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How a puppy broke my lunchbox...

September 6, 2021

...and reminded me of key ingredients for successful project management: focus, attention, and buffer time.

Life's Business Lessons

Hannibal Smith from the A-team used to say “I love it when a plan comes together”. Well, don’t we all just love that? The perfectly executed plan and the perfectly flowing day. Granted - I’ll allow that these days do occasionally happen. About once in a blue moon. And then there’s real life, forcing us to scramble for time and adjust to unforeseen circumstances...

So how exactly did I make a mess of my day, my bag, my lunch and all because of...a very cute puppy ➡️ insert high-pitched “awws” from the ladies here ⬅️

It was one of those perfectly planned days. It wasn’t just me - my wife and I were coordinating our tasks together like the dream team that we are. I had exactly 30 minutes between my meetings to get cash from an ATM and head over with her to the local court for our appointment. I finished my remote mentoring call exactly on time, I hurriedly changed clothes and I left the flat exactly on time. I grinned to myself thinking “I love it when a plan comes together”. I was in that machine-like execution mode moving seamlessly from task to task. I was on fire.

It was on the way out of the building,  when I met my soon-to-be downfall. My impediment was disguised as cuteness. It was my neighbor’s new dog - a very adorable 8-week old Labradoodle ➡️ insert more high-pitched “awws” from the ladies here ⬅️! What an adorable little fellah. His limbs were too big for his cute little body, and his dark eyes bore into my very soul. My heart melted instantly and my brain froze. I focused on this little guy completely. 

CUT - Now, before I continue my story I should elucidate what was in my backpack which I  carelessly slung across one shoulder. Being the healthy entrepreneur I am, and oh-so-well organized, I had prepared my lunch of oatmeal, almond milk, and blueberries in advance. I had put it in my favorite glass container. A very solid glass container with a tightly sealed rubber lid.

As I leaned down to pet the adorable pup, my backpack slipped from my shoulder down my outstretched "petting arm", and my bag with my lunch in its glass container came crashing down to the hard pavement. A solid bang and a frightened puppy were the external results.

Inside my bag a whole other disaster was born: the glass container shattered, the oaty-blueberry-starchy contents mixing with the bits of glass as well as my umbrella. Disgusting and pretty darn inconvenient. Naturally, what had also come crashing down around my ankles was my perfectly structured plan for my day!

My actions were quick. There was no use in crying over spilled milk, literally. I refrained from strangling the dog (yes, he really was that cute), grabbed my mess of a bag, and dashed right back up into my apartment to clean up. Let’s take a moment to acknowledge that trying to quickly clean a bag while attempting to not cut yourself with shards of cut glass is extremely tricky. I avoided injury, left the backpack in my shower, ran down the stairs and a few blocks to pick up the cash needed for the appointment and continued running to have a chance to make it on time. The result? I did achieve everything that I wanted to but at a much higher energy output than necessary...and with a ruined backpack. All of this from rushing and from lacking to be “present in the here and now”. Sigh.

There are however some valuable lessons that I was reminded of that day. 

First and most important - staying present and aware in the moment is very important. Being aware of which way our needs, feelings and desires are pulling us and then consciously acting, or not, on said needs is the difference between taking a few peaceful minutes to play with a cute dog and havoc created.

The same accounts for your everyday managerial life. If you don’t take care of them, your projects will go to sh*t. If you don’t take the time to tune into the changes and developments of your projects then these changes will most likely overwhelm you. If you do decide to take a break, and yes breaks are super important, make sure that you make some space around being able to take that break. Stay present.

Second reminder from this sticky situation: Yes you can put a price on task-switching. It is the concept of the “focus battery” which I first learned about in the book "The One Thing". Focusing on one thing at a time, completing your task, and then moving on to another task is far less taxing for your mind and overall energy-level. Yes, in the short-term, you may feel like you’re being crazy efficient when you’re multitasking, while this is not actually the case.

Multitasking allows you to do many things "at the same time", poorly. While it may seem necessary sometimes, it should not be your default mode of operating.

Monotasking is gold. If you actually want to show up as your best self, you will need to learn to focus. That’s just how the game is played - in fact that is the only mode our good old chimp brain is able to provide properly.

Reminder number three from our furry little friend? Don’t mistake movement for progress. Just because your schedule is incredibly full and you’re so busy you’re ripping your hair out (because hey, let’s face it, bald is actually cost and time-efficient, right?), does not mean that you are actually getting anywhere or making huge progress with your business. Make sure you plan buffer time in between tasks. Make sure you block off some time in your calendar for email check-ins and answering, for discussions with yourself, with your mentor or simply to stare at an empty wall and allow your mind to catch up with you. If you put too much on your plate each day you will end up making costly mistakes! Find the balance between workload and mindfulness otherwise, you risk getting lost in the “woods” of your early market endeavor.

Had I applied these lessons to my ultra-busy day when I had the meeting at the local court I would have scheduled things differently. I could have moved or shortened meeting times to give myself a longer break and enjoy my lunch at home. My wife and I could have taken an extra 15 minutes to walk down to the ATM. Then, when we encountered the cute puppy we would have had a chance not only to interact with our new neighbor (who is a really nice guy!), but we would also give ourselves a few minutes of joy with the dog. Happier, more energized than before, we would have arrived at our appointment feeling pretty damn zen.

I know that focusing on a few things done right, over a lot of things "touched" can be challenging as we face our fear of not getting done enough or not putting in enough "effort". When you are looking down the barrel of yet another overcrowded week of deadlines and meetings with little to no buffer planned, here is another nugget I took from Gary Keller's book mentioned above. In these moments, ask yourself: What is the one thing making all other things easier or unnecessary?!

Identify it, focus on it and let go of the rest standing between you and necessary buffer time. You should also schedule buffer time before and after important meetings to prepare for them and to take notes and jot down new ideas right after when everything is still fresh in your mind. I also like to put reminders in my phone at random times during the day (such as 11:17 or 15:43, for example) which remind me to take a few deep breaths and reconnect with my here and now. Mindfulness and awareness are practiced skills like everything else that we do. Make sure you and your team are focused on the right things and that you’re allocating enough time and care to forward-momentum tasks. Otherwise, you might find yourselves “barking up the wrong tree” all too often!!

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