How to Deal with Transitions

file0001197074800Emma is a poster girl for Newton’s first law of motion: Once she starts doing something, she just keeps doing it until acted upon by some external force. Each day when Emma’s alarm clock rings, she drowsily hits the snooze button several times. The shower, when she finally gets there, is so steamy and fragrant, she lingers twice as long as strictly necessary. She dresses hurriedly, only to check the mirror and change. And so it goes: Coffee savoring takes 15 minutes; lipstick experimentation, five minutes; car key searching, another 10. Emma often arrives at the office late—but that’s okay, because once there, she works into the night, until an external force in the form of her frustrated husband calls to see if she’s alive. Emma stays up late to offer compensatory companionship, ensuring that in the morning, when the alarm clock rings, she’ll be too tired to get up.

People either think Emma is an inconsiderate laggard or they shrug off her chronic difficulty making transitions, give her lavish time cushions, and judge her based on anything but punctuality.

There’s a key difference between people who become irritated with Emma and those who share Emma’s inability to segue from one thing to the next. The first group has what is known as a monochronic time sense. They see time as fixed, rigid and absolute. On the other side of the spectrum, folks who are polychronic see time as loose and elastic. Any moment, to a polychrone, is capable of holding many things. Which of these descriptions (borrowed from anthropologist Edward T. Hall) fits you best? See below!

Monochrones…

  • Do one thing at a time.
  • View time commitments as critical.
  • Are committed to jobs (projects and tasks).
  • Adhere religiously to plans.
  • Emphasize promptness, always.
  • Are accustomed to short-term relationships.

Polychrones…

  • Do many things at once and are highly distractible.
  • View time commitments as objectives.
  • Are committed to people and relationships.
  • Change plans often.
  • Base promptness on the significance of the relationship.
  • Have a strong tendency to build lifelong relationships.

Entire cultures can be polychronic or monochronic. In a polychronic country, dinner may continue throughout the night, and appointment times are suggestions, not space-launch absolutes. But First World cultures (except maybe Mediterranean ones) are extremely monochronic. Our high-tech society requires human synchronization on a massive scale: Huge numbers of us must show up at precisely agreed upon places, at precisely agreed upon times.

As we’ve used technology to cram our schedules with more things to do, shaving away ever-slimmer time margins, we’re reaching extremes that test the mettle of even thoroughbred monochrones. The slamming thud of the seconds passing on the TV series 24 could be our anthem of angst. It’s gone so far that one expert calls First World countries chronocracies, in thrall to rigid scheduling. And for people like Emma, this can be disastrous.

Each of us is capable of functioning in either a polychronic or monochronic way. A New Yorker in the South Seas might gradually slow down and learn to enjoy telling time by the position of the sun. By the same token, a Polynesian working on Wall Street must adapt to strict timing. I’m not quite as polychronic as Emma, but even for me, life in America feels like perpetually rushing to five-alarm emergencies in an ambulance pulled by stoned cats.

We polychrones can’t help that our attention wanders off in random directions, or that we focus on interesting sensations to the point of total amnesia and blithely forget birthdays and deadlines. We get into every known species of trouble: Colleagues bristle when they’re kept waiting, family members wonder if we’re lying dead in a ditch. Losing awareness of time seems bizarre to more formally structured minds, and claiming “not guilty by reason of polychronicity” just doesn’t wash with, say, the IRS.

The solution to this problem isn’t to do away with polychronic tendencies altogether. That would leave the world a poor place indeed—we’d have to eliminate all 2-year-olds, not to mention poets and snowboarders. I personally think our whole society could use a more laid-back approach, but a massive cultural shift doesn’t appear to be imminent, so we polychrones have to find some way to be ourselves without losing our jobs, offending our associates and yammering a constant stream of half-baked apologies. How? We must learn something I call the art of the dismount.

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Easy Does It

tumblr_lsmnttn3jX1qg5i5zLife is hard. We all know that. It is one of the primary beliefs that helped you gut it out through school subjects you hated, your soul-vampire of a job, and the years when your children, your partner, and your parents all depended on you. When I read through the journals I have kept sporadically throughout my life, I can see how acknowledging that life is hard helps me survive and overcome obstacles.

But, something weird is happening.

It’s not just me; it’s also people I work with, people I coach, and friends from all walks of life. We are being challenged to let things be easy. This is not an altogether new idea. 2000 years ago, Jesus supposedly said, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” The Buddha tried a life of pain and self-denial, then declared that it was not enlightenment and chose an easier path.

My favorite philosopher Lao Tzu wrote, “The great Way is easy, yet people prefer the side path. Be aware when things are out of balance. Stay centered within the Way.”

It seems to me these days that the easy way is no longer an option for us: it is an imperative. What you are meant to do in the world may have begun with difficulty, but from here on, you are obliged to find the easiest path to all of your objectives. We live in a time of astonishing ease, especially those of us in the first world. Almost every day, at least one person says to me, “I can’t believe it’s that easy.” Guess what? It is.

For example, here are some of the things that seem too easy for me. I was educated to spend hours in libraries shuffling 3×5 note cards, searching through stacks of books, and reading thousands of pages in search of one nugget of truth. Now, I can Google “nugget of truth” and come up with over 2.5 million results in 0.23 seconds. In fact I just did it; how about this? “You are a dream of God come true.” That’s just awesome. That’s just too easy!

Another example: Now that I live in the country, shopping means a full-on expedition requiring at least an hour in transit just to buy groceries or a pair of flip-flops. Some of my neighbors recently told me that they shop online and have all of their purchases delivered to their country home. What? That’s just too easy!

Just one more: I have trouble remembering writing deadlines. So, right now, my wonderful Master Coach Jill Farmer is typing up this newsletter as I dictate it, while I’m giving myself a pedicure. Decadently easy!

By the same token, a dear friend of mine recently found a significant other through an online dating service. My daughters create astonishing works of art on their computers that would take thousands of hours to paint on a canvas. When I set out to plant a vegetable garden, a dear friend who loves to garden came and showed me how. We just ate our first batch of potatoes, a small miracle that required virtually no effort on our part.

All of this easiness is causing great un-easiness. At least a dozen people, over this past month, have asked me for coaching because certain tasks had become so easy they feared they were doing something wrong. I don’t think so. I think that a wave of easiness is rising all over the world. Does mean that people are not suffering or experiencing enormous difficulty? Of course not. But it may mean that even solving the problems of the destitute is meant to be an easier task than we believe. It may mean that the everyday labors of our lives are being facilitated by something that is teaching us to use our striving, tenacity, and grit to do things so huge and beautiful that they have never been possible before.

Do this for me: This month, every time you set out to do any task, ask yourself, “Is there an easier way?” Or, “How can I make this easier?” Can you ask a friend for help? Have you tried Googling it? Are there services out there to help you? Might small miracles happen if you simply ask the powers that be for assistance? It floors me when I ask this question to myself and realize how much easier tasks have become. And, the strength I gained gutting it through the hard parts of life is now free to flow into tasks that have one common purpose: to make things easier for others. That’s why all of this is happening, people. We are a species that works to make things easier. We’re getting really good at it. But, unless we drop the idea “life is hard,” we can’t take advantage of the astonishing ease we have created.

How to Stop Procrastinating

Hamburger, cheese burger with tomatoUgh! I’m so full, I can’t breathe!” says Rose as she finishes her cheeseburger. “And I’ve got to lose weight. … I think I’ll have the crème brûlée.” Across the table, her oncologist friend, Linda, lights up, handling the stress of treating cancer patients by smoking like a chimney. Meanwhile Barb is complaining about her 27-year-old son, Randy. “If he doesn’t get a job and move out soon,” she says, “I don’t know what I’ll do.” Rose and Linda know what Barb will do—she’ll keep cooking and cleaning for Randy until she dies of old age. 

In their book The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action, authors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton discuss why our actions often don’t match our ideals, and what we can do about it. Although the authors’ research is drawn from the corporate world, I read the book as a self-help guide, looking for ways to stop perpetuating behavior I know is bad for me: postponing work, playing addictive computer games, eating hotel minibar food that hardens my arteries and costs more than its weight in enriched uranium. If you’re a cognitive dissonance sufferer like Rose, Linda, Barbara, and me, try these dos and don’ts that I’ve adapted from Messrs. Pfeffer and Sutton for closing the knowing-doing gap: 

Don’t Substitute Talk For Action

Mike calls me every few weeks to say, “I need to talk to you about my girlfriend. I’ve been talking to a lot of her friends, and we should talk about what they’ve been talking about. Maybe she and I should come talk to you together.” 

Talk, talk, talk. Mike is tolerating his awful relationship by creating storms of verbiage that make him think he and his girlfriend are making progress, even though they aren’t. He’s not alone. Substituting talk for action is perhaps the most common way we fall into the knowing-doing gap. Many corporate teams spend so much time creating strategies and mission statements, they don’t actually implement anything. The same goes for individuals. We plan, consider, discuss, brood—and count the word-spinning hours as “action.” We think we’re working toward our goals when in fact we’re spinning our wheels. 

Do Hit Your Mute Button

If you’re not sure whether you’re in danger of talking your dreams to death, try something for me. Today, whenever you mutter your usual reminders about cleaning the closet, learning to tango, or finding a new job/boyfriend/oven thermometer, make a note of it on a piece of paper. At the end of the day, read over your list and ask yourself, “Did I do anything that created a measurable change toward each goal?” If not, you’re substituting words for action. You can close the knowing-doing gap only by focusing on observable change—not plans, comments, or excuses. You don’t have to build Rome in a day; small tweaks are more sustainable, and thus more effective, than attempts at total revolution.

Don’t Rely on Fantasy Transitions

One of my favorite cartoons shows two scientists working on a massive equation. In the center of countless numbers and symbols are the words, “A miracle occurs.” This kind of fuzzy logic is actually very de-motivating. As Pfeffer and Sutton note, companies often fail to act when managers don’t know every step in the processes they’re managing. The same thing happens when individuals have an incomplete plan. Uncertainty stops people in their tracks—smack-dab in the knowing-doing gap. 

Do Figure Out What’s Standing Between You And Your Goals

I know what you’re thinking: What kind of high-grade pharmaceutical are Pfeffer and Sutton on? They start off by saying not to get bogged down in details—and now they advise against starting without an itemized plan. It’s all about calibration, spending enough time to come up with a solid plan but not obsessing over it. 

Compared with vague fantasies about achieving great things, grappling with the nitty-gritty realities of action is hard. It requires research, concentration, and creativity. But we’re actually happiest when we’re pushing the envelope of effort, not when we’re lost in daydreams. As you fill in the gaps in your knowledge, you’ll feel the kind of excitement that comes from real possibility, not just happy talk. Figuring out a plan of attack will practically catapult you over the knowing-doing gap.  Read more