Harness The Power Of Preparation For More Focus, Flow And Happiness

Legend has it that Abraham Lincoln once said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

In 2017, few of us are worried about how to chop down a tree, but that doesn't mean that we don't face challenges. What too many of us overlook is the fact that sometimes, preparation — what Abe would describe as "sharpening the axe" — is the most important part of executing a project.

As an executive coach, I work closely with some of the nation’s top executive teams. On a daily basis, I meet people who are at the top of their game — smart, energetic and visionary. Unfortunately, by the time I am invited in as a consultant, the people I meet are often already in crisis.

Time and time again, what I discover when I enter an organization is exceptional individuals running on empty,  because like so many people today, they are spending more time reacting to emergencies than taking time out to prepare for the future. As one workshop participant recently confided, “When I wake up, I’m already at least a week behind, so honestly, there’s just no time for planning.”

If you can relate, you’re not alone.

Today, we have more demands on our attention than ever before. Whatever the sector, work continues to become more intense and competitive. We’re expected to be multitasking, often all day and all night long, and to have the capacity to process vast amounts of information simultaneously. We’re always on, always processing, and always reacting.

But there’s a cost. Too many of us are living overwired, distracted, exhausted and disengaged, and as a result, it is becoming more and more difficult to focus our precious energy and attention on what matters most — preparation. 

Why We Need To Rewire

Rewired leaders, individuals committed to performing at their peak, know the power of preparation. They short-circuit the frenetic over-wired cycle (a cycle defined by constant doing) by focusing on preparation.  

First, these leaders create more time every day and even twice daily. Second, they harness the power of preparation to reclaim bandwidth, tap into their energy, and optimize performance. How do they do this?

In Adaptive Leadership, Ron Heifetz describes the importance of stepping back from the fast pace of life in order to get perspective. His point is simple but critical: The busier we are, the more demands on our time, the more essential it is to step back.

Seven Steps To Create More Flow, Focus And Happiness  

Creating flow hinges on the ability to have both the time and focus needed to spend less time feeling burnt out and more time feeling in control, energized and productive. Part of my expertise is helping overstretched individuals get back on track. I offer intensive workshops and retreats to help individuals achieve this goal. Creating more time, focus and bandwidth to get into flow, however, begins with the following strategies:

1. Sharpen your axe. Like Abe Lincoln, value the time spent sharpening your axe. After all, preparation is about planning proactively rather than responding reactively. This is even more essential in our always on, always connected, over-wired world. Choose what matters most, where to put your focus, and how to tackle challenges.

2. Look before you leap. Create space between specifying intentions and jumping into action for preparation. Remember that to be successful, you need to know exactly where you are going and why you want to get there. Take time out to clarify outcomes.

3. Optimize your energy. Different tasks use different parts of your brain. Planning uses one region and taking action uses another. Toggling between different parts of your brain takes more energy. Optimize your mental energy by doing your planning, and then shift into executing.

4. Prioritize impacts. Identify which actions will have the greatest impact on your priorities. Maximize impact while optimizing your investment of time, energy, and resources. The Pareto Principle says that we can achieve 80% of our impact with 20% of focused effort. What is your 20%?

5. Be clear on outcomes. Ensure your list of outcomes is composed of specific outcomes (not tasks). The more emotion you can harness, the more energy and focus you will be able to leverage. Know why you are doing what you are doing at all times.

6. Be flexible on approach. There are often multiple ways to achieve the same outcome. Take time out to brainstorm different approaches. Remember — one option isn’t really a choice, two options are a dilemma, and only when you have three or more options are you presented with a real choice. 

7. Be sure to break outcomes down into subtasks or chunks. Break priorities into small tasks and, ideally, tasks that can be completed in 15-30 minutes. Schedule mini sprints of work (also schedule in time to recover and relax). Cross things off your list — it’s a way to give yourself ongoing positive feedback. Finally, throughout the process, ask yourself, which items on my list have the possibility to move the dial most for the associated costs? What will deliver the greatest impact on my priorities?

Once you are clear on your priorities, preparation is vital to optimize your likelihood for flow. The good news is that once you are in the habit of clarifying your goals in advance and preparing thoroughly, your work will feel more energizing and pleasurable. In fact, with clear outcomes and careful preparation, you'll even begin to crave work that once felt like pure struggle.

Originally posted on Fobes.com

The Five R's Of Effective Resolutions

As the year winds down, even those of us who are cynical about the value of New Year's resolutions start to reflect and look ahead to the future. December is a time to think about what we want or need to leave behind and what we want to build or nurture moving forward. Of course, making resolutions is the easy part — keeping them is what's difficult. But why is it so difficult for most people, even high achievers, to keep and follow through on resolutions?

The reality is that change is phenomenally difficult work. While it is easy to declare that one wants to work less, lose more weight or learn a new language, coming up with a plan of action to achieve any of these goals requires more than desire. In short, it is not enough to want something. Reaching goals requires hard work, discipline and a clear plan of action.

By creating more flow in our lives, the chance of realizing our resolutions, however modest or ambitious they may be, drastically increases. Why? The reason is simple: Flow is feeling and performing at your best; when we're in this state, we are able to spend more time doing the things we love and doing them full of energy and focus. Best of all, when we are energized and focused on doing what we love, we are also far less likely to feel exhausted, desperate and wondering where to go next.  

Ready to inject flow into your resolutions for 2017? As a leadership coach, here are a few of my favorite flow hacks to get a jump start. Avoid simply focusing on setting resolutions and turn your attention to the “five Rs” of resolutions: results, reasons, reflections, resources and responsibilities. By doing this, you’ll not only end up making better resolutions in the first place (resolutions that are more impactful and realizable), but you'll also be more likely to achieve and sustain your resolutions throughout the year.

1. Results

In order to be effective, a resolution must be results oriented. It isn't enough to say, “I want to lose weight.” It may not even be enough to say, “I want to lose 15 pounds.” The resolution must be far more results oriented: “I want to lose 15 pounds so I fit into my clothes better and feel healthier.” Simply put, losing 15 pounds isn’t the result; feeling more confident and healthy are the real results. Whatever your goal, it is essential to:

• Understand your results: What are the results you seek?

• Establish a time frame: How soon can you achieve this goal? What is your deadline? Is it realistic? What are your benchmarks?

• Set benchmarks: How will you know when you've archived your goal?

2. Reasons

If you don't know why you're pursuing a goal, you likely won't achieve it. It is essential to clarify the why. Why are you chasing after this goal? How will achieving it impact your life? Is this the only option?

• Connect to your goal: List at least five reasons you are pursuing your goal.

• Understand its impact: Why do you feel a burning desire to achieve this goal at this time?

• Be realistic: If you fail to achieve the goal, what is at stake?

3. Reflection

Doing nothing can be one of your most powerful strategies for change, especially when you take the time to step back, get perspective and examine what has and has not worked in the past. Indeed, reflection is as integral to achieving goals as running full steam ahead toward them.

• Ask difficult questions: Do you still feel that your goal is worth pursuing?

• Take a hard look at how the pursuit is impacting you: What are you sacrificing to achieve this goal? Is the sacrifice worth it?

• Consider the potential negatives: Is your desire to achieve your goal impacting those around you?

4. Resources

To meet a resolution, you need appropriate resources. Once you are clear on the outcome, get flexible on the best possible way to achieve it.  If you want to learn a language, how will you do it? Will you take a class or travel to another country for a more immersive experience? If you want to get in shape, will you hire a trainer or go the gym on your own? When you’re doing these things, who will watch the kids? What resources will you need to realize your goal?

• Ensure you have choices: Make sure you have the right tools for the job on hand.

• Have a backup plan: Have at least four alternative routes available if one route fails.

• Collaborate: Don't be afraid to ask for help.

5. Responsibilities

Finally, never forget that this is your resolution, and you and only you are responsible for nurturing and achieving it. You have to get going and map out your strategy, and you yourself are accountable for your failures. If you fall flat on your face, it may be tempting to blame your coworkers, your spouse or even your kids, but ultimately it’s your fail.

• Have a game plan: Ask yourself what you need to do to reach your goal.

• Chart your course: Identify the actions that are most critical to reaching your goal.

• Prepare for the unexpected: Brainstorm any potential surprises that may arise and block your path. 

When you bring results, reasons, reflections, resources and responsibilities to your resolutions, you are essentially bringing discipline to your desires. This is not to suggest that strong desires aren't something we should foster. The problem is that while most goals start with desire, few goals are ever realized through desire alone. Results, reasons, reflections, resources and responsibilities are precisely what connect resolutions to real results. They are the elements that inject flow into the resolution cycle and ensure that we don’t find ourselves feeling depleted and disappointed only a few weeks into the new year.  

Originally posted on Forbes.com

How Leaders Can Optimize Their Employees' Working Conditions

I recently spoke at a corporate conference where the majority of participants were executives from Fortune 250 companies. I asked several distinguished HR executives and leaders overseeing diversity and inclusion projects what they are doing to optimize the workplace for their employees. Some looked terrified. Others had blank, distant looks on their faces.

Optimizing the work environment for individual performance? It was almost as if I had spoken the “unspeakable.” Businesses expect their employees to give their all, be fully engaged, and perform at their peak, but how are businesses adapting the work environment so that employees can do that?

Simple example: All too often organizations decide moving people from offices to open floor plan will promote collaboration. Few consider the implications to individuals with ADD or who simply prefer solitude. Too often, changes are made without stopping to ask individuals what they want or where they perform at their best.

For many, the thought of interacting with their employees at this level is daunting. This is why too many executives simply write out a check for a free pizza lunch while continuing to ignore the conditions under which employees truly excel. 

Yet, corporations want to be recognized for their progressive, diverse and inclusive workspaces. And while promoting flexibility, open office workspaces, and rewarding performers are important, it's crucial to engage and then listen to your employees. When do they feel their best? How do they like to work? What do they need to deliver great work?

We know that individuals who are in flow, or performing at their peak, are five times more productive and up to seven times more creative at work and in life. We also know that there are specific psychological, environmental and social triggers that optimize the likelihood that individuals will get into flow. In flow, people are more productive and feel better and happier. And the good news is that corporate leaders can easily help their employees create the conditions for flow.

Want Radical Improvement? Don’t Settle For Lateral Shifts

While we all want radically improvements, too often, we settle for “laterally” different approaches. To achieve new levels of engagement and reach new levels of productivity — to harness a new level of creativity that can truly innovate and solve tomorrow's problems — we need to actively position ourselves and our teams to perform at our best and to create more flow. This begins with interrogating how you currently do things and even what is valued most in your organization. Next, it means opening yourself up to change on an unprecedented level.

Hyper Customization Is The Future

We are living at a time of increasing customization. Simply look at the range of cell phones options to see how individualized products have become. Today, everyone has a separate color, ring, and screen saver. Yet, most workplaces still operate in a one-size-fits-all modality (e.g., this level of employees gets this size office or cube and this type of phone, this quality laptop and so on). And all too often, corporations are managing in a one-size-fits-all leadership model (e.g., this type of employee doing this type of work is expected to follow these types of metrics, perform during this period of time, and enjoy only these perks). To promote more flow, reward employees doing great work by giving them more opportunity to do even better work moving forward. How specifically? Give them clear outcomes, and then give them autonomy in how they execute.  

Make It Personal

In his book The Three Signs of a Miserable Job, Patrick Lencioni described three fatal workplace flaws: employees feel anonymous (who they are does not matter), irrelevant (they can not see how their work contributes to the mission of the organization), and unquantifiable (they can’t see results in their work). 

Now imagine a workplace where an individual was given very specific, challenging yet doable goals and told how these tasks would impact the organization’s broader mission. Imagine a workplace where individuals understood what was expected of them, and then simply given the time, space, resources and working environment to execute these expectations. Imagine a workplace where every worker felt confident that they were contributing and making progress daily and not just once a year during their performance review.

The takeaway is simple: Personalizing one’s work and relationship to the organization increased productivity because employees feel more invested in what they are doing. How? Link priority projects to the company mission. If you can't make the link, reconsider if they should be priorities.   

Expect More, Beginning With Your Leaders

Expecting more necessitates a shift in managing and leading. It means giving individuals the flexibility to design how and when they work, and it means ensuring that leaders have laser clarity on the tasks they are delegating and clear metrics for success. It also means leaders need to trust employees and give them the autonomy required to execute on deliverables. This, in turn, means having more conversations about deliverables and being more accountability and transparent. In this scenario, leaders need to be prepared to provide specific feedback on what is working, what isn't working, and how to position every individual in their organization for success. 

Doing all of this might seem time-consuming and daunting, but it’s not. More importantly, any time or energy spent on this endeavor will reap major returns.  The research is compelling: Increasing our time in flow by 15-20% can literally double our productivity. The numbers are striking, and the reality is in reach. Creating the conditions for more flow holds the potential to double the productivity of your entire workforce.

Originally published on Forbes.com

Hacking the Holidays: 6 Ways To Reclaim That Holiday Spirit

We all love the holiday season, but more and more, I hear people bracing for the flurry of activities that arrive along with the holiday cheer.

There’s no reason to live for December 26th  when you can finally exhale, get back to the gym, and have a moment of normalcy. This season, we want to help you hack the holidays - to help you rethink the hustle and bustle, redesign how you engage with the flurry of activity, and reclaim the joy of the season.

The holidays can be packed to the brim with extras: activities (all the shopping), demands (the annual office Secret Santa) outings (so many parties and concerts), and calories. Hacking the holidays means thinking about the festivities differently. It's about stepping back, gaining perspective on what is truly important and what gives joy… and then planning ways to spend more time experiencing those moments, with less stress.

Get Out Ahead

After the turkey has been put away, take time to put your feet up. Grab a notepad and your calendar. Do an inventory of the next four weeks. What events are you committed to? What is necessary (attire, gifts, childcare,etc.) for each event? Knowing what is coming is vital to hacking.

ACTION:

- Revisit your list. Are all these events you truly want to attend? Which can you eliminate?

- Where can you simplify your commitments by chunking similar activities?  Examples: One great holiday outfit for two parties. Buy a case of red wine for gifts. Lock in a babysitter.

Make Your List, Check It Twice, Gonna Find Out How To Optimize

Create a list of expectations for the holidays. What do you expect of yourself? What are others depending on you to provide?  What are your expectations for others? Take time to notice where your lists differ and then proactively re-calibrate. Discuss your lists with your family – and when two parties are in conflict, consider the feelings of each party on a scale of one to ten. If you feel your office festivities are a ten (really important) but your spouse thinks they’re more a five on the scale, whoever feels more strongly “wins.”  If you both feel really strongly, you have the option of going to parties separately.  

ACTION:

- Rethink your list. What can you eliminate? What needs doing and what feels like you should do it? Where can you cluster like activities?  

Know Your Why

I love sending holiday cards. Specifically, I like to send homemade holiday cards that include a personalized note. This is a family tradition that is very important to me, and yes - when you are sending upwards of 250+ cards, it can be very time-consuming. After five years of marriage, I have come to appreciate that this task is important to ME, but not as important to my husband.   So, I own this task. I stay connected to why I want to do it and I pace myself. I see the process as a meditation, an opportunity to send love to our friends and family.  

ACTION:

- Find the emotional connection for everything on your list. What is the “why” that will make doing this easier? (Yes, not disappointing your mother can be a legitimate why!)

Set Yourself Up For Success With Automation And Simplification

With your lists in hand, explore how you can simplify the month ahead with planning. Where can you identify one solution that can solve many challenges? (For example, buying one case of wine and a stack of holiday bags could save you serious time contemplating the perfect gift, sitting in traffic to shop, and waiting in the checkout line.

A close family friend likes to do homemade gifts. Each year, they identify a personalized, useful gift that is congruent with their values. Thanksgiving weekend, they make and package these gifts. One year, they made spiced pecans in a festive jar, another year it was bees’ wax for polishing wood, and another year, it was a delicious jelly.  

Another friend has five dishes that she traditionally serves her family during the holidays. Rather than cook all five dishes, she partners with four other women. Each makes one recipe, but quintuples the volume, saving time, money, and cleanup.

ACTION:  

- What can you do now to proactively plan for the month ahead?

- Where can you double the recipe today in order to solve a problem tomorrow?

Let Your Fingers Shop

As an Amazon Prime frequent flyer, I am a big believer in anticipating and solving challenges before they become an issue. Check your stash of wrapping paper, tape, bows and boxes and order accordingly. Know who is on your list, and what you’d like to gift them so you can search for products with the best reviews, prices, and delivery policies.

Three years ago, we realized that our godson and two nephews are the same age. We spend a little extra time researching great gifts for boys at their age and then we buy three. We have also taken to shipping directly to relatives we won’t see, saving ourselves a trip to the post office.

By planning ahead, we’re able to optimize our time and our resources. We make sure that we are within our budget. Most importantly, we ensure we’re getting thoughtful gifts for our loved ones, not just whatever is at the store so we can be done with it.

ACTION:

- Do an inventory of what supplies you need for wrapping, decorating, and creating a gift.

- Double Bonus: Determine what you can buy on Black Friday or Cyber Monday from the comfort of your home.

Eat Salad For Breakfast

We all know the nutritional recommendations for fruits and vegetables. And, we most likely have been to holiday parties where the melted Brie with caramelized onions beckons us. Combine holiday appetizers, with holiday drinks, with holiday sweets - and we can have a dietary disaster.  

The cereal industry has done a brilliant job of dominating breakfast, but you can utilize the morning meal to better effect by making it the healthiest, and securing a positive start to your day. If you can’t stomach a salad in the morning, try doubling the quantity of broccoli in your eggs.

ACTION:

- Rethink your assumptions about what constitutes breakfast food. Get your veggies in early and often. Double down on hydration. Throughout the day, increase your water consumption to feel better.

In Conclusion…

Hacking the holidays is all about making sure the holiday season feels festive and bright for you and your loved ones. It’s about stepping back for a moment, and consciously prioritizing and then streamlining all of your upcoming extras. It’s about using the tools you have at your disposal to eliminate, automate, and simplify your life in order to set yourself up for success this holiday season!

Reviving SPUG: A New Way to Celebrate the Season

I didn’t shop on Thanksgiving, Black Friday, or Cyber Monday, but I feel like I did. I am exhausted from the overbearing onslaught of emails and posts and ads announcing the big sales. It’s made me feel slightly curmudgeonly, and I am not happy about it. I love the holidays. I love celebrating the season with friends and family, good meals and fun gatherings. Every year there is an incessant push to spend and buy, but this year seems to be worse than ever.

Bear with me here; this isn’t going to be a “remember the reason for the season post,” but indulge me a little, because I think we can all agree that we can use a little SPUG right about now.

For those unfamiliar with that particular acronym, it stands for the Society for the Prevention of Useless Gifts, and yes it’s a real thing, or was. SPUG was started in November 1912 by a group of department store clerks in Manhattan who were frustrated with the expectation that they spend their hard-earned money buying expensive holiday gifts for their supervisors. “The society’s objection was not to Christmas, its founders explained, but to what it had become — a cause that found widespread sympathy in newspapers across the country,” wrote Slate contributor Paul Collins in “The Original War on Christmas.” And that was in 1912!

The group’s message and mission was quickly championed by thousands of other women, and SPUG groups sprang up across the city and the country. Even the New York Times chimed in with a headline the day after the group formed: “BE A SPUG AND STOP FOOLISH XMAS GIVING.”

The following year, the group changed its name to the Society for the Promotion of Useful Giving and began encouraging people to give to those in need. By 1914, as World War I began, SPUG was pretty much defunct.

I say we need a little SPUG right about now. As we enter the season of giving and the 102nd birthday of SPUG, there are many reasons to champion a revival of SPUG. For starters, we’ve all received those gifts. You know, the ones we open with a smile on our face, express massive gratitude for, and then wonder where can we store it in the basement only to be retrieved before said gift-giver comes for a visit. Second, we’ve all experienced the stress of the season. With a to-do list longer than our arm, we rack our brains for something unique and memorable for person X, Y, or Z. In the flurry of seeking that perfect gift, we lose sight of why we might be buying that person a gift in the first place, or if it’s really necessary. Third, many of us have experienced the post holiday stress associated with the exceptionally high credit card bills that come in January. And finally, do we really need more stuff?

Don’t get me wrong: I love presents. Who doesn’t? But lately, I fear we live in a world gone mad. Ours is a culture of excess, a culture of perpetual stress, a culture of doing rather than being. Too often in our quest for “doing it all” we lose sight of living purposefully, and this time of year that’s especially true, as we buy to much, spend too much, eat too much, and do too much. We are too stressed or too exhausted to really be, to really enjoy each other, to really participate in the joy of the season.

And that’s why I suggest we resurrect SPUG. Let’s reclaim the joy and fun of the holidays, reconnect with what it means to be, and reengage with the possibilities of a new way of being. Why can’t we live and celebrate with clarity, purpose, and joy?

We can start by repurposing SPUG as the Society for the Promotion of Unique Gratitude, and vow to do the following:

1. Ban or limit gifts. Create experiences instead. I remember in horror when my family did away with Christmas stockings. My parents decided my two siblings and I didn’t need all the little useless things they put in our stockings. They decided to spend more time with us instead. Our holidays became filled with bowls of popcorn by the fire, games, conversations, and togetherness. Today I can’t remember one thing that was in my stocking, but I remember the nights by the fire with my family playing Monopoly.

As we got older, the quantity of gifts slowly diminished until my parents announced that we would each receive an “experience” instead of a present. This took many forms: lift tickets, fabulous dinners out, fabulous dinners in, trips to spas, etc. As with the board games by the fire, I can recount what I received every single year as an experience. The gifts? Not so much. The memories became the greatest gifts of all.

2. Make it personal. Some dear friends have a wonderful family tradition of making homemade gifts. Each year, the family makes one thing (caramelized pecans, beeswax wood polish, etc) and spends one day together creating the gifts and another day packaging and delivering them. It beings them so much joy to be together and to give such wonderful treats. And it brings the recipients just as much joy to receive something personal and lovely. It fires on all cylinders.

3. Refuse to succumb to the useless gifts. All too often in the stress of the holiday season we just grab items, however useless or meaningless, to give as gifts. But what if we refused to succumb to the useless and instead tried to imbue our gifts with more meaning and real love? In The Five Love Languages, Gary Chapman, explains that there are five different languages that people experience love. Sure there can be joy in receiving beautiful gifts (which is one of the languages, but there is also amazing joy in acts of service, quality time, physical touch, and words of affirmations. What if you took the time to find out what love language your recipient speaks, and give them a gift accordingly?

Think of the family that created homemade gifts. They had quality family time, acts of service in creating a useful gift, and many words of affirmation about who they were making the gifts for and how they loved them and were loved in return.

We can reclaim our sanity and find the true joy this holiday season by exercising a little SPUG, being more thoughtful, and slowing down a little.

Originally published on The Huffington Post

Creating flow in the gig economy

By Camille Preston, PhD, PCC

Boston is home to some of the world’s top business schools. To stay on top, our schools need to provide students with the leadership skills required to be both successful and engaged in today’s changing economy.

For close to a decade, my motto has been simple: Do what you love, from a place you love, with people you enjoy. Some might call me an early adopter to the gig economy. A recent report by McKinsey Global Institute, Independent Work: Choice, Necessity and the Gig Economy, shows that more and more people are buying into this approach to work and experiencing more satisfaction as a result. Free agents (people who work independently) report higher levels of satisfaction. This may explain why an estimated 162 million people (20-30% of the workforce) now fall into this category.

However, as we move to a gig economy, students must also develop new leadership skills too. They need to understand their individual triggers for peak performance, or what I refer to as flow. Why? Because in flow, individuals are up to five times as productive and up to seven times as creative. This means that flow is essential to the bottom line and personal well being. But can we teach students to generate and stay in flow? I believe that we can and that doing so is essential. To understand why, consider the relationship between leadership and flow.

Over the past decade, a growing number of business schools have started to mandate leadership training. Yet, as Srikant Datar, David Garvin and Patrick Cullen observe in Rethinking the MBA: Business Education at a Crossroads, while “virtually all of the top business schools aspire to ‘develop leaders’,” efforts are “widely viewed as falling short.” This is because cognitive intelligence (IQ) can only get you so far when it comes to training future leaders. Some research suggests that IQ accounts for 4-20% of one’s success as a leader. The other 80-96% is EQ.

As more people join the gig economy and move from employee to entrepreneur, EQ (emotional intelligence) will matter more than ever before. Part of EQ, however, is about knowing how to tap into flow. The Create More Flow curriculum is designed to help individuals know themselves better—to cultivate their EQ—and then to rethink how they work to spend more time being and feeling their best.

Notably, creating more flow is within everyone’s reach. It’s about prioritizing what really matters. It’s about being able to identify and rank one’s goals. Creating more flow is also about heightening engagement (being present for the people and projects that matter most).  It’s about knowing what steps are critical to effectively move the dial on a project and about fostering the agility to respond to change. Most importantly, it’s about taking time out to prioritize one’s own wellbeing too.  

Creating more flow is about making small tweaks to our work that hold the potential to produce massive rewards. What could be a more important lesson to deliver to tomorrow’s leaders?

Originally published on The Boston Business Journal, if you have a subscription, read it here.

Is the American Dream Changing?

Why that might be particularly good news for you!

The past week has produced a wide range of emotions from devastation to celebration, relief to terror. One thing is clear—the American dream is changing. So much for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Setting politics aside, the research is compelling.

For decades, the American Dream has been measured externally. “Making it” was measured by fixed or quantitative accomplishments: a home, a car, a family (2.3 kids) and the opportunity to retire in leisure. Apparently, the American Dream might need an upgrade.  Focusing on material pursuits and accumulating wealth creates a negative return on one’s mental health. Once basic needs are met (or after $75k), money doesn’t materially change your happiness.  In fact, the desire for material goods can even have the opposite effect. Some studies have found that focusing on the pursuit of material goods breeds anxiety, isolation and even alienation.  

This brings us to the American Dream 2.0, which shifts the focus from the quest for things to the quest for personal fulfillment. In this dream, happiness is more important than accumulating material wealth. In this dream, happiness also does not come from accomplishments alone but rather from the sense that you are making progress and moving towards things you have identified as personally important.

Reassessing the American Dream

I’m not alone wondering about the changing nature of the American Dream. Met Life recently conducted 1000 interviews as part of their study on the current status of the American Dream. This is what they concluded:

Americans are less concerned with material issues…life’s traditional markers of success—getting married, buying a house, having a family, and building wealth—do not matter as much today. Rather, achieving a sense of personal fulfillment is more important toward realizing the American dream than accumulating material wealth.

The Center for a New American Dream surveyed nearly 2000 Americans who agreed.  When asked about their individual version of the American dream, individuals identified personal freedom, security, achieving personal potential and having time to enjoy life as important.

Tim Kasser, the author of The High Price of Materialism, has analyzed over a decade of empirical data on materialism and well being. Similar to the Met Life research, Kasser found that a higher value on material goods was associated with insecurity and lower levels of social and empathetic behavior.  Said more simply, looking out the window at what is owned by the Jones next door (and wanting what they have) doesn’t breed well being.  But if that is the case, what does breed happiness?

Embracing the American Dream 2.0

The best way to increase your sense of well being is to embrace a growth mindset and to organize your life around intrinsic values—those things that you have decided are important and fulfilling.

The good news is that with a growth mindset, we are much more in control of this process than most of us realize. After all, you decide what matters and what is important. You are in the driver’s seat moving towards your internal sense of well being. The bad news is that intrinsic well being is much more abstract than the accumulation of goods. This means it can be more difficult to assess when you are making real gains, but this doesn’t mean that this is impossible work.  

Like building a magnificent skyscraper that has the potential to house many people and create a view where one can see for miles, building well being means having a strong foundation. In this case, the foundation is not about bricks and mortar but rather about conviction—deciding that you’re commitment to seeking fulfillment. Now the only challenge is to make that initial step and then to develop the discipline to realize yournew American dream.  

Creating More Flow to Heighten Well-Being

Create More Flow (CMF) is about feeling and performing your best. It’s not opposed to the accumulation of material wealth. Indeed, people who experience the most flow are often phenomenally successful in their work, but they also feel happier and report greatest fulfillment at work and play.  

To be in flow, however, you need to first make a choice—a choice to live in the learning zone where you are growing and developing things that matter to you. To be in flow, you need to believe in new possibilities—to believe that there is another way to be in the world. Being in flow means connecting with what is vital and making it real, personal, and powerful. It is about building the habits essential to give you the bandwidth needed to breathe, think about what you want, and build relationships that will help you move along this pathway to well being.

While this may sound totally overwhelming, in my experience, there are some simply hacks that can make creating more flow enduring, sustainable and fun.

Rethink Success and Happiness

Ask yourself, what matters most? Relationships, values, beliefs, knowledge, insights?Think deeply and consider your external influencers. Have a clear picture of your priorities, whatever they may be.

Downsize

Move away from the "should haves" and towards what truly feeds your soul. Separate yourself from relationships, things, and responsibilities that don’t move you towards fulfillment. Not sure how to do this?  Read The Magic Art of Tidying, but don’t stop with material things! Once you’ve shed those mismatched socks and the hoodie you’ve had since college, start shedding more ephemeral things too, including any relationships (professional or personal) that are no longer feeding you or never were.

Prepare Proactively

Anticipate that others will be uncomfortable with your decision. After all, there was consensus for decades that we all wanted the American dream. Challenging this assumption will make some people uncomfortable.

Re-Define Your Needs

The gig economy makes it possible to earn what you need to be happy (about 75k) and spend more time creating the life you want and seeking fulfillment. In The Gig Economy, Diane Mulcahy tells you how to do this step by step.

Focus on the Journey not the Destination

The Constitution promises us “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” As CEO of Spartan Race, Joe DeSena, said so eloquently, “the American Dream 2.0 realizes that happiness is the pursuit.” Said another way, what matters is the journey and not the destination.

What is the take away? If you embrace a growth mindset and take pleasure in the pursuit, you’ll be happier.  And, in all likelihood, you’ll also be more productive and accumulate more over time. Why? Because rather than burning out, which is precisely what is happening to too many Americans today, you’ll finally be experiencing the flow needed to return to your passionate pursuit day after day with an open heart, open mind and complete focus.

Make Time To Connect With Others, Especially Your Employees

It seems like social media is increasingly blamed for a lot of things, from causing a deep distraction to creating empty relationships. But sometimes, social media is precisely what brings us back to what really matters: human connections.

Six and a half years ago, my husband and I went on a trip to New Orleans with my parents to celebrate my father’s 80th birthday. We spent some time with a man my father had mentored more than 50 years earlier named Ed. Fast forward to today and my dad has been dead for almost two years. Out of the blue, Ed posted a lovely message in response to a Facebook post about my children.

I thanked Ed for his message and his response stopped me in my tracks. “Your dad was a great man, and his spirit lives on in those whose lives he touched. He told me that he used to ask you and your siblings, ‘What did you do today to make the world a better place?’ I adopted that practice with my kids, and three out of the four now have careers that that serve the common good.”

I don’t know if Ed and I will ever have a conversation in person again, but this interaction reminded me that even passing encounters can have a huge impact. Ed’s observations didn’t only remind me of my father’s tremendous legacy, but that taking time to notice what’s going on in other’s lives is part of what makes a great leader.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking— an executive taking time out to comment on family photographs probably won’t impact their bottom line. That’s probably true. But when we as leaders take time out to comment on a photo of someone’s child or notice that they appear to be under the weather, we’re doing more than sharing an opinion or probing for information. Reciprocity also begets reciprocity.

When people feel seen— when they feel that someone is paying attention, even for just a moment— they are more likely to open up, extend their trust, and feel a sense of commitment to the person who has reached out. When leaders take time out to be present for their employees, the impact may be even greater.

There is a growing body of research that suggests a majority of today’s employees feel disengaged. When asked why they don’t feel engaged at work, most employees say the same thing: They don’t feel respected by senior management or they don’t feel that their ideas are valued.

In my work with senior executives, I’ve discovered that this realization often comes as a surprise. Leaders are simply shocked to discover that their employees don’t feel respected or valued. Many of them even realize that they’ve spent little to no time engaging directly with their employees (the larger the organization, the more likely this is the case).

So just as my father used to ask me daily, “‘What did you do today to make our world a better place?” I encourage the executives I coach to ask themselves, “Who did I take time out to connect with today? What did I learn? How might this impact my future interactions with them?”

The best part: It takes as little as a few seconds a day to connect.

Originally published on Forbes.com

How Flow Promotes Wellness

As McKinsey & Company researchers report, when executives are in flow, they are five times as productive and up to seven times more creative. This means that flow is about more than feeling great—it’s also good for the bottom line.

Today, a growing number of top executives are recognizing the value of flow and exploring how they can increase flow across their workforce. Create More Flow (CMF) was developed to respond to the growing need for actionable strategies to increase flow in everything we do.

CMF is about creating deep focus that drives presence, connection and impact; being purposefully engaged in the work that really matters; and delivering marked progress on goals. CMF leverages advances in neuroscience and delivers tangible strategies to re-design how we operate so we can feel and perform at our best. In other words, it is a mindset, a skill set, and a way of being with proven strategies for optimizing peak performance. It is for anyone who wants to spend more time in the zone of peak performance—feeling great, doing great, and creating great.  For companies who care about the well being of their employees, CMF offers the tools needed to dramatically improve productivity, build engagement, and deliver results that positively impact the bottom line.

Living in an Overwired World

Too often, we are living: 

  • Overwired: We are always on, always connected. We can feel “wired but tired.” We are tuned into everything, but focused on nothing.
  • Distracted: We have more priorities than we have attention, time and energy.
  • Exhausted: We have blurred work/life boundaries and this results in no real down time. We are working longer hours with fewer results.
  • Disengaged: Although we are working longer hours, with more people, we feel more isolated, more dejected, and less effective. 

Overwired we toggle from doing, doing, doing (with massive surges in cortisol and adrenaline) to completely done.  Living overwired has significant consequences on our productivity and on our health.  We are so tired trying to “do it all,” we don’t have the bandwidth, energy or attention to make changes.  Living under the illusion that this is the only way to “get it all done,” too many of us are running on empty.

As a nation, we face unprecedented challenges with anxiety, depression and obesity. There was a 66% increase in the diagnosis of ADD in 2015.  Many of these challenges are the result of “modern” online living where we lack rhythm, relationship and reality checks. The surging interest in mindfulness, meditation and yoga parallels our cultural shift away from boundaries, balance and being connected in our communities.

Although technology has transformed how we live, too often we fail to step back to re-think and re-design how we are operating.  When we’re in flow, we prioritize these moments of reflection too. It’s a state of high cognition and high performance where we are present, intentionally focused, and highly productive.

Flow is about Working Smarter, Not Harder

CMF offers individual benefits to wellbeing—wellbeing of mind, body, spirit, emotions and relationships—but these benefits spill over and enhance collective enterprises of all kinds too.

  1. People who report the most flow are the happiest: Individuals who report the greatest amount of flow, also report being the happiest. These individuals intentionally design their lives for more flow. They are clear on outcomes (spend more time in flow) and do a better job managing their environment. In turn, they more easily cultivate a legacy of fulfillment.
  2. The cycle of flow cultivates a rhythm: Flow is not an on or off state. Rather, it takes place in five stages: preparation, purposeful struggle, release, flow and recovery. Flow hackers know how to manage priorities, organize time, and toggle their attention to move through the stages of flow to perform at their best. For example, stages 2 and 3 mirror the stages of a great workout. Individuals toggle intense focus associated with purposeful struggle (i.e., lifting weights) into release (i.e., taking time out to recover) by stepping back, shifting their focus, and recalibrating their energy. 
  3. Flow begets flow: Flow is a self-reinforcing cycle. The more flow we experience, the more flow we are likely to experience. Said another way, if I can get into flow during a run, there is a higher likelihood that I will get into flow at work. And the more flow I experience at work, the greater likelihood that I will be able to shift away from work and be able to connect deeply with my family or perhaps have a great music jam with friends too.   
  4. Presence or purposefully focusing one’s attention is connected to wellbeing: Focus on mindfulness (e.g., meditation) is a great way to reclaim one’s center in an overwired world.

Originally published on Corporate Wellness Magazine