Thoughts & Observations

Feeling Stuck? Shift Your Center

A simple and, at least in my experience, fairly foolproof approach to getting unstuck by shifting between the three different centers of mind, body, and spirit:

  • If you’re stuck on a brain problem, move your body or do something to engage your spirit
  • If you’re stuck in an emotional vortex, set your mind to work or move your body
  • And if your body is revolting, engage your spirit or exercise your mind

This is why sometimes all it takes is getting up and doing ten jumping jacks to get you back on a flowing path again.

Press Enterprise Columns

From My Column: Wasting Time on Excuses

Special Note: As I am getting close to writing my 200th weekly business column for The Press Enterprise, a daily newspaper in Southern California, I’ve looked back and realized that all that I’ve written probably should have a home here as well. So every few days I’ll post a new (old) column. Hope you enjoy! 

Wasting Time on Excuses

Originally published by The Press Enterprise in late fall 2009. 

Every weekday morning, hundreds of thousands of people around the country are doing the same thing. As they sit in their cars, running thirty minutes late for work because their five year-old threw up on their shoes five minutes before they left, they start thinking. Not thinking about what they have to do that day or what they hope to accomplish over the next few months at work, but about what excuse they are going to give their boss for being thirty minutes late.

The story about their kid throwing up on their shoes does not seem acceptable. They run down the list of socially acceptable excuses. Flat tire? No, they used that excuse last week. Accident on the freeway? No, the boss drives the same route and is obsessed with traffic reports. Stayed up until three o’clock in the morning working on a great new idea for growing sales by 50%? No, that does not work either. The boss only cares about whether you are on time or not. The fact that you stayed up until three am working is your problem.

What a great way to run a business. Force grown-up employees waste hours of time coming up with “dog ate my homework” type excuses because corporate America can not figure out a better way to measure an individual’s contributions to the company beyond how many hours their butts are in their seats.

The fact that wasting time creating acceptable excuses is okay but being thirty minutes late is not says something about what a company values. Forcing employees to create excuses also does not make any sense as a business practice. It wastes time. All that time spent in the car coming up with the right excuse could have been spent thinking about something important.

Excuse creation also happens to create tremendous stress. First coming up with an excuse, then worrying about whether you are actually going to need it or not, then spending the whole day wondering whether your boss actually bought the excuse, then wondering if when you boss gives you a particularly tough assignment whether it is punishment for your lateness that in the end was ineffectively covered up by a poorly chosen excuse that your boss did not buy. We waste time and energy with all of that (instead of actually getting work done) just because society has decided to collectively pretend that during working hours no one has any family drama, no personal crises, and no kids throwing up on their shoes.

You might be thinking to yourself: “but there are lots of jobs where being on time matters.” You are right.  If you are an airline pilot, the passengers would likely get upset if you did not show up until an hour after their flight was supposed to leave. If a worker on an assembly line is running thirty minutes behind, it can cause problems while the manager scrambles to find someone to fill in while they wait. The same issues are not there however for a significant percentage jobs. Most of the time nothing horrible is going to happen if you are late. If the only thing that is expecting you is your cubicle, then what is the rush?

Instead of punishing employees for having their personal lives creep into their work lives, companies should find ways to make it easier for employees to manage life and work in one seamless stream. Even in the cases of the assembly line worker or the airline pilot, what if companies figured out how to help their employees handle life’s challenges, instead making them feel guilty and stressed?

This is not about disrespecting other people’s time by never showing up when you are supposed to. It is about changing the structure of work from a focus on time as the most significant measure of an employee’s contribution, to a focus on what actually matters: whether an employee is contributing to the success of the business through the results they deliver. It is about “my kid threw up on my shoes” no longer being needed as an excuse because no one cares if you are 30 minutes late as long as you are still getting your work done. It is time for a paradigm shift away from employees being forced to waste time on excuses. Don’t they have more important things to do?

Thoughts & Observations

Practice the Noun

“Practice makes perfect” has conditioned us in some ways to believe that the goal of practicing is to get to the point where we don’t have to practice anymore – we’re perfect, we’re done, we can move on.

I’m finding that I like the mindset of the noun version of practice much better: you develop “a practice” of meditation, “a practice” of writing every day, “a practice” of treating others with compassion and kindness.

I’m not writing or meditating to reach a goal – to get to perfect – I’m doing it because by developing it as a practice I’m able to contribute more to the world, to better live up to my full potential.

Press Enterprise Columns

From My Column: The Lowest Common Denominator

Special Note: As I am getting close to writing my 200th weekly business column for The Press Enterprise, a daily newspaper in Southern California, I’ve looked back and realized that all that I’ve written probably should have a home here as well. So every few days I’ll post a new (old) column. Hope you enjoy! 

The Lowest Common Denominator

Originally published in The Press Enterprise in Fall 2009. 

Everyday, companies around the country fall into a trap. Instead of setting policies and procedures that reflect a high level of trust in their employees, they settle for something less. Policies and procedures are built around the minority of employees who can not be trusted, instead of being built around the majority of employees who can. This is the phenomenon of the lowest common denominator.

All companies at some point fall prey to the lowest common denominator trap: A handful of employees dress inappropriately, so a strict dress code is put in place. One employee takes advantage of a liberal paid time off policy, so the policy is made more restrictive. One incident of a soda being spilled on a computer keyboard, and now all food and beverages are banned from all workstations. One person sends an inappropriate e-mail to a group of customers, and now no one is allowed to send e-mails to customers without approval from the communications department or the CEO first.

Companies fall into the trap of the lowest common denominator because it is the easy way out. Making policies more strict and procedures less flexible makes the people in charge feel better because something concrete has been done and they’ve freed themselves from any potential blame in future incidents.  This is a good thing when you are talking about something like preventing another Enron.  Most of the time though, the issues are not on the scale of Enron and the impact of catering to the lowest common denominator has a significantly more negative effect than if nothing were done at all.

Why is the lowest common denominator trap bad for companies? Because it kills everything vital to keeping a company alive: employee engagement, empowerment, creativity, innovation, motivation, and happiness. If employees know that a failure is likely to lead to reprimand and a more restrictive policy, then they will not take any risks. If an employee knows that being creative comes with a high likelihood of losing all opportunities to be creative in the future, then innovation will not even be attempted. If a company forces its best employees to follow policies and procedures geared toward its worst employees, the great employees will either come down to the level of policy that has been created or simply leave.

Companies who avoid the lowest common denominator trap end up on lists of the best companies to work for and are some of the most successful companies in the world. Google actively encourages its engineers to spend twenty percent of their time experimenting with company-related projects that intrigue them, even if they are outside of their normal scope of work.  Gmail, Google News, and a number of other innovations at Google were born out of that “twenty percent time”.

Zappos.com, another company on Fortune’s  “100 Best Companies to Work For 2009” list, empowers their customer service representatives by allowing them to manage calls from customers without scripts or maximum call times. The representatives can also make decisions about upgrading to overnight shipping, matching a competitors’ price, or even sending flowers to a customer who just lost a loved one without running it by their supervisors first. The amazing level of employee empowerment at Zappos.com does make a difference. With Zappos.com achieving over one billion dollars in annual sales (and having seen it for myself at Zappos.com headquarters in Las Vegas), it is clear how trusting employees creates a more engaged, happy, and effective workforce.

The next time you find yourself teetering on the edge, ready to fall into the lowest common denominator trap, stop. Instead of lowering the bar, raise it. Treat employees as trustworthy, hardworking, intelligent human beings and they will more often then not live up to your expectations. Those who don’t are probably not the type of people you want working at your company anyway.

Thoughts & Observations

Pause…Deep Breath

“Belly rise, belly fall.”

It’s a phrase I’ve heard many times in various yoga classes, and I thought little of it until I really started examining my breath in meditation.

And it turns out I’ve been breathing backwards.

You’re belly is supposed to rise when you breathe in, and fall when you breathe out…but I was doing the opposite. I would suck my belly up and in as I took a breath, and let it out when I let the air out.

It seemed strange that I did this until I realized why: having spent all of my childhood and early adulthood as an asthmatic, that is simply how asthmatics breathe. We are so used to the bottom of our lungs being swollen and constricted that we tend to breathe at the top of our chests instead of in our bellies.

This strange habit of backward breathing didn’t seem like a big deal until I started looking at why deep breaths matter.

When you take shallow breaths at the top of your chest, your brain picks up a signal that something is wrong: those shallow breaths are anxious breaths and your brain prepares to jump into a fight or flight reaction. This can then lead you to feel anxious or panicked, even if you weren’t actually feeling that way before.

If you can catch yourself doing this, pause and take a deep breath, you give your brain time to understand that there is nothing to panic about, there is no danger, and it can stand down.

It often feels that whatever our brain is thinking is set and can’t be influenced by the actions of our body, but if we believe that, we are missing out on a huge opportunity. There is plenty of evidence that taking action with our body can influence our brain – even MRI scans that show the positive impact of a forced smile.

So pause, take a deep breath, and realize that it may not be anxiety that is causing you to take shallow breaths, it may be shallow breaths that are causing you to feel anxious.

Thoughts & Observations

If You Block It, It Will Never Exist

As I continue to think about how comparison and competition are the enemies of living a fulfilling, joyful life, I came across this quote from Martha Graham that sums it up perfectly:

“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one of you in all time. This expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium; and be lost. The world will not have it.

It is not your business to determine how good it is, not how it compares with other expression. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.

No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

– Martha Graham