Editor’s Note: This is a continuation of our core conversations on Charlie’s book Start Finishing. In our last conversation, Danielle LaSusa talked about the five key virtues for doing our best work. In today’s conversation, Rachael Ridenour talks about how to see your projects as mirrors and how to process those reflections.
A project, in “Charlie-speak,” is anything that takes your time, energy, and attention. After reading that definition in Start Finishing, and letting it percolate, I realized that time, energy, and attention are also the elements that make up Life.
Life with a capital L.
We all understand on some level that Life gives us each an unknown and yet finite amount of time, energy, and attention (TEA) here on planet Earth. When I understood that, TEA suddenly became a valuable resource.
Being an analytical creature, I wanted to honestly and objectively assess where and how I had been spending my TEA, because where I spent these finite resources would reveal a lot about me and my values.
Charlie puts it much more elegantly in Chapter 1: “Projects are mirrors that reflect back on us what is really going on in our inner and outer worlds.” Such a deceptively simple yet powerful statement.
Have you taken the time to hold up your project mirrors and see what reflects back? (Tweet this.)
I did, and the results were pretty profound.
The Wake-Up Call
An email arrived from my airline company announcing “…the greatest gift you can give someone is your time. And we’re grateful you’ve chosen to spend so much of your time with us…” The airline then politely informed me that 146 hours of my 2017 had been spent in the sky, flying the equivalent of 2.5 times around the world.
Wait, what? 146 hours IN THE SKY?
That equaled three and a half 40-hour workweeks! And that was just time in the air; it didn’t include time spent going through security, traveling to and from the airport, or packing and unpacking.
And the audacity of the airline to assume I had CHOSEN to spend that time with them! But the realization slowly emerged that I’d done exactly that: I had chosen, consciously or unconsciously, to spend several of my 52 weeks that year buckled into a window seat.
I immediately rationalized: traveling 2.5 times around the globe is impressive! It’s road-warrior bragging rights.
But only, I realized, if I had actually GOTTEN somewhere.
Shortly after, in my local coffee shop, I compared the list of what I’d intended to accomplish that year with what I’d actually accomplished.
My results were dismal, which lit my determination to “fix myself” and start getting stuff done.
If I had allowed airline travel to take up that much of my TEA, where else was I unconsciously spending it?
I set out to find a new planning system and a better way to track my time. By luck, fate, or just good SEO, I discovered the Productive Flourishing website and got introduced to the community of Creative Giants. It was here that I learned how to define projects — and learned that maybe, just maybe, I needed some self awareness and not “fixing.”
Identifying and Sorting Projects
I had project lists in notebooks, Evernote, Wunderlist, and several other digital and analog containers. If I wanted to wrap my head around “Project World,” I first needed to get everything into one place so I could really examine it.
Out came a sharp pencil and fresh paper and the list making started.
The results were a staggering 32 prior, ongoing, and aspirational projects. I tried not to feel defeated at the amount of unfinished work annotated on the page.
I kept reflecting and finally had my first “aha” moment: many of the items on my list were not actually projects.
They were wishes, ideas, and goals that had never been converted into concrete action. No verbs — just nouns listed as placeholders, each representing a ton of tension. This was especially true for several repeat-appearance projects that had been on my “To-Do” list year after year without action.
This realization brought with it a sense of relief. There was no point in beating myself up for not doing what hadn’t been defined in the first place.
Empowered, I reworked goals and ideas into projects as best I could, defining them and identifying action steps.
Doing this uncovered a second problem: many of my projects were complex and required multiple sub-projects. Now identified and added to the accounting, these additions quickly doubled, then tripled, my list in size. Feeling overwhelmed, I took a deep breath and stepped back, putting on my best “don’t judge, be curious” hat.
As I looked, it dawned on me that I didn’t know how to take action on several items on my list. These were like huge, complex, heavy elephants. I know, I know: the elephant gets eaten one bite at a time.
The problem with that approach is it assumes you know how to get the elephant on the plate in the first place. I had no idea how to break these huge items into bite-sized pieces, so they just sat there, elephant eyes staring back at me.
Yet this clarity — that I had a knowledge gap standing in my way — brought another huge release. My head trash had been whispering I was lazy, not disciplined, or not committed enough to finish things.
I gently acknowledged that the mirror told a different story.
My list was now crazy big. I determined to create some forward momentum by prioritizing what I could do rather than focus on what I couldn’t.
I took a Sharpie marker and a stack of index cards and wrote down all of my projects. One stack of cards contained my aspirational projects and another stack my ongoing projects. Operation “Cage Match” soon commenced.
Three short card flips into the process and I discovered what would become my most powerful lesson:
My own priorities had no relevance. None.
I had over-committed to so many ongoing projects with hard deadlines that I couldn’t choose my own projects, even when I wanted to.
Worse, these projects with hard deadlines represented other people’s projects and priorities (OPP). A sick feeling hit my stomach as I realized almost all of my TEA for the last several years had been committed to OPP.
I was always on the road, always away from home, always busy. Traveling around the world 2.5 times for someone else. Anxiously counting down the electric toothbrush timer in the morning, willing it to hurry up and finish so I could get to a commitment that was someone else’s priority. Each year, with the best of intentions, I would write my own goals, but then quickly commit to OPP.
I had set myself up perfectly to avoid being responsible for my own creative outputs. Now I just had to figure out why.
Multipotentialite or a Bisy Back Sooner?
At this point my mirrors seemed like the kind you find in funhouses: everything seemed distorted.
As I examined the pace at which I had been feverishly running in circles, I was reminded of someone I had read about years ago in The Tao of Pooh, a wonderful book written by Benjamin Hoff. Hoff describes a character known as “Bisy Backson” who, you guessed it, is always “frantically busy.” Bisy leaves a “Back Soon” sign on his door while he rushes from one thing to the next, never stopping to enjoy life.
I had become a Busy Back Sooner, rationalizing that my differing interests and “important” responsibilities kept me busy. I had been staying busy to avoid holding still.
Because holding still meant dealing with who I was before morphing into a Busy Back Sooner: an Army Reservist who had returned from a third, very difficult, war-zone deployment. Holding still would bring forth some really heavy questions and experiences to process. Gnarly, complex questions that were tied deeply to my identity, and that I was not ready to delve into upon my return from Afghanistan.
Staying busy and over-committing had been my coping strategy. Effective — but not sustainable if I wanted to find fulfillment and keep growing as a human.
Knowledge Is Power and with Great Power…
Knowing is half the battle (blatant G.I. Joe pun here), and now that I knew, it was up to me to take responsibility and make changes to get my inner and outer worlds more aligned.
Getting unplugged and into nature created white space in my head as I stayed curious, introspective, and present. Being present brought me stillness and stillness allowed my inner muse to nudge me toward projects I was passionate about — projects where I could be responsible for the quality and the outcome.
I would love to tell you that I figured it all out, but the truth is that I am still in the messy middle of transition. I am happy to report that the messy middle is a pretty fantastic space to be in. I can also share that only 70 hours of 2018 were spent on a plane, and by the end of 2019, I’ll be at half that number.
I am still a professional plate spinner, but for the most part they are my plates, my priorities. I have to give mad credit to the tribe of Creative Giants for helping get me here. Writing this is my way of giving back to this amazing community. It took dozens of blog posts, podcasts, and monthly momentum calls to cultivate the awareness to look at my projects as mirrors and see what they could tell me about my inner and outer worlds.
Start Finishing puts all these tools and the framework to use them into a single source, and then walks you through the process step by step. Personally, I am still growing through eating my elephants and will be living in Chapter 5 for a while as I figure it out.
Adventures Through Your Own Looking Glass
As we enter the final quarter of 2019, I leave you with a challenge: hold up your own projects as mirrors, to see what worlds yours might show. Below is a simple framework and some starting questions to help jumpstart your process.
Step 1: Get Clarity
Get all your projects out where you can see them. This might mean paper and pen, a computer spreadsheet, or project management software. The point is to get everything into one place so that you can see the sum of the parts. Everything that takes your time, energy, and attention.
Step 2: Get Connected
Connect and group the projects on your list in a manner that makes sense to you: by complexity, by the hat or role you wear while doing a project, by the emotion it brings forth, by the time horizon to complete it, etc. Use colored highlighters, notecards, sticky notes, stickers — any format that works for you.
If you don’t like the word “Project” or “Goal” that’s okay; use words and definitions that resonate and have meaning for you. What’s important is to identify what your projects have in common.
Step 3: Get Curious
Step back and examine your Project World like you are seeing it for the first time. What patterns and themes emerge?
Warning: It’s easy to jump on the judgment train here. Try to approach this with gentle curiosity, not judgment. More often than not, the patterns that emerge will make you understand that something is missing — something that was preventing you from getting from idea to done in the first place.
Questions that might be useful to jumpstart the process:
- Examine how you wrote down your projects. Is there a pattern to which projects are specific and actionable versus those that might be vague and undefined?
- What projects on your list are repeat performers, showing up year after year and still not getting done?
- What has been displacing these projects?
- What story are you telling yourself about why they have not been done? Is it a true story?
- In the last month what or who have you focused your time, energy, and attention on? Is it on your list?
- Is there a true resourcing or knowledge gap to fill before you can start finishing?
- How many projects on your list are other people’s projects (OPPs)?
- What types of projects have you successfully completed? Why were you able to finish them?
When you look deep into the mirrors of your own projects, what do you see reflected there?
Want more information? Start Finishing, the book that kicked off all of these Core Conversations, is your deeper dive into all aspects of how to turn your ideas into projects, and how to start finishing your best work.
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