two hours to get some work done at the beginning of the day. The second was to do first the one thing on her To Do list that she least wanted to do that day. (Of course, she picked that item out the night before.) The third rule was to turn the conversation to something more positive whenever a co-worker started in on a complaint, like what they could do next to find a better job, or where each was going to go on vacation. (Again, she picked out what the topic would be the night before.)
Two weeks after she implemented these three rules, the change was dramatic. Jessie reported that she was getting a lot more done throughout her workday, not just those first couple of hours. She had already finished two of the projects she had been dreading and avoiding. And her co-workers were also enjoying the change in their conversations. Apparently they were tired of the never-ending complaints, too.
Pick out a project and try it!
You can use this technique on anything you have been avoiding. The day before you plan to work on it, write out your plan—what you are going to work on, when, in what order, anything that you will have to decide. Put your plan front and center on your desk so that the next day you can just do it. If your problem is long-standing, or, like Jessie’s, it seems to cover a lot of activities, then come up with a rule today that you can follow tomorrow, and the next day and the next. That way the decision is already made and you won’t have to whittle away at your stamina, focus and persistence by making choices each day before starting on your project or projects.
Next week, I’ll put this technique together with the two previous techniques to show you how to implement a new, more productive habit. Until then, enjoy the extra stamina, focus and persistence you’ve recovered!
In last week’s tip I explained how we go into a fight or flight reaction when we perceive a threat and our brains’ higher functioning begins to shut down, whether that threat is an attacking grizzly bear, an angry boss, or even the economic news. The longer we perceive the threat, the less of our brain we can access.
Last week I focused on the importance of limiting your intake of media, especially the news, to lower the amount of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline in your body throughout the day. The more we hear about dangers from accidents, war, crimes and even financial distress, even when these things happen to complete strangers in another part of the world, the more our body pumps out those stress hormones. For that reason, just cutting back on your consumption of the news can drop the level of those hormones in your body, allowing you better access to the parts of your brain responsible for decision-making, creativity, language, and other areas critical for success in business (not to mention life).
But even when you’ve limited the amount of media in your life, you will still find yourself in situations in which you are facing a perceived threat. Let’s say your biggest client calls you up and tells you they are going to pull their account. This is a big threat, but not one that your flight or fight response can help you with. Indeed, that response will actually prevent you from reacting to the client’s threat in the best way you could. The stress hormones that start coursing through your body will block access to the very parts of your brain you most need in the moment—like critical thinking, impulse control, problem solving, maintaining relationships, and simply being able to find the right words!
Relaxing Your Body Stops the Flow of Stress Hormones
Last week I went to a two-day training for therapists (I’m both a therapist and a coach) about how to treat trauma and PTSD. I was pleased to discover some useful information that also works for people who are not dealing with major trauma in their lives. Today’s tip is the first of two important take-aways for my readers from that training.
Perceiving a Threat Ramps Up Your Body and Shuts Down Your Brain
When you perceive a threat, even a threat of the non-lethal type like those you might experience at the office, your body releases a number of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that prepare you to either fight or flee. Physically, your heart and breathing rates go up, your muscles tense up, and you get a lot of energy. This means you can potentially do big things, like the story of the mother who lifts a car off her child. But you can’t do them for very long as you quickly Continue reading “Too Much News Makes You Stupid: Turn It Off!”→
One of my clients, “Angie,” is making an important presentation this week. It’s high profile, and she would like to impress a number of higher-ups in her company who are attending. This is a great opportunity, and it comes with a lot of stress. Now I know Angie. She will come through this experience with flying colors, presenting her information in a clear way, fielding all the questions with ease, displaying her knowledge and ability beautifully. She thrives in high-stakes situations.
Compare her experience with that of another client I spoke to this week. “Barbara” told me about a high-pressure opportunity she had two years ago to show what she could do. She took the LSAT, the test would-be lawyers take before applying to law schools. She’s smart, motivated and really will be a good lawyer in time. But when she took that test she was too stressed to demonstrate any of that well, and her score showed it.
Do you stress-out preparing for important events? Don’t. Do the opposite.
What do you do right before an important “performance?”
Do you pore over all your notes just before stepping up to the podium? In the car on the way to the sales presentation do you rehash all the possible objections your potential customer may have and how you can respond to them? Do you reread the interviewer’s LinkedIn bio for the twentieth time while waiting for the receptionist to take your name? If so, you may be shooting yourself in the foot.
If you want to do your best in a high-stakes situation, the worst thing you can do is get yourself stressed. Don’t get me wrong, you have to do your prep work. Practice your powerpoint presentation. Learn the answers to customers’ objections. Research the company you are interviewing with. But do those things before the day of the event. When you cram the day of you increase your stress level. As I’ve mentioned once or twice before, the more stressed you are the less of your brain you can access. So cramming right before an important event, whatever that event is, will actually lower your performance.
So how do you get yourself in the right mindset to succeed? Just follow the immortal advice of Bobby McFerrin: Don’t worry, be happy. I mean it. If you aren’t happy already, get yourself there. When you are happy, you actually have access to more of your brain so you can think faster, be more creative, keep focused — everything you want and need in a high-pressure situation. So when going into such a situation, it’s in your own best interest to be happy.
How do you do this? Coming right up—but I couldn’t resist linking to the video, first.
How can you “get happy” when you want to?
It doesn’t have to be hard to do this. There are a lot of different ways that can work. One simple way to get happy is to think about one of the best moments of your life. Really try to relive it. Think about what it looked like — the colors, the light, the expressions on everyone’s face. Remember the sounds and how it felt physically. Go through all the senses, bringing up as much detail as you can. Take your time. The more detail you call up, the more you will be able to really feel the happiness you felt at the time.
Music is also a great way to bring up certain emotions. So listen to music that makes you want to dance. Heck, actually dance if that makes you happy. (Okay, don’t do either of those things in your office if they will get you fired.) I know people who swear that meditating raises their mood. For others, it’s looking at a baby picture of their kid. Still others go for a walk in the park. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as whatever you do gets you feeling good.
Let me be a bit clearer. When I say do whatever works to feel happier this is not license to take drugs or alcohol. Remember, your goal is to access more of your brain. Drugs and alcohol have the opposite effect. Instead, I’m encouraging you to use natural ways to improve your mood. Think of what usually puts a smile on your face. Maybe it’s remembering swimming with your best friend in fifth grade, or planning a dream vacation, or watching old clips of the Marx Brothers. Give yourself some time to really think about this. Then pick one that you know really works for you.
You will need to schedule time right before the event to do whatever it is you’ve chosen to feel happier. The activity doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Thinking of the happiest day of your life could take less than a minute. Just be sure you don’t get yourself stressed out trying to take a ten-minute walk in the park if you only have three minutes. That would undo all the good you are trying to achieve.
Can’t get happy? You might have some unlearning to do.
I realize that some issues can’t be fixed with this quick tip. For example, problems like fear of public speaking will need more work to root them out. Barbara believed that she couldn’t take tests well. I know she can—once we break the old connection she has in her mind between taking tests and stressing out. So we’ve scheduled some time to “unlearn” that belief and get rid of the stress she feels around retaking the LSAT. Then she’ll be ready to take that exam again. And this time, she’ll get happy before walking into the testing center so she can really show them what she’s got.
Of course, if you’re like Barbara and have something big holding you back, you’ll want to work on it to level your own playing field. But for every other high-pressure event you have, just remember to get happy. Your performance will peak, and maybe you’ll get that promotion, or sale, or recognition that you’re ready for.