Trouble Reaching a Goal? Get Out of Your Own Way

sidewalk closedDo you know somebody who is always on a diet but she keeps losing the same five or ten pounds over again, only to gain it back?

What about the person who keeps saying he needs to find a new job, who complains endlessly about his boss or coworkers, yet stays in those same conditions for years on end?

Is there something you keep saying you want to change, but you never seem to get to your goal? Maybe your goal is to quit smoking, save money, keep your home neat or to be on time. Whatever it is we’d like to achieve, why can it be so hard for us to just buckle down and do it?

The answer is self-defeating behaviors. Almost everybody has a couple of self defeating behaviors. These are habits that provide us with an escape hatch, a way to distract ourselves from feeling sad, overwhelmed or inadequate. We pick up these habits at a time in our lives when they help us cope with strong emotions or difficult situations, but over time, these behaviors begin to get in the way of our progress.

Recognizing Self Defeating Behaviors
When we find ourselves unable to achieve a goal that should be within our reach, there has to be something we’re doing instead that somehow rewards us. Rather than changing our behavior in order to move towards our goal — like stopping overeating to get thinner, we make it a habit of going for the reward (eating naughty food) that’s contradictory to our goal.

Many times we don’t know exactly how or why we sabotage ourselves, but if you have a goal that seems to be just out of reach, keep your ear to the ground. Next time you experience a failure, pay attention to what you do that’s counter to your goal, and figure out what reward you’re getting.

Here’s an example. You tell yourself that you are going to save money and you aren’t going to shop anymore. You have everything you need and it’s time for you to pay off your credit card. The idea of paying off your credit card and limiting your spending stresses you out. The mere thought of the balance and all that interest you’re paying every month makes you sweat a little. And you’re getting tired of the arguments that your spending causes. Maybe you even hide some of your spending from your mate, which you find even more stressful.

Ironically, shopping and spending money is the very thing that makes you feel good and gives you that high, a feeling of invincibility and elatedness. There’s nothing like plunking down that plastic on the perfect purchase, ripping the tags off a new dress and slipping it on to wear for the first time. You try to tell yourself NO MORE, but the next thing you know, you’re walking out the door of your favorite store with a shopping bag on your arm.

Of course the reward is obvious in this example, and so is the ultimate suffering it causes. But the point is, sometimes our brains seem to go blank when we’re breaking our own rules.

When we procrastinate, we escape from our responsibilities. When we overeat, we might enjoy the comfort that food affords us. If our chronic dieter doesn’t eat to console herself when she feels lonely or bored, then she might have to face the loneliness or boredom without the comfort of chocolate to soothe her.

Maybe the person stuck in the job he dislikes complains that he can’t find a new job when he is so busy in the current one. That’s silly. If he hates the job he has, then of course he can take time out of his schedule to find a different job. What’s the worst that could happen: he would lose a job that makes him feel miserable and trapped for years on end?

What does he get out of keeping the old job? Security, for one thing. He doesn’t have to face the fear and discomfort involved with interviewing, the risk of rejection. Or the fear of failure from taking a leap into the unknown at a job he’s untested at. He can complain all he wants, but there’s something comforting about staying in the old job.

Figure out for yourself what behavior you’re favoring over achieving your goal, and discover how that behavior is somehow rewarding you.

What’s the Worst That Could Happen?
Ask yourself what you think will happen if you stop the old behavior and cut yourself off from the reward. Your belief about the old behavior might even sound ridiculous when you discover what it is. Hint: you are usually trying to avoid some kind of emotional discomfort.

The spender might be afraid that the stress of dealing with her bills without the comfort of shopping to relieve her stress will be too painful.

The dieter might be afraid that she’ll have to endure hunger, loneliness or boredom without the ability to eat whatever, whenever. Or the dieter might be afraid of good old deprivation. If she sees delicious food, she might feel deprived if she won’t let herself have it.

The job hater might be afraid to apply for a new job because he would feel inadequate if he doesn’t get it. Or he fears that if he lands a new job, he might not be good at it and he’s supremely uncomfortable, maybe even humiliated when faced with his imperfections and inabilities.

Compare and Contrast
Once you’ve laid yourself bare and you are aware of your sabotaging behavior and the reward it gives you, let’s compare that current situation versus what you would get if you let yourself achieve your goal.

Do you really and truly value the self-defeating habit over your goal?

Does the dieter value overeating over reaching her goal of getting thin? Of course not. She might make the wrong decision in the heat of the moment due to subconscious fears around deprivation and loneliness, but she doesn’t truly value hanging onto unhealthy habits.

Does the shopper value mounting debt over her goal of saving money? And does the job hater secretly love his job? No. But they are stuck in patterns of thinking and behavior that are preventing success.

Challenge Time: Build New Habits
Let’s take on the shopper. All of the mental tomfoolery aside, what she’s left with is mounting financial worries and a bad shopping habit. What if she takes a baby step and challenges herself the next time she wants to break out that plastic to hold off instead. She might be waiting to see how uncomfortable it is to avoid spending, but what will actually happen is that she can wait for the urge to pass. If later on she notices that she didn’t spend and she didn’t die, then she can chip away at the belief that she must spend to relieve stress. She can avoid her bad habit more easily by adopting a replacement habit. Going for a walk and calling a friend are clichés for a reason. They might work when we actually DO them.

How about the dieter. Same deal here. She might be afraid of hunger or negative emotions, but the next time she wants to overeat she can turn to a different behavior instead. She can challenge her feeling that she has to eat to feel comfort. She can start the work required to break that habit of turning to food and find other ways to comfort herself. If she’s looking to get thinner so she can have more confidence, for example, maybe she can cut to the chase and look directly for opportunities to build confidence, like taking a dance class or trying out online dating.

The job hater can dip his toe into the job pool by trying out an informational interview with a company that interests him. That way he’s not putting himself at risk for rejection, but he gets to try out a low-pressure interview situation. He could also look into doing some pro-bono work to help brush up his skill set and get his resume up to date to feel more confident in his abilities.

The next time you find yourself engaging in a self-defeating behavior, ask what you could do differently next time. Chip away, and you will reach your goal while creating new and empowering habits.

Create a Relaxing Evening Routine


Having a relaxing nighttime routine not only helps you feel calm and ready for sleep, it helps make your mornings run smoother too.

I’d been resisting setting up an evening routine because that’s the one time of my day that I get to be unstructured and spontaneous. However, I realized that if I create a relaxing evening routine that I enjoy, then I’ll want to stick to it because it reduces stress and helps me sleep better at night. Then I can wake up refreshed and benefit from a calming morning routine.

There are five components to a relaxing evening routine.

1. Dinner: Recharge and unwind over a healthy meal. [Eating the right amount of food is helpful when you want to truly relax, since eating too little or too much is going to leave you uncomfortable. ]

2. Clean up: Spend just 10 or 15 minutes putting everything away. It’s hard to relax completely when you’re in a messy room. In only a few minutes a day, your home stays neat and decluttered with minimal effort. No more marathon weekend pick-ups or panicking at the thought of guests coming over.

3. Bathe and Put on Jammies: Your level of “bathing” might vary over the next guy’s, but this is some variation of brushing your teeth, washing your face, or full on getting into the shower or tub and having an all-out scrub fest before changing into your PJs.

4. Relaxation Time: This is the fun part where you get to focus on yourself. Here are some options. Pick your poison:

Reading. Personally, I love to read before I go to sleep. It controls my thoughts and keeps my mind from racing while I unwind.

TV. I sometimes find TV too mentally stimulating when I’m getting ready for bed, but I know it helps a lot of people tune out.

Internet. Plenty of people like to surf the web and listen to music.

Write. If you don’t want to escape in some form of media, then maybe you want to create your own. Reflect on your day, what you’re grateful for, or create a to do list for the next day to clear your mind. I will often take notes on what I’m reading to save ideas for things I want to do or think about.

Meditate or Do Nothing.  Maybe you don’t want to do anything but sit, close your eyes and breathe.

Happy Place. If you’re really wound up and need some immediate relief, close your eyes and imagine your Happy Place. My happy place is on a tropical beach with the sun beating down on my perfectly tanned and taut bod (not the pregnant bod I currently have, a different one that probably never actually existed) with the ocean lapping the shore gently about 20 feet away. There may or may not be a daiquiri in the picture depending on how much I need to relax.

I strongly encourage you to create your own Happy Place. It’s been a wonderful tool for me over the years when I seriously need to untwist my knickers or I’m just having an impossible time readying myself for sleep.

5. Time for Sleep: Choose a bedtime that will afford you somewhere between 7 and 9 hours of sleep, since that’s what the average person requires. I enjoy the 9-hour range myself, but I know some people proclaim (usually proudly for some reason) that they only need 5 or 6 hours of sleep. Good for them. Don’t try to compete; let them have their glory.

How do you put all of this together? I figured out my ideal bedtime first, and then figured out what time I get home from work to know how many hours I have to play with. Since my office tends to work late, I get about 3 hours between arriving home and getting to sleep. I wrote down approximately what times I should be doing what so that I make sure there’s time for each step. If you plan out your evening, you can maximize whatever amount of time you have so that you’ve had a nice dinner, your home is neat and you feel calm and ready for sleep at the end of the evening.

Nighty night!

Think Positively to Get Thinner

butterscotch or snap pea

There was a glorious time in my life when I went out for a double date every Thursday night with the husband and our friends Heather and Todd. My toughest decisions on those nights were questions like, “Pizza or chicken fingers and fries?” and “Will one bottle of wine be enough, or do we have time for a second?” Needless to say, those nights were my absolute dieting downfall. That wasn’t just a cheat night, every Thursday was like a bacchanalian rite. In retrospect, eating those kinds of foods on a weekly basis and with a mindset of “abundance is better” tainted my perspective on my eating habits altogether. If it was okay to do that on Thursday, then most other eating habits appeared to be “dieting” in comparison.

When I finally decided to get serious about losing weight, I decided that my Thursday night fare needed to become lighter. I knew that breaking a habit that was so ingrained was going to be tough, and so I needed a plan before I arrived at the restaurant. I looked at the menu online before going out, and I chose a green salad with grilled chicken. I mentally limited the number of glasses of wine I would have to one or two.

We all know that planning what we’re going to do ahead of time doesn’t guarantee that we’ll stick to our plan. When everyone around you is eating French fries, the idea of a salad can suddenly seem cruel and Spartan. So your success cannot hinge completely on your ability to fully follow through on your pre-game decision. There has to be a component of post-game analysis where you look to see what you did right. It’s of course helpful to see where you went wrong so that you can do better next time, but giving yourself credit for your dieting successes is just as valuable.

The first time I went out on a Thursday night and succeeded with my plan of eating a salad while scorning the fried and cheesy options, I went home and actually wrote down my success. I was so pleased with myself, I needed to memorialize the event. Dr. Judith Beck, PhD, author of The Complete Beck Diet for Life writes, “Successful dieters continually put the focus on what they are doing right. They prove to themselves that they really can take control and exert self-discipline.”

The following Thursday, I read my success tale back to myself to boost my confidence before going to the restaurant. I knew it was going to be difficult to repeat my success, but reminding myself that I did it once and recalling how proud I felt enabled me to make the same choice again. As the weeks went on, I’d developed a new habit and I came to truly enjoy the salad I ordered. I liked how it made me feel nourished instead of stuffed and regretful, and the taste became more delicious to me than a plate of fried, processed chicken.

In his book The Success Principles, Jack Canfield says, “If you assume in favor of yourself and act as if it is possible, then you will do the things that are necessary to bring about the result. If you believe it is impossible, you will not do what is necessary, and you will not produce the result. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

As Canfield’s book demonstrates, the idea that thinking positively leads to success doesn’t exclusively apply to dieting. However, with dieting specifically it’s common for people to constantly berate themselves for their failures rather than celebrate the times they resist cravings.  If you focus on the times that you cheat on your diet, you’ll get trapped in the mindset that you’re weak and you have no willpower. Then guess what will cross your mind the next time you’re presented with a big hunk of cake? That you can’t possibly resist it with your lack of self-control.

Conversely, if you think fondly of the time you ate the broccoli instead of going for the mayo-slathered potato salad, you’re more likely to make a virtuous decision again when you’re faced with a test of your will. You’ll know that you can make the right choice because you’ve done it before. Next time you’re faced with a dieting challenge, think positively to get thinner.

3 Ways to Keep Your Relationship Happy and Healthy

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but now with Jesse James pulling a Tiger Woods, infidelity and damaged marriages and families are on the collective brain. A lot of talk has been out there about how men are wired to cheat and these guys have money and opportunities to cheat — to that I say BLAH BLAH BLAH — because at the end of the day, that’s a bleak and insulting way to view the male gender.

It’s like saying that some men, most men or many men (however you want to paint it), when given money and opportunities, automatically ditch their moral compass and love for their families and decide to stick their junk in bad places. That kind of attitude not only strips men of responsibility, respect and values, it depicts men as animals with no self control, and I don’t buy it. I think it’s time to give men more credit than that, and to call Jesse and Tiger what they are: dirt bags.

Anyway. I’m not here to talk about them, but about our own relationships and the kinds of ideas that these sensational tales of infidelity bring about. Here are a few ways to keep that relationship happy and humming along:

1.    Don’t Stew.
I read an article in the April 2010 Oprah Magazine called “The After Wife.” It was written by an anonymous woman whose husband cheated on her. They had two small children and for their sake, she didn’t want to file for divorce (which is another topic altogether – I’ve never thought “staying together for the sake of the children” sounded like the obvious answer to me, but what the hell do I know.) The article talks about what she went through to pull her marriage back together when she hadn’t even known it was broken until her husband confessed his affair.

I am not, and she is not, blaming the husband’s affair on the wife by any stretch. That would be ridiculous. But she really explores what her marriage was like while she was oblivious to the affair, and while her marriage had appeared utterly shiny and rosy and trust-filled on the surface, she acknowledges that there was a “cloud of disappointment and annoyance that had become a permanent feature of our marriage…A habitual mild bitterness, a casual scorn, became my default attitude towards Sam.”

The long and short of this heartbreaking – yet fascinating and well-written piece – is that the wife had carried resentments and to save herself the repeated, petty arguments, came up with this attitude shield. And the husband, feeling the scorn, rather than acknowledging his vulnerabilities, went off and secretly porked some whore on a regular basis for three years before realizing he was figuratively porking his family and marriage in the butt.

So clearly they should have communicated with each other to maintain their marriage. Expressed their needs and their vulnerabilities yes, and also kept their admiration and love for the others’ qualities fresh in their minds as they got knee-deep in day-to-day household crap. It sounds like a tall order, but it sounds like an impossible horror if you don’t — even if there’s no affair and you’re both simply trapped in this unnamed, dingy melancholy.

The moral of the story: Don’t get all quiet and bitter and resentful; work out your issues, no matter how small they might seem. Love the one you’re with and be vocal about it.

2.    Ask for What You Need.
Asking for what you need is not the same thing as Don’t Stew. You can Not Stew, but still not make your needs known. I was listening to a radio show yesterday afternoon. The show host said that a male friend of hers confided that he was about to break up with his girlfriend. This guy is gone for work a lot and isn’t around all the time. He had gotten into an argument with his woman because the girlfriend wanted to spend more time with him. His stance was, “You knew what you got into. Buck up, Buttercup.” This guy told the radio show host that his girlfriend, who he had once considered marrying, “ruined” the relationship by being “needy.”

Look. This toolbag doesn’t need to lay blame on his girlfriend. She is entitled to want to spend more time with him, and doubly entitled to ask for it. If for whatever reason he can’t or won’t give her more time, then these two aren’t a good fit. No blaming necessary.

If this girl had kept her mouth shut about her feelings, then all she would have gotten was more disappointment and more time wasted on this guy. It’s better for this chick to find a guy who is going to give her the time and attention she wants. And likewise, this guy should find some girl-about-town who doesn’t give a flying fig about where her man is when he’s frequently not with her.

Moral of the story: Ask and you shall receive — maybe not from this guy, but from a better-suited one.

3.    Ask for Praise.
Seth at Lifehack.org has his own list of ways to make your love life stronger, and the first one on the list sure is an interesting one: “Ask for Praise.” He gives a great explanation of why we should. I will add to this: because it will cause your significant other to consider positive qualities about you that might go unnoticed otherwise. This could cause your significant other to view you in a positive light more often, keeping that flame stoked.

Moral of the story: Fish for compliments when you think you deserve it. (Not when you think your butt looks fat.) If you do something praiseworthy, be your own publicist and call your mate’s attention to your awesomeness. Likewise, be generous with praise for your mate.

Money 101: The NO SUCK Easy and Sort of Fun Approach to Finances

ATMMoney doesn’t have to be the complicated, boring and dreaded topic people make it out to be. I’m going to make our lives easier and create a simple resource that gets our finances up to date, and we’ll do it together bit by bit in the coming weeks. Keep reading. Even if you just got the urge to avoid! in the pit of your stomach, I swear, this won’t hurt a bit. It will make you feel good and everybody is doing it.

We all know that our laundry is never done. We can lose that last 10 pounds, but that doesn’t mean, “I’m DONE! Hey everybody, I can stop watching what I eat now so pass the friggin’ cupcakes! WOOOO!” (Although I might enjoy pretending that dieting works that way.)

Just like it’s a good idea to take stock of your wardrobe once in a while and weed out that pink suede box-pleated mini skirt – damn I miss that thing – that looks ridiculous on you when you reach a certain level of, ehem, maturity, it’s a good idea to periodically get a look at what’s happening in the world of your money and see what needs adjusting.

Today we’re just going to make a list of things that we might want to do. We’re not actually going to do anything yet, because that’s too much too soon. We don’t want this activity to suck, be tedious and lead to burn out. We can tackle each item in a different post each week so that we can chip away at this in an easy and sane manner.

For now, all we want to do is take stock and see what might need tinkering. Here is a list of items to consider. Take a look for yourself and decide which ones on this list apply to you. Over the coming weeks, we can look at ideas and tools to easily take care of each topic:

1.    Credit Cards. Are they working for you, or are you working for them? Your credit card companies should be paying you money in rewards. If you are paying any money towards your credit cards in terms of fees or interest, then you are in a SUCK situation. Here’s how to pay off your credit card debt. Also, if you have a credit card and don’t earn super-awesome rewards from it, then we’ll get you all turned around in a post about how to take back the power and the perks from the credit card companies.

2.    Retirement Plan. Let’s look at some savings tools like the 401(k) and IRA and see what kind of accounts we should have. We’ll also check out a calculator to see if we’re saving enough money so we’re not eating cat food when we’re old. That would SUCK.

3.    Emergency Fund. Pretend you don’t have an emergency fund, you get laid off, and you wind up eating cat food so you can pay your rent or mortgage. OR you lose your home and wind up sharing cat food under a tarp with Hobo Bob. SUCK.

4.   Budget. We’ll look at what we should be spending so that we don’t wind up with debt, Hobo Bob as a neighbor and a cat food filled retirement. Because what would that be like? You got it. SUCK.

5.    Real Estate. Rent! Buy! Sell! Which option leads to the least amount of SUCK for you and how much should you spend on housing.

6.    Spending. I know, this sounds counterintuitive to talk about spending. But let’s say there’s a roasting July heat wave and your 30-year-old air conditioner breaks, but you have to wait a week for your next paycheck because you just spent your last dime on makeup or fishing tackle. Or that Boxster you’ve been eyeballing goes on sale the second after you made an impulse buy on a helicopter. (Hey, it happens.) If you’d had a Handy Spendy Calendar and some Spendy Accounts set up already for just such a SUCK occasion as this, you wouldn’t be in this situation.

7.    Prepare Your Family. You know what sucks? DEATH. You know what else sucks? College tuition. Know what sucks even more? Kids who are actually adults who still live with you and eat all your cereal instead of going off to college because you didn’t save money for their tuition. Let’s talk life insurance and saving for your kids’ college education.

See? Money can be fun! Y’all come back now, ya hear?

Take Control of Your Life: Choose How to Spend Your Time

relaxing
Your life is only as good as what you spend your time on. So many of us feel vaguely dissatisfied with how we’re living, but we’re not quite sure what it is we need to change.

Usually this dissatisfaction occurs when we’re spending very little time concentrating on issues that relate to our innate values. We’re stuck in that rat wheel and getting no where fun.

Here’s a 5-step exercise you can do to figure out what your values are, your resulting goals and how you want to spend your time to get to where you want to go. I did the exercise in each section so you can see an example.

1. What are your values? Ask yourself: What brings you the most happiness and satisfaction. Your values might relate to a creative passion, friendships, spirituality, family, athleticism, simplicity, or a particular lifestyle that you’d like to live. Conversely, ask what is it you want to change about yourself and your life? What do you keep trying to change or keep thinking about changing?

My values:

  • Health: I have nothing if I don’t have my health. It’s important to me to stay capable, strong and energetic so that I can achieve my goals and do whatever I want to do with my time.
  • Family: I value feeling that love and connection, knowing that I am part of a tribe. I feel lucky every day that I have an amazing husband to spend my life with. There is no other joy like lying on the couch and trying to slap each other in the face with our feet.
  • Connecting With Others: I love connecting with people via writing, hence this here blog. It makes me feel good, simple as that.

2. What are your goals and dreams? Ask yourself: Based on your values, what would you like to achieve in your life? For your life to feel aligned with your values, what do you want to see happen?

Your goals don’t need to be glamorous; they just need to be focused on your values. Write a reason next to each goal so that you know what you get when you achieve that goal. If you know why you want to achieve a goal, you’re more likely to go after it.

My goals and reasons:

  • Health Goals: Maintain a healthy weight and level of muscle mass. I’ll have more strength and energy to do what I want and I’ll feel great.
  • Family Goals: Keep a stable, neat environment for our family to live in. Protect our welfare via financial order and responsibility. This means less worrying and chaos and more time for fun and relaxation.
  • Connecting With Others: Post on my blog five days per week about relatable topics. Be entertaining and informative in every post. When people come to the site, I’ll feel helpful and valued.

3. What’s stopping you? What habits and mindsets are currently in your way? How are you spending your time, and what can you clear off your schedule to make time for better habits?

Here are two examples of time wasters and attitudes that have stopped me in the past from forging ahead:

  • Screen Addiction: If you spend all day at work in front of your computer screen and then come home at night only to be glued to the boob tube or surfing the web every waking hour that you’re in your house, that’s where your time and energy is going.
  • Self Doubt: If you tell yourself you can’t, then you’re right. Change your self talk. Tell yourself that you can and you will. You deserve to live the life you want. If you don’t try, the worst case is that you stay stuck. If you do try, then the worst case is you might have to adjust tactics if the first try doesn’t work. No big whoop.
  • “I Don’t Have Time” – This is just another way of saying, “I don’t want to,” or “I’m not ready yet.” Find the time. You don’t need much. You would be shocked by what can be accomplished in just 15 minutes a day.

4. What habits do you need to develop to move towards your goals? In other words, what is it that you actually need to do with your time in order to align your life with your values?

Here are the habits I need to nurture:

  • Health Habits: Eat the right foods at the right times and in the right portions. Exercise most days of the week.
  • Family Habits: Neaten and declutter for 15 minutes a day. Keep the kitchen clean. Create and stick to a budget (a topic coming soon to swell easy living.)
  • Connecting With Others: Spending my leisure time writing for the blog.

5. Get Started! Look at one of your habits to nurture, the one that you think would make the most difference or help your mindset the most. Start small, spend 15 minutes a day and just do one thing.

When I was faced with the daunting task of starting this blog, looking at the whole project at once made me want to hide under the covers. I had to decide what was the first step. Choose a domain host. Then the next day I did the second step, which was to sign up. Then third: transfer my domain. I had to take babysteps for those first daunting and confusing tasks in order to build any momentum

When you take those first steps and tackle one item a day for 15 minutes, you build momentum toward your new way of living. Next thing you know, you’ll be flying along and living the life you want.

Tame Your Email and Get to the Fun Stuff

pleasure

When I was a kid, there was a rule at dinnertime that I had to eat all of my vegetables. I used to look at veggies as an obstacle to getting to the good stuff. Of course, the rule itself didn’t dictate that I ate my vegetables first, but where’s the pleasure in polishing off a delicious pile of buttered noodles and beef stroganoff, only to be faced with healthy greens at the end. I know, a bleak way of looking at vegetables, but I was like five years old and my happy ending did not lie in a pile of creamed spinach. So I ate my veggies first, fast and usually without chewing.

My email inbox is sometimes like the vegetables of my life. However, instead of digging in and getting it over with, sometimes I will endlessly push the food around my plate until everything gets cold. I don’t get to the fun stuff because I can’t bring myself to “eat my veggies” — process my inbox.

Prisoner to my Inbox
Knowing that I’m behind in my email can prevent me from going outside on my lunch break or leaving work on time at night. I wouldn’t feel justified leaving my desk with all those communications sitting there unanswered. If I go off to do the fun stuff when I know there’s something important that still needs to be taken care of, then I can’t fully enjoy myself and relax.

Yet that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m going to delve into my inbox and handle it right away. If there are emails in there that require a more complicated response or a decision, I might feel paralyzed about what to do. I feel a little uneasy when I don’t immediately know what to course to take, which can result in procrastinating by distraction to take the edge off. So I take more time to think in the corners of my brain, but I’m not all Action Jackson about those tough emails just yet.

Email Begets Email, Asparagus Begets Asparagus
That doesn’t mean that I’m avoiding my inbox. On the contrary, I can be in there all day every day, but never getting my inbox down to zero. To keep going with a vegetable analogy, I can liken the experience to The Asparagus Story.

When my parents were courting and my dad first met my mom’s parents, Grammy made asparagus the side dish with dinner. Being the gracious guest he was, my dad ate all the spears on his plate even though he absolutely despises asparagus. Grammy shoed away Uncle Buster’s request for seconds, and in the spirit of being a gracious host, she shoveled the whole bowl of asparagus onto my dad’s plate declaring that he “LOVES asparagus!”

You might think you’re getting your asparagus (email) over with, but as a result you wind up with even more asparagus (email.)

I’ll explain. There was a time when people asked me what I did for a living and it was tempting to answer, “I email,” because that’s what my working life felt like: an endless loop of a full inbox, fielding emails and trying to curtail the flood that came in every second of every day. The faster I replied, the more emails were lobbed back to me in response. I was queen of the fast return, volleying emails back and forth from multiple senders at the speed of lightening. Then when I would take a break from emailing and come back to my inbox, I would feel overwhelmed; it would again be chock full of emails requiring replies.

My “Aha” Moment
Then I discovered a secret. If I managed my inbox more effectively, I could control the flow of emails to a manageable rate. I selected a couple key times during the day to reply to my emails. I stopped working out of my inbox. And now I’m more productive than ever.

Follow these steps to process your email, eliminate inbox clutter and maintain a sane pace. The worst part of having a cluttered inbox is wondering what’s lurking in there. Mining through all that junk will give you a feeling of freedom when you’re through and then you can go out and play.

Step One: Clear out your Inbox. We’re starting with a mess, and so the first time is the hardest. Let’s get it down to zero, and then we can talk about maintaining the placid state of your email account. Start at the top with the most recent email and plow through one by one. Make quick decisions on each. Email comes in the following four delicious flavors and can be handled depending on what action is required.

  • Delete: Make it a point to be liberal with your delete button. Stop hoarding email. It’s mental clutter. When in doubt, throw it out. Delete, delete, delete. Hopefully you’ll be able to delete about half of the emails you encounter, if not more.
  • File: If you really and truly need the information contained in the email and you’ll reference it later, then file it. Set up folders as you go, but use as few categories as possible, including “Other” or Miscellaneous” where you can drop most of your email without an obvious home. Don’t think too hard; you’re eating vegetables here so just do it fast and get it over with. There are more fun, useful and productive things to do with your time than obsess over your email storage system.

  • DO IT – the Two Minute Rule: This is for a reply that can be typed up in two minutes and two sentences or less. Or if there’s an action required that’s a quick action, do it and then move on. Then either delete or file the email. Remember, you are in the act of processing your inbox, not working out of it.
  • TO DO: This scenario is for when you can’t just hit reply and know what needs to be said or you can’t do the task involved quickly. It requires a little bit of thought or time to process. Then the email becomes a TO DO list item. What’s that? You don’t have a task list? Well you do now. Trust me, a task list is easier to tackle and much less intimidating to look at than a jumble of hundreds of emails.

So that you can clear out that inbox, set up a folder called TO DO and move any TO DO email in there. Work from your task list (see next paragraph) then delete each TO DO email as the task is handled. This isn’t a working folder, so don’t peek in there more often than necessary. Maybe review it once a week and clear out actions that have been completed off your task list

Step Three: The Task List. Since the task list is born of emails that require a little more time or thought, these emails will be handled by asking yourself, “What’s the next step?” Do you need more information? Do you have to work out a more detailed answer? Decide on the next action required, and then you’ve got your TO DO that goes with that email. Add the resulting task to your task list.

To manage your task list, go with a system that makes you happy that day. Some days when I’m going low tech I use a piece of paper. For items that are verbose and are better handled electronically, I use a combination of a Word document for notes, my calendar for items that are date constrained, and an electronic task list I can use to check off items. A to-do list is a to-do list, so handle it in a manner appropriate to your situation, whether it’s a grocery list or project management software. Most email programs come with a task list. Gmail has a left-hand menu item called “Tasks” while in Outlook you can actually drag the email onto your task list or calendar to create a new task or appointment.

Step Four: Maintenance. This is where we learn to stay on top of it … but not TOO on top of it. I recommend that you process your inbox to zero twice per day. Set a timer for 15 minutes and plow through it. You want to strike that balance of furthering work projects (you don’t want to be a bottleneck) without giving up the time required to strike items off your task list. If your task list gets neglected because you forget the plot and start working out of your inbox, you’re back where you started. The tough emails still aren’t getting answered, and then you’re fulfilling that bottleneck role whether you mean to or not.

I work in a fast paced and virtual environment where email doubles as “conversation” and so that scenario requires me to at least check in and scan email frequently. So I still do that. But I make it a goal that twice a day, I close other distractions and I process that inbox completely down to zilch and make sure there are no open loops.

Step Five: Do whatever your little heart desires! It may come as a surprise, but you might actually find that you have free time on your hands. Once you have no question as to what your workload is and your tasks are rightly scheduled, you can better achieve some balance in your day. If you want to get up and get outside on your lunch break, then go nuts and take pleasure in it.