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Getting Unstuck


Last updated 8/5/2010

So many people these days find themselves in positions from which they feel they derive less than they put in. They are frustrated with the return on their effort, yet they have a hard time expressing in useful terms what they want. And they are stuck.

The most frequent reason is that they fail to ask themselves the critical question: “What is most important to me?” And the few who do ask the question have difficulty untangling what is interconnected in their lives and getting to the root of what brings them contentment, satisfaction and joy.

Finally, not every satisfaction can be obtained at work. Some must be found at home or in the community or in other pursuits. And with only 168 hours in the week, for many people the urgent crowds out the important and people feel they have lost control.

To help clients pose and answer the question of what they find important, I use a series of exercises in my private coaching practice. Answering the question takes multiple passes at the exercises over two or three months, sometimes resulting in significant editing and refinement. Time is needed to ensure that the unconscious as well as conscious mind has a chance to work on the answers.

Here is the sequence. First, write down a list of what motivates you to put time and effort into an activity. Here are some common examples:

• Financial security
• Making a difference
• Supported in what I do
• Having no boss
• Belonging to a group
• Intellectual challenge
• Lifelong learning
• Experience that expands my mind
• Creating something new that is tangible
• Entering into new relationships
• Stimulation of variety
• Interaction with other smart people
• Doing good in the world
• Recognition by respected peers
• Spiritual nourishment

Write your own list in your own words—it is crucial to write your own words or your subconscious will not play. And it helps to try to put these in some sort of priority order. A forced ranking (something must be 1, something else 2, etc.) may be too difficult, but sorting them into top 5, next 5 and so on forces good thinking.

Now, create a sheet with three columns. In the first column write a list of activities in which you spend significant time every week or every month. These should include all activities: work, home, social, community, whatever. If there is more than one major activity in these venues, break them out into separate lines. For example, at home you would have a separate line for time with your partner or with the rest of the family or whatever you do by yourself.

 In the second column, for each of these activities, write down the core part or essence of each activity that is important to you. What do you spend most of your time actually doing? Is it sitting alone at a desk and reading and writing guidance for others? Is it interacting with others in a meeting, learning from them, and selling your own ideas? Or meeting with customers, maintaining the relationship, and probing for where to add value and what to offer? If you serve on a not-for-profit board, what do you actually do on the board? Or if you work as a volunteer, are you a group leader or one of the people who deals face to face with the beneficiaries? If it helps, break out an activity into meaningful subactivities. And express what you see as the most important tasks within the activity.

In the third column, write the satisfaction you derive from the activity. (Go back to your list of motivations for guidance—is one of them appropriate or should you modify the list?)

With the above completed, repeat the process for a list of activities you are starting to do, plan to do, or wish to do someday. Include whatever you have always wanted to do. And add the essence and the satisfaction to the activity. Is it some role in public service? A physical or spiritual activity? A job that has different characteristics from your current position? It is my journey through this process that helped me change from consulting (fact-finding, analysis, report-writing, directing others in these activities) to coaching (listening, asking questions, helping people make better choices, perform better, be more content). It is my journey through this process that helped me put non-work activities higher in priority (pro-bono work, activities with each family member, fitness to enable the other activities). It is the journey through this process that has helped some clients re-invent themselves in mid to late career and helped others have a greater impact in their organizations and get more satisfaction. Others have chosen to take a turn in their career path.

Clients who have worked their way through these exercises move in other ways to a series of changes in their lives:

—Eliminating an activity entirely
—Carving out meaningful time for an activity that had been shortchanged
—Finding an activity that they and their significant other both enjoy
—Beginning to look for a new position based on new criteria
—Beginning to look for a similar position in a different culture
—Changing the criteria for accepting positions in volunteer activities

There is a second phase of this work that involves ranking and time allocation, distinguishing between weekday and weekends and between activities constant throughout the year and those which are periodic such as quarterly meetings or a semiannual outing. But you have to start somewhere to get unstuck. And that somewhere is by asking the key question in a tangible, specific way: what is most important to me?