Sometimes we do hard things by doing something else first.
I ask my clients to do some reflecting and planning before our sessions. They write about what they’re proud of since we last met, what could have gone better and where their goals stand now. Oh, there’s plenty of good news to share – week after week, small and significant insights and actions.
And still, nearly every week, I hear some wistful disappointment:
I still wasn’t as direct as I needed to be in that meeting…
Another week where I spent too much time in the weeds at work and put off long-term planning…
I told myself I’d take a few hours to make overdue doctor’s appointments and get a few walks in but I barely left my desk…
Still haven’t scheduled any of the networking calls I said I’d set up…
When we’re asked to report on ourselves, many of us would say something along these lines. Some good news, and still some self-directed frustration.
There isn’t a single human I know who hasn’t stared at the same blank page, the same to-do list, or their own reflection in the mirror without the self-recriminating thought:
What is wrong with me?
Why can’t I get started?
Why can’t I do the thing I say is important to me?
For most of us, the cycle of self-battering doesn’t actually lead to change, it makes us feel worse and less inspired. Maybe we invest in another goal-setting system, or leave more notes for ourselves, or browbeat our partner or a friend into holding us accountable, or sigh into our palms again.
Or, we draw a note of inspiration from a part of life that has nothing to do with our primary goal.
Sometimes when a client feels stuck on a leadership or career goal, I’ll ask them to look around at the rest of their lives to see what’s working or not working. I’m not trying to pile on the pain, I’m looking for opportunities to create or borrow momentum.
As the saying goes: energy creates energy.
Even when our progress in a primary area of life feels stagnant, something in our life is going in the right direction. Or, there's something small we can move in a better direction to generate energy that carries us through our primary goals.
Here’s what I mean:
Some time ago when I asked this question: what’s going on in other domains of life, the good and the bad, one client talked to me about his living room chandelier. This client – working with me because he felt stuck professionally – told me his living room chandelier had been broken for over a year. The primary socket that provided most of the light for the fixture had gotten stripped over time. Bulbs wiggled, then flickered, then ultimately fell to the ground and shattered. Again and again.
He felt stuck in regards to this chandelier, too. His family had taken to sitting in a different room with better light, or he’d find himself trying with yet another, different light bulb that would slowly slip, hit the ground, and shatter. Weekend after weekend, he'd swear at himself that he hadn’t taken action on this task, but he just couldn’t seem to get himself to do the research on what the space needed, select a new light, work with the apartment building to get someone to install it and repaint the ceiling.
Pivot to work. He’d been overlooked for promotion three years running. He knew he had the qualifications and experience for the next level, but he didn't have the relationships or political capital that his organization valued. He didn't think of himself as skilled at relationship management and believed it was too late to start. Despite the encouragement his manager offered, and his knowledge that this could be the differentiator between growth and stagnation, he hesitated.
Like dealing with his home project, getting started with changed behavior at work seemed insurmountable and exhausting, so he found himself sticking to the technical performance of his job, and avoiding the most critical goal. "Nayla," he'd repeat, "I can't get started here".
Rather than letting the self-flagellation continue, we shifted our attention to the chandelier instead.
Resolve the chandelier project within 30 days, step by step, bird by bird.
He started on a Monday, stopped at a few furniture stores on the way home, took photos to share with his wife. He consulted with the superintendent in the building about the circuitry, ordered the fixture, met with the electrician and the painter that would complete the work, scheduled the appointments. Done in 30 days.
Along the way, he collected small victories. He set tiny goals and met them. He reset the language of "I can't start" to "I'm working on it". My client sorted out that a goal that seemed overwhelming was very doable. He set small, measurable steps, and got them done, first with the chandelier, then with the networking. One call, then another completed to help build the relationships he needed at work. Bird by bird. He had built what social scientists call self-efficacy, the belief that we can get things done to meet our goals, using evidence of things we’ve already done.
The chandelier replacement may seem trivial in comparison to a long-standing professional goal, but the point is not to compare priorities but to generate energy, noticing how creating momentum in one domain becomes a wave we can ride in another domain in our lives. The chandelier project is not about the chandelier (although the light in the living room is great), it’s about starting somewhere.
When you don't know how to begin, look around. Somewhere, something in your life is working (or can work with a focused burst of commitment).
Borrow energy from that.
This means we don’t have to look at every instinct to clean the pantry as another episode of self-sabotage or distraction. What if we can convert the urge to clean into a source of energy? When we get the beans and spices in the right place, we can take that energy into creating a more manageable list for this week’s work.
What if when we successfully lace up our shoes and get our daily walks in, we use that energy to set up that meeting with our boss and provide the agenda that gets to what really needs to be said?
What if we can set a small goal to make those doctor’s appointments we’ve been postponing, and then ride that energy to reply to the inquiry from a junior colleague?
Sometimes we do hard things by doing something else first.
How have you seen this phenomenon at work? I’d love to hear about it.