After we’d cleared out some major blocks, “Sam” told me his energy levels were back to where they were seven years ago when he started his business, and he could power through all sorts of projects fast. He was feeling really motivated to go out and get those new clients he’d been talking about for the last couple of years. The one thing standing in the way of his moving forward on the next growth phase of his business were the piles of “stuff” on his desk.
“Stuff?” I asked. “Oh, billing and other paperwork. The stuff I have to do. But I don’t like it. I know I’ve gotta do it to keep my business running, but I would rather do anything else. It’s so boring.” We talked about a few different time management tricks he could use to make time for the stuff and just get it done, but it quickly became clear that this wasn’t a simple question of fitting it into an already busy schedule. Just the thought of working on the “stuff” was turning Sam into a rebellious teen, shaking his head and saying “You can’t make me.”
That rebellious attitude was the tip off to me that we were dealing with an internal block that was tripping him up. We had already uncovered and cleared some of Sam’s other issues with authority. Turns out this was another aspect of his automatic refusal to do what someone tells him to do. Only he was the one who was telling himself to do the work!
While sitting in a long line of traffic, I started thinking of a block that creeps into many people’s decision-making: they try to avoid spending money, but wind up losing opportunities that would have earned them more than they would have spent.
That day, the toll bridge in Seattle had been shut down, so all of us were shunted on to the other, non-toll, bridge. For $3.69, you can usually get across the toll-bridge quickly and easily. The other bridge has become a stop-and-go nightmare as so many drivers choose that route to save money. While I was experiencing the waste of time that many people willingly choose, I was thinking about how gladly I would have paid the toll so I could get back to my office an hour earlier and make some money. Instead, I was spending more time driving, NOT getting work done.
Fooled by a veneer of rationality?
Usually, a quick way to test whether you have an internal block is to look at whether your actions are rational or irrational. If, rationally speaking, you know it makes more sense to get your report into your boss early, or finish your billing on time, or hold your temper around a client, and yet you consistently do the opposite, it’s a fair bet that you have an internal block that is keeping you from acting rationally. Yet when saving money is part of the equation, our actions can sometimes appear rational on the surface even when a closer look shows us they are not. This veneer of rationality surrounding saving money can keep us from recognizing—and challenging—our own block.
Take that pesky toll. For most people reading this, $3.69 is a trivial amount of money. Pay the toll, if it will buy you upwards of half an hour of time, and you can put that half hour into things like completing projects early, getting more work done, or networking—any number of ways to impress your boss or lay the groundwork for a new job, either of which can lead to a lot more money in your pocket than the outlay for the toll. What is a half hour of your time worth, if you had to reach into you wallet and pay for it? If you own your own business, you can use the time to put your efforts into bringing in more clients, creating a new service or product your customers need, or other efforts to make your company more valuable. Finally, at the very least you could use that half hour for some real downtime (going for a walk in the park, playing with your kids, canoodling with your significant other) that will improve your mood, creativity, and/or quality of life. All for the low, low price of $3.69.
Saving Money Can Cost You
But so often, instead of looking at what an outlay brings us, we immediately think “I can’t afford it,” or “I don’t need that.” A lifelong habit of being careful with money—or a lesson painfully learned from a sudden loss of income—leads to an automatic rejection of any expenditure that we are not forced to make. And that can paradoxically lead to a loss of opportunities and therefore a loss of money.
There are a lot of things we “make do” with in order to save money that may in fact be losing us money. Anything that saves you time that you could better use to improve your business or advance your career can fall into this category. This includes everything from buying new software to having an expert prepare your taxes to picking up dinner at the deli counter on the way home. In fact, anything that you do that is not central to your business or career that could be outsourced is something to consider as a trade off for the dollar value of your time, like bookkeeping, chauffeuring the kids around, rotating the tires on your car, or cleaning your home or office.
Ooooh, that last one is an especially big bug-a-boo for a lot of people. Somewhere along the line they learned that it is morally wrong to pay someone else to clean for them when they are able-bodied enough to scrub their own toilets. But look what you lose when you take the time yourself to do that. You take time away from building up your business in ways that only you can. Just about anyone can vacuum; only you can do the rainmaking, or provide your professional services, or do whatever your customers come to you and not the other guy for. And if you work for someone else, taking time to clean your own home means you don’t have that time to get the certification you need for the next step in your career, or to meet someone in your field who could help you get into that great company you’ve had your eye on, or any of the other things that might move you up.
How To Determine Whether to Spend the Money or Not
To find out if you have a block around spending money that is preventing you from actually making money, try this exercise. Take a piece of paper. Draw a line down the middle. On the left-hand side, write down something you have been avoiding and what it would cost you to buy it. On the right-hand side, write down what it would buy you (e.g., “time to work on presentation” or “time to take on one more client”). Estimate what that could be worth to you. Yes, I mean a dollar amount (“a $5000 bonus” or “$30,000 for one additional client relationship over the next five year”). Now, come up with a percentage likelihood that you will achieve that benefit. (e.g., “15% likelihood that it will lead to the bonus” or “100% ability to work with potential client off my waitlist”). Multiply the potential worth by the percentage likelihood. If the resulting number is greater than what you wrote down on the left-hand side of the page, you have just shown yourself that the rational choice is to spend the money here.
Yes, I know your calculation is not really a hard and fast number, but it is a fairly rational way of estimating what the expenditure is likely worth to you. It is certainly better than a knee-jerk reaction of “spending any money is bad.” Then, if the upside looks like it is more valuable to you than what you have to pay to get it, it is time to spend the money. If it is just too speculative, don’t do it.
Got the Money Block?
Now, if the upside is more valuable than what you would pay and you still can’t bring yourself to do it, you’ve got yourself a money block. Do what you can to stay in your head, being rational, about the expenditure instead of just listening to your feelings that are screaming “Don’t waste money!” You’ve already calculated that it wouldn’t be a waste of money. So take a deep breath and make the commitment to doing the rational thing.
Of course, if you are currently working on a shoestring and you really have to pinch every penny, then you will have to trade some of your time for money, at least until you get some leeway into your system. Then, once you have more money that you can use to “buy” time, you will be able to shift your efforts from money-saving to more money-making efforts. For now, do what you have to. But keep doing those calculations. At some point, sooner than you expect, the upside of spending the money will outweigh the downside.
I confess that today’s tip is not for everyone. But before you dismiss it as not being right for you, be sure to really try it on for size. You may discover that you can make this change. If you can, it will make a huge difference in your work.
“Mark” has blocks to growing his business. He came to me knowing that he procrastinates and misses deadlines. As we delved further, he identified a pattern of starting out on a project for a client with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. He would analyze the client’s problem, identify what they needed to be doing, create a new process, and then implement it. Those first few months were glorious as Mark delivered just what his client needed.
Then the tedium would set in. Maintaining his great process was boring. Newer, more exciting projects would take precedence and he would start to put off doing the first client’s work. Now the client wasn’t so happy with him anymore. And, truth be told, he wasn’t happy with himself, but he couldn’t seem to knuckle down and just do the work.
So, what’s the answer for Mark? Well, there are actually two possibilities. First, we could look for an internal block that is keeping him from simply getting the work done on time. Is there a downside to succeeding — loss of friends, fear of becoming too busy to play with his kids, worry that he will outshine siblings? Does he have “old programming” that kicks in whenever he is doing too well, telling him that only greedy people make a lot of money or that he is too artistic to succeed in business? Once we identify the internal block, we can get rid of it, leaving him free to carry on with the mundane (but still lucrative) part of his business.
Before we did that, though, I wanted to check out the second approach. What if his reluctance to do the more mundane work was simply an acknowledgement by some part of him that such work was not his strength. Perhaps he is “a fixer” through and through and the daily work should be turned over to a “doer.” If that were the case, he could turn that block into a strength by building his business around his strength of “fixing.” He could be the one who goes into a client from the outside, puts his new processes in place, then hands the new system back to the client for continued maintenance by one of its employees. Alternatively, if he really wanted to keep the maintenance part of the business, Mark could hire someone himself to do that work while he monitored his employee and personally kept in touch with his client on a regular, but less onerous, basis.
Either approach would allow him to keep doing the analyzing and fixing he truly enjoyed and skip the dull work he hated. His clients would be happier. And he would be seen as the hero instead of the one with a follow-through problem.
Now think of your own business or job. What are your strengths? What do you love to do? What do clients (or bosses) rave about? Now think about ways for you to focus on those strengths while delegating the work you dislike — your “blocks” — to someone else.
In our culture, we usually get hung up at this “handoff” stage on three different things. One, we grew up believing that we have to improve those parts of our work that are weaker. Remember that comment on elementary school report cards, “Needs Work”? We are not taught to think, “I’m not very good at spelling so I’ll give it to Johnny across the table and he’ll give me his multiplication tables.” No, we are told to focus on our weaknesses to improve them. So, first up, remember that you are not in school anymore. You do not have to do everything and do it well. You just need to make sure that someone is doing what needs to be done.
Second, many of us are worried that if we delegate something, it won’t get done right. We want to control everything, and we can’t control what someone else does. This is true. It is also entirely beside the point. You want to make the most of your strengths, so give away something you are weaker at. By definition you aren’t the best person for that job. There are plenty of other people who are better at it. In addition, you can get better results by delegating even when you delegate something you are good at. The art of effective delegation is a topic for another time, but for now just remember the old adage: two heads are better than one. Someone else will have different experiences, viewpoints and ideas to bring to a problem. Their plan and execution could be better than yours. Alternatively, together you can create something better than either of you alone.
Finally, entrepreneurs often get trapped into thinking they have to do everything in their business from answering the phones to changing the light bulbs. Yes, that may save you money when you are starting out, but if you don’t get away from it quickly it will stunt your growth. How can you add a new product or client if you are already working flat out? How can you impress your existing and potential clients if you are completely exhausted from wordprocessing, bookkeeping and filing every night and cleaning the office and filling orders on weekends? The short answer is you can’t. Don’t try. Figure out what your clients come to you for and do that. Everything else is fair game to be delegated.
There are a lot of ways to delegate. For business owners who simply have too much to do, you can contract out tasks (think bookkeeping, virtual office assistance, cleaning services). You could also hire part-time or full-time employees for specific areas of work. If you feel like you are missing something key to making your business grow — say, you love to learn everything you can and stay on the cutting edge of your field but aren’t good at networking and bringing in new clients — you can join with a partner who has that skill.
If you are not a business owner, this approach may be harder to implement but you may still be able to make it work. If you are in a position to hire direct reports to “fill in the gaps” for you, do it. You will probably need to understand what they do, but it will still be better to have someone do the detailed work. If you can’t delegate to a direct report, see if you can develop your strengths to the extent that you become a “star” at what you do and can expect your employer to find others to do what you are not good at. I once worked in a law firm with a partner who excelled at writing appellate briefs. She was one of the few attorneys who was not expected to go out on golf courses and bring in new clients.
What about Mark? He is intrigued by the idea of turning his blocks into strengths, but nevertheless wants to root them out. I’m happy to help him do that since I know, once they are gone, he can still choose to focus on his strengths in his business.
So think about how you might be able to turn your blocks into strengths. It could be a much simpler solution to your problems!
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!