How Ditching Technology Helped Me Get Things Done

I’m now blogging for TLC’s Parentables! I will blog the post introductions here at swell easy living so you can keep updated on new content as it becomes available. Just click through to read the full post on parentables.

When I had my baby and went on maternity leave, my new existence initially felt off-kilter, like I was missing a limb. For my whole adult life, I’d sat at a desk with a keyboard and a monitor for a minimum of five days a week in the fluorescent-lit offices of large, brand name global corporations. I struck big deals with slick negotiations, I managed global technical and editorial teams and I orchestrated some fairly complicated operations in my day. I was like, kind of a big deal, I thought.

I felt lucky to be employed in such a comfortable way, and I didn’t understand how anyone could be satisfied differently. Oddly, the one thing of my old life I’d missed while on maternity leave was the familiar stance of sitting in front of a computer all day.

I anticipated my return to work as if it would solve everything and life would return to normal. The house would be neat and I would be well-rested and everything and everyone would be back on schedule, tucked neatly within the realm of calendars and obligations.

It would just have to work out that way for me, because women work and they have babies, and they have to function in an orderly manner, right? Isn’t that the way working moms exist, comfortably on schedule, well-organized, methodical and tidy and relaxed and happy?

Ha ha ha. I know. That whole charade. I’d like to know who started that rumor. It’s something, isn’t it?

And then, less than a month after I returned to work from maternity leave, I was laid off.

Life Is Messy :: keep reading …

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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.

Tame Your Email and Get to the Fun Stuff


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.