Step Back Tips and Tools to Get Back on Track and Stay the Course – The Joy of Strategy: A Business Plan for Life

Step Back: Tips and Tools to Get Back on Track and Stay the Course

“No matter how far you have gone on a wrong road, turn back.”

—Turkish proverb

Strategic planning is a neat, methodical, and dependable process that, in a perfect world, would give us neat, methodical, and dependable results. Though wondrous, the world is far from perfect and life can be messy. History, habits, and happenstance can conspire to pull our best-laid plans off course. Did you run into difficulty as you set your priorities and made your plans? What’s been getting in your way? I have yet to encounter anyone who doesn’t have something that causes them to make suboptimal choices from time to time. Often it’s something as straightforward as watching too much television or constantly succumbing to digital distractions. For others, more ingrained behaviors pull them off course.

Strategies to Get Back on Track

Becoming aware of what is pulling you off track from making steady progress is a great first step toward recalibrating the way you make decisions going forward. The techniques presented in this section may also be helpful if you found yourself back in step 4 identifying with one or more of the descriptions of people with an inclination toward:

• People pleasing

• Perfectionism

• Inertia

• Ego identification and control issues

• Listening to naysayers

• Succumbing to the yeah-but habit

• Procrastination

Cultivate Conscious Awareness

As obvious as this may sound, it’s important to pay attention to the reasons you make decisions that create situations you consider less than optimal. What compels you to cede your power to someone else or just react to whatever comes your way rather than steering your own ship? If you are prone to inertia, staying the course even when it no longer suits you, be alert to any nagging sensations of vague dissatisfaction. It may behoove you to perform regular gut checks to see how you’re feeling about your current lot. Use the joy meter to keep tabs.

Remember that you will never get “there.” As soon as you bag one peak, you’ll be off looking for the next hill to conquer. That is part of the human condition, especially for high achievers. Just remember to enjoy the climb. Be aware of what is enough for you. Avoid mindlessly going after more just for the sake of more.

Strive for Acceptance;
Set Reasonable Expectations

Many of us spin our wheels because we think we can or should change the essential nature of things. This is a common pitfall for people who have control issues. They want things the way they want them, even when that’s an unreasonable expectation. I’m always bemused by people who buy hunting dogs and then get angry with them for behaving like hunters. Retrievers roll in smelly things when given a chance. That’s what they do. It’s unreasonable for humans to put this kind of canine in a house and then be upset with them for doing what is part of their essential nature, even though that behavior is not compatible with pristine housekeeping.

Likewise, a young mother was talking to me at work one day about how frustrated she was when her eight-year-old son put holes in the knees of an expensive suit she bought for him the first time he wore it. I asked her what she was thinking when she bought an eight-year-old boy fancy pants knowing full well he was tough on his clothing. She blushed with recognition at her mistake and vowed to buy him clothing one step up from disposable next time they had a formal event to attend. It’s much easier to accept that some kids crawl on floors than to curse the holey knees.

You Are the Expert on You

There is no shortage of experts touting their point of view and exhorting you to embrace their wisdom. And you can learn a lot from them. However, no one knows you as well as you know yourself, so you need to be a critical consumer of advice and make decisions that make the most sense for you given your current circumstances.

This point was brought home to me when I had a stubborn hamstring injury that took years to heal. I’d been practicing yoga for years, all the while listening to several instructors touting the virtues of a vegetarian diet. Then my doctor referred me for acupuncture to try to improve the circulation near my injury to speed up healing. On my first visit, the acupuncturist did an assessment and declared that I didn’t have enough meat in my diet. Both were giving sound dietary advice backed up with long history and good evidence for their perspective. And it’s even possible that both are right—for some people at some time. My goal is to be healthy. How I achieve that health is up to me. Only I can decide what works best for me at any given time. Maybe more meat will be important when I get older and need more iron. I’ll put that idea on a shelf in my closet and refer back to it in a few years if I feel the need for a change in my diet.

Humor Can Help

Armed with your mission and vision, you have some great tools to serve as filters that will help you define your priorities and what is most important to you. With these in your arsenal (and a sense of humor doesn’t hurt either), you can stand firm in the face of others’ suggestions and judgments. Not that I hold a grudge or anything, but about eighteen years ago, I met with a new colleague, an older and much more senior executive. He was of the strong opinion that women with young children (I had a two-year-old at the time) should stay at home to take care of them. He told me that his wife was a homemaker and you could “eat off his floors.” I replied that you could eat off my floors too—and on a good day, you could find a whole meal. We moved on to the next topic.

It would have been easy to be intimidated by this man who outranked me, was significantly older, and was at least twice my size. However, I knew that my life’s mission included a career and I had a clear set of priorities that achieved a balance of career, family, mind/body/spirit, and community activities that worked for me. Having examined my own priorities for myself before this conversation took place allowed me to laugh at the absurdity of what he was suggesting. Had I not known so clearly who I was as a well-rounded person who plays several different roles, I may have been vulnerable to his criticisms and likely to pack for the guilt trip he was trying to send me on. Instead, I bought a busy rug that hid the Cheerios.

Toolbox

Humor

Consider a witty retort when someone gives you unsolicited advice about what he thinks is right for you. With your mission and vision well articulated, you are the expert. Find a firm but lighthearted way to hold your ground.

Don’t Let Yourself Be Shouldwinked

Who among us hasn’t done something out of a sense of obligation, misplaced or not? We often say yes to something when we’d rather say no because we feel we should. This is especially common among pleasers and perfectionists, and it can be a real problem. My friend calls it “shoulding all over yourself.” When you put it that way, it sounds especially unappealing.

I’ve been plenty guilty of this myself. One morning, my then ten-year-old daughter saw me eating my usual luscious breakfast of fat-free cottage cheese and bran nuggets. She asked me why I ate that and I told her that it was good for me. She asked if I liked it and I had to admit, not so much. That simple question was enough to bust me out of my inertia. That was the last day I ate “cottage cheese and crunchies” for breakfast just because I thought I should be eating something healthy. Lo and behold, there are tastier options. It was a great reminder that there’s no dishonor in enjoying the journey.

Toolbox

Shed the Shoulds

What are your “cottage cheese and crunchies”—those things you do only because you feel you should? Is that really necessary? What would happen if you didn’t do it or looked for a more pleasant way to accomplish the same objective?

Sharon, the vice president of a prestigious financial operation, signed up for my Business of Life course. A highly disciplined professional, she held such a stringent work ethic that she always felt she should eat her metaphorical vegetables before she could have dessert. During the session when people were recording their priorities, she was visibly upset. A couple of weeks later, as we were working on action plans, she broke down in tears. She had set spending more time with her daughter as a priority. Even as she did so, she felt the tug of the notion that always gnawed at her—that she should be attending to work matters instead of indulging in play with her child. The memory of a recent exchange with her six-year-old was what had her in tears. Sharon had promised to play a game one evening and asked if she could just make a quick business call before they started. Her daughter said no. Her business calls were never quick. Kids have a way of humbling us with the truth.

She came for a private coaching session to develop some strategies that would allow her to spend some guilt-free time with her child. Appealing to her strong sense of obligation, I asked her whose responsibility it was to nurture her child and model healthy behavior. She blanched at the realization that she was teaching her child to be a one-dimensional workaholic and admitted it was her job to spend quality time with her daughter. I recommended that she make playing with her kid a task that went right on her to-do list, alongside financial analyses and the laundry. If it made her feel any better, I conceded it could be an educational game, as long as she gave her child her undivided attention while they played. She needed to start thinking of time with her child as eating her spinach and not a chocolate éclair. That time was truly nourishing her child and their relationship. Showing Sharon that playing with her daughter was an item that merited a coveted spot on her to-do list worked with her wiring and helped her accept that it was at least as important and urgent as any business matter that threatened to invade her family time.

Step Back Before You React

Before saying yes to something you’d really rather not do, take a moment to assess what’s really happening, what you’re feeling and why you’re feeling it. A good strategy for dealing with an unwelcome request is to say you’ll need to think about it and get back to the person asking. Here are some good questions to ask when you see yourself slipping into some fear-driven behaviors:

• Why am I even considering this request/demand/expectation? Alternatively, why am I even considering not doing something about which I am passionately interested?

• What am I afraid of?

• Is my fear based on something real? If it is, so what?

• What if I don’t do what someone’s asking of me (or do what I want that someone else disapproves of )?

• What will it cost me to comply with their wishes?

• What’s the worst thing that can happen? How bad is it really? What strategies can I employ to make the worst case not so bad?

Consider the Opportunity Cost

If you choose to do one thing, it likely means not being able to do another. What comes off the list to accommodate what you are contemplating taking on? Is it worthy or is it less important than the new activity? It’s popular to advise a people pleaser to “learn to say no.” Try flipping that around and discover what you want to say yes to. Then make conscious decisions that are in line with your own priorities.

It can also be helpful to remember that while those conversations in which you are saying no to someone’s request can be uncomfortable, the discomfort dissipates shortly afterward. The tools and techniques in this book can help those talks go more smoothly. Remember that the discomfort of being “stuck” with a task that you’ve taken on reluctantly can cause you much more discomfort in the long run than the brief act of declining.

Toolbox

NO

There may be more power in the word “no” than any other two letters in the alphabet. I often assign my clients the task of saying no to five requests just to flex those muscles and see what happens. Often, people are surprised by how little resistance they actually meet. The filters in this chapter provide you with a vocabulary to explain your choices in a rational, objective, unemotional way that often helps your assertion to be accepted.

Use Compassion as a Tool

It’s hard to feel intimidated by someone while you are feeling genuine compassion for her. As you can imagine, in my years as a senior executive in a large organization, I engaged in some pretty tense conversations, often when the stakes were very high. I happen to be petite and soft spoken and I like to think of myself as a kind person. But I couldn’t be effective in my position if I were a pushover, so some confrontations were inevitable.

As a student of meditation techniques, I learned about compassion meditation, in which the practitioner focuses on a sincere desire for all suffering to cease. So I reasoned that if someone was acting in an aggressive manner, he must be suffering in some way. When I approached the encounter seeking to find out what was at the root of the negativity and to address it in a productive manner, I found I could confront the issue and the behavior without needing to attack the person in any way. In fact, the would-be confrontations often turned into cathartic conversations that cleared the way for productive problem solving. In some cases, we even emerged from these meetings with a stronger appreciation for one another.

Toolbox

Compassion

When you are facing a conversation where you fear the other person will respond in an angry or aggressive manner, try to be aware that pain of some sort is likely driving his behavior. Seek to address the cause of this discomfort and see if you can find a solution that satisfies the needs of the other person without sacrificing your own. Or, at the very least, to stand your ground without being intimidated.

The Tool Kit in Action

Let’s take a look at how you might use a collection of these tools to change the outcome of a situation where you might be inclined to bend to another’s wishes at the expense of your own priorities or desires.

Reframing a Bake Sale

I’d like to say no to making my hundredth batch of Rice Krispies Treats for the PTO, but there’s Patsy, the cookie queen, looking like she’s depending on me again. I always say yes to her, but this time, I really don’t have time. Taking on the task this time is a threat to the work/life/health balance that’s so important to my vision. What do I do? Asking the questions mentioned above can help evaluate and reframe the situation.

Why am I even considering this request? I’m afraid Patsy will be angry. Maybe she’ll hate me and tell all the other mothers at the school that I’m a selfish so-and-so and they should have nothing to do with me. That’ll hurt my feelings and I’m very sensitive.

Is it really true that she’ll be angry? Well, I don’t know Patsy that well, but she once looked at me funny. I’ve been trying to make sure I’m not on her bad side ever since.

Can I be sure? I guess I really don’t know if she’ll be angry or tell anyone else about my brazen refusal because I don’t know her that well and I don’t even know who she knows.

How can I find out? I could ask her if she’d be very upset with me if I demurred and explain that I’d love to comply with her wishes, but it would come at a great cost to me.

Okay, say it’s true that she’d get mad. So what? I hate the feeling that someone doesn’t like me or I’ve let her down.

What will it cost me to comply (i.e., what is the opportunity cost)? I guess I’d have to weigh whether it is worse to let a near stranger be disappointed or to miss two hours of sleep on a night when I can only get six because I’ve already agreed to build the sets for my daughter’s play, which is scheduled for the very next night.

Bottom line: When I look at it that way, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to skip my sleep because I’m scared of Patsy.

Closer—break the news to Patsy: Using compassion and my own, well-justified reasons to refuse, I break it to her gently. I tell Patsy that I fully identify with her need for volunteers and under most circumstances, I’d be delighted to turn out a batch of gooey goodies. Unfortunately, I’ve already committed to be at the school all evening building sets and won’t be able to make it to the grocery store before it closes. But I’d be glad to volunteer for the next time if she can give me a little more notice. To my surprise, Patsy tells me she appreciates that. She was actually surprised by the outpouring of volunteers for this sale and has been worried that no one will step up for the next one scheduled for two weeks from now. I agree to bring a double batch and we’re both relieved at the outcome.

If you are a people pleaser, you might benefit from trying your own version of this example, starting with some low-stakes situation. Think of it as a gym where you can try exercising a new “no” muscle. It might also help to do a root cause analysis. Why are you a people pleaser? Try asking yourself “why?” five times and see what comes up. Pleasers need to understand that they have no control over other peoples’ opinions. Strive for cheerful indifference. As Terry Cole-Whitaker says in her book of the same name, what you think of me is none of my business.6

Yeah-But--Compared to What?

You’ve got your dreams and desires, but everywhere you turn, there’s an obstacle or problem. Everything looks like a reason you can’t get what you want. The yeah-but habit can put you in a continuous inertia loop where eventually you give up altogether and hibernate in the comfortably unsatisfying rut you burrowed into long ago.

If you’ve made it this far, I hope that means you have crafted a vision that sets you so vibrantly aglow that it is enough to rouse you from your slumber. That picture of what your life could be represents what you are giving up on in order to stay stuck for any number of reasons that may seem quite valid to you. If your buts are getting the better of you, take a page out of Stella’s playbook. Her willingness to be alert to different ways of reaching her goals led her to find an unexpected opportunity to open a religious bookstore in her church building. Focus on what you can do and do that. Also challenge your buts and see if you can find a way to reframe your situation and make it work for you even in the most unexpected ways. Perhaps, like Stella, you’ll find the answer was there all along. Awake to new possibilities.

I’ll Get to It Just As Soon As . . .

Martin looks like anything but a procrastinator. He’s the senior vice president in charge of several operational units in a large corporation. He is a vision of perpetual motion, in constant demand and always on the go. He is busy from dawn to dusk. The only problem is, he rarely gets anything on his list done. He is a bit of a pleaser and does relish the fact that he’s the “go-to” guy for many of his colleagues. He loves being in on the action. But as I coached him through an analysis, the root cause of his problem revealed itself to be his proclivity toward procrastination.

Martin is a live-in-the-moment kind of guy, so he really enjoys responding to urgent matters, no matter how unimportant. He likes the drama and feeling needed. As we looked at what was on his list of priorities and how he spent his days, there was a huge disconnect. He was responsible for a number of large initiatives, several of which he’d not even started. All of his activities fit onto the urgent side of his importance/urgency matrix. The good news was that he wasn’t wasting any time on unimportant/nonurgent matters. The bad news was that he wasn’t spending any time on nonurgent important matters either. Every time a colleague knocked on his door with an urgent request, he reasoned he could get to his own work “tomorrow.” Well, his boss referred him to me for coaching when a year full of tomorrows never came and Martin fell significantly behind on his own workload.

If you share Martin’s inability to discipline yourself to dig into a large project and keep saying, I’ll get to that just as soon as . . . any number of excuses will do . . . you need a strategy to get focused. Martin is so social and in the moment that I suggested he seek out one of his colleagues that he keeps helping and ask her to help him put a plan in place to tackle his own projects. Since he loves to respond to a crisis, I recommended he ask his colleague to set several “burning” deadlines and to put regular progress reports on the agenda of his boss’s staff meetings so he’d be accountable for meeting them.

Perfectionists

Martin was not the only one in his office whose habits kept him from producing stellar results. When his boss, Richard, interviewed me as a potential executive coach for Martin, I asked him a few questions of my own, only to discover that Richard was a bit of a perfectionist and was rarely satisfied with any work product on its first pass. Without intending to, he was actually contributing to Martin’s procrastination. By setting standards that were practically impossible to satisfy, he unwittingly added to Martin’s resistance to starting difficult new projects that he knew were likely to fall short of Richard’s expectations.

Throughout the time I coached Martin, I checked in regularly with Richard. During this time, Richard did some self-analysis of his own, which revealed a fear of failure at the root of his perfectionism. Always afraid that he wasn’t on top of all the emerging trends in his industry, Richard felt that every quarterly board meeting was an oral exam he could fail at any time. His board included some of the greats in his industry, and he worried he couldn’t keep up with them, each with his own team of top-tier analysts. He passed his anxiety on to his staff to the point that he undercut their self-confidence and made them fearful of turning in work that he was likely to reject.

Richard’s fears were contagious and, ironically, were perpetuating the conditions he feared the most. So we worked on reframing the situation and finding another approach that would work and feel better for him and his staff. I pointed out that he and the board of directors were actually on the same team and wanted the same thing, namely for the company to perform well. Their incentives were well aligned. Richard needed to stop looking at the directors as a board of examiners he needed to dazzle with perfect presentations and start looking at them as the rich resource they were.

I suggested he start reaching out to the directors one at a time to see what he could learn from each of them and how they could help his staff design and research their analyses. This strategy accomplished a few important objectives. First, by spending time getting to know the directors, he was building important relationships. As he got better acquainted with each board member, he started to feel more confident that they wanted to help him succeed rather than catch him falling short of expectations. Second, he learned valuable information about his industry that improved the quality of his work. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he was able to shift the tenor of the board meetings into more of a collaborative discussion of key issues rather than a show and tell that left the directors bored and feeling underutilized by the company. Within a few short months, he felt much more confident in his standing with the board and, over time, he was able to ease up the pressure on his staff, making the workplace much more pleasant and productive.

If you are a perfectionist, you need to accept that you cannot control every outcome and you will never know everything. Remember the serenity prayer and put your efforts where you can have a positive impact.

I’m reminded of a moment of clarity on my yoga mat when I realized that strength is the ability to hold on, but power is the ability to let go. The best any of us can do is to prepare as thoroughly as possible and then find the courage to jump in with both feet.