Before-we-start agreements

It can be so easy to jump in to a task, a job, or project. 

However, this can create issues. Have you ever been far along in a project and realize you wish you could go back to the beginning and set up an agreement that would allow you to work better? Maybe you’re wishing you would have been paid ahead of time, boundaries on your time, or more realistic deliverables. 

Whether you are a salaried employee, freelance contractor, or volunteer committee member, if we’re not careful, we can fall into situations where expectations are misaligned, balls are dropped, and people get frustrated . . . including you.

Here’s a potential solution... set up an agreement

Something you can try is setting up a “before we start” agreement. 

Step 1 — Pause your personal work on the project. Before your jump head-first into your project, remember to pause and clarify and agree first. If you’re already working on the project, don’t worry, it’s not too late. Pause now before you do anything else. This is better than waiting until the end!

Step 2 — Create your “front end” agreement. You can also call this your Front-loaded Agreement, Before-We-Start Agreement, Working Expectations Agreement, or Memo-of-Understanding (MOU). It’s important you create this in writing and not just out loud. Having it digital and easily recall-able helps, too. It doesn’t have to be more than 1 typed page with plenty of margins and white space. Here are some potential sections to outline:

  • A short description of the work to be provided
  • Boundaries of time and energy
  • Expectation on delivery date
  • Variables that could change the delivery date or other conditions
  • What this “doesn’t include” section (helpful to keep the scope narrow)

Step 3 — Share the agreement digitally. Share a copy of your document with your boss or team digitally and make sure everyone has enough time to process what’s been written. It’s important they have a copy on their end so they can refer back to it down the road.

Step 4 — Make the agreement and move forward. If you need to make adjustments, do so, then re-send it to everyone. Now that you have the clarity on the expectations and deliverables, you and everyone else is now accountable. You’ve set up the boundaries and your mind will actually be able to relax and focus on the outcome. 

Prevent frustration and overwork with these powerful, yet simple tools

When working on a team, have you ever been frustrated because a project did not turn out quite right?

It turns out that our expectations are often linked to frustration and overwork. If we want to prevent frustration, we must consider how we communicate our personal expectations. Consider these questions:

How often do you clearly set your personal expectations?

How often do you communicate those expectations to your team?

Do you do that a way the brain is wired to understand information?

Do you review your expectations and results consistently?

In this post, I’ll help you learn how to be clear with your team and yourself. Appropriately clarified expectations will prevent frustration, prevent busy work, prevent over work, and help you achieve more focus and momentum.

First, some thoughts on personal expectations (internal processing)

Personal expectations are a picture of what success looks like. But because it’s a personal expectation, it’s highly likely that no one else knows it, except for you. For some, the expectation could be as simple as everyone showing up in the same room at the same time. For others, it looks as elaborate and ornamented as Disneyland.

Notice expectations everywhere

We must grow in our awareness of our expectations. We have expectations for how to spend our personal time, expectations on when you will leave work, how many vacation days you will use, and how hot that caramel macchiato will be…

Every time you go anywhere—a gas station, a website, a conference room—you have an idea of how things will unfold. You expect the nozzle on the gas pump to click off when your tank reaches a certain level. You expect websites to be easy to navigate. You expect conference rooms to have chairs and a place to plug in your laptop. You could probably tell me stories of times when your expectations were NOT met. And I bet you wouldn’t have to look at any notes!

On the other hand, when our expectations are exceeded, we are wowed. When our expectations are not met, we get frustrated and discontent. To avoid frustration, notice your expectations.

To avoid frustration, notice your expectations.

It is easy to grow numb or forget about our expectations. It takes less energy and effort to do the brave work of thinking before we “do.” The problem is many of us do not take the appropriate time and energy (energy is the secret killer in this scenario) to figure out what we really want to see happen.

In our work environments, it might seem simple and obvious that we should agree on expectations before jumping into doing our work. However, it’s all-too-common for people to jump into a task, take it to completion, only to find out you and your team or boss are on a different page. To work toward better clarification, we must set expectations on a regular basis. To illustrate this, we will look at rhythms and rituals.

4 Steps to Prevent Overwork and Frustration

Whether you are a disciplined person or more of a free spirit, we all operate our lives with a set of rhythms. Again, we must become aware of our rhythms, regardless of how you might be wired. Some of us are more intentional about how we structure our days, weeks, and lives — while others prefer a more free-flowing schedule. Both are great!
One problem is that we keep things junked up in our head. The simple solution is to get things out of your head.

1. Set your personal expectations by thinking through your situation smarter

The 5 Cs tool (internal auditing)

Auditors at the Government Accountability Office (GAO) use a set of questions to figure out what’s happening within a team. Below is the condensed version. You can view their full set of tools at [–704G]

  1. What’s the criteria for success? (How do you think should it be? The client? The team?)
  2. What’s the current condition or reality? (How is it?) 
    • What’s the gap between the criteria and the condition?
  3. What’s causing the current reality?
  4. What is the consequence of the current reality?
  5. What’s your recommended corrective action to potentially solve the issue?

A few other powerful questions

  • What is the problem we’re trying to solve?
  • What item, if we focused on it for the next 3 months, would provide the greatest momentum?
  • What are we working toward?

Asking questions like the 5Cs gives you a picture on why you’re working on what you’re working on.

2. Externalize your thinking using writing, visuals, or audio

Often, people jump right into a meeting, phone call, or conversation to solve an issue without any externalized thinking. They didn’t take the time to figure out what they need to figure out—and they waste your time doing so. While everyone is not an analytical thinker or “external processor,” everyone will benefit from the process of getting things out of your head and onto a page, screen, board, wall, or other miscellaneous bucket. Where doesn’t matter as much as when. The best time to do this is before meetings, phone calls, and other team-oriented environments.

Physical visualized thinking

Digital tools are great. Sometimes, they’re too close to your email and other pings. So here are some analog tools that are great for getting thinking out of your head.

  • Large post-it pages (Easel pad)
  • Regular 3x3 sticky notes (multiple colors if needed)
  • Slickynotes (a fun, glue-free alternative to Post-Its)
  • Harogoma chalk, chalkboard, or chalkboard wall
  • Legal pad
  • Back of an envelope
  • Moleskine
  • Muji notebook
  • Field Notes Notebook
  • Rite in the Rain Notebook
  • 8.5x11 sheet of paper — colored or white
  • 11x17 art paper — available at Walmart or Staples in the art section
  • Graph paper
  • Doane Paper — lines and graph
  • Dot grid paper (Rhodia)
  • Whiteboard, Whiteboard paint
  • Notecards and bulletin boards

The key with physical tools is to find the combination that is the most attractive to you. If you are resisting writing in a Moleskine, try an envelope, or the edge of a newspaper. If Field Notes are too small, try large art paper. Just try different mediums until you find one that allows you to get what’s in your head onto something in the physical world.

Digital visualized thinking

Sometimes, your mind is churning and all you have is your laptop or phone. Here are some tools to have ready to go to get your thinking out of your head...

  • Google Docs (Set up a template)
  • Google Sheets
  • Mind Node, Mind Manager, etc (Mind Mapping Software)
  • Keynote or Powerpoint
  • Microsoft Word
  • Adobe Illustrator, InDesign
  • Ulysses
  • Scrivener
  • iA Writer
  • Stream of conscious writing

Spoken externalized thinking

If you are driving or unable to get something down on paper, you can capture your thoughts with a voice recorder or

  • Voice memo
  • Selfie video
  • Voice mail
  • Tascam or Zoom digital recorder

3. Share or “communicate” your thinking clearly

Now that you’ve taken some time to figure out what you need to figure out,

  • 1‑page summary
  • Email
  • Phone call
  • In-person meeting
  • Digital Zoom meeting
  • Voice memo, voice mail, or etc

Template for 1‑pagers, emails, conversations, or meetings:

  • Here are the main people that need to know this:
  • Here’s the bottom line:
  • Here’s what we need to do:
  • Here’s supporting info: (if any)
  • Here’s the criteria and deadline
  • Here’s how often we will follow up and touch base
  • Here’s background (if any)

4. Follow up, confirm, and repeat back

Touching base with your team to make sure you follow through with what you agreed on builds trust. Without this, teams can start to get frustrated and overworked. Here are a couple ideas for how to follow up:

  • Email — Wanted to check in to see where we are with ________. Could you give me a 5 minute call to discuss?
  • Slack or other instant messages Hey can we touch base about ______? Want to make sure we are still on the same page.
  • 10 minute coaching conversation (The Coaching Habit) What’s on your mind? What else? How can I help?

Clear is kind, unclear is unkind.” Brene Brown

Recommended reading

Cal Newport Deep Work
Steven Pinker The Language Instinct
Brene Brown Dare to Lead

Question: how have you found ways to clarify your expectations to avoid overwork and frustration?

How should it look when it’s done?

Have you ever been disappointed when you don’t get the final OK from a client, boss, colleague, or spouse? For many of our jobs and personal commitments, someone else typically decides if the final product is good to go, or if it still needs adjustments or improvements. In other words, you’re not the final green stamp of approval. This can create frustration because you thought you were done . . . only to discover you have to go back and redo work that you thought was perfect. What if I told you that a simple question could change everything? 

How should it look when it’s done?

The question “How should it look when it’s done?” is a way of asking someone to “paint done for me.” In other words, you’re asking them to clarify the criteria that will give you their blessing or green light. (If you can get it in writing, even better.) It’s a way of asking what is their version of finished and successful? But we don’t always ask this question.

Too often, we operate with an assumption of what it will look like when it’s done for ourselves. And this is simultaneously happening in the mind of your client, spouse, boss, or colleague, too. We don’t take the time to clarify, define, and get specific on the final outcome. This happens in a split second without much thought or effort — and that’s the problem. 

Figuring out what “done” looks like takes a little effort and courage.

Taking time to figure out what done looks like takes a little effort, and a little courage. Productivity writer David Allen often says you have to think harder than you think, but not as hard as you might think. In other words, this thinking process DOES take effort but not as much effort as your brain thinks. Your brain is exaggerating how much time, energy, and thought must be required to clarify.

It’s easier in the short term to leave things unclarified and ambiguous. It’s easy to not ask the question because you don’t want to know the answer. It’s easy not to have to tell your boss that you can’t or aren’t energized to do that thing. It’s easy to commit to a deadline without checking your calendar or other commitments. It’s easy to say yes. It’s easy not to cause a ruckus.
It’s hard to ask a simple question because certainly you have ‘work’ to do. It’s hard to clarify expectations because what if you’re not sure you can pull it off by the proposed deadline and you look incompetent or worse . . . a failure? It’s hard to stop and think for a second because most of us are moving so fast, this behavior is uncommon. 

From your own experience you also know that when you leave things a little grey and unclear, that it never ends well on the other end. You know from your own experience that you have so much more freedom to figure things out and make adjustments BEFORE it’s the final hour. 

Ask the simple question and negotiate.

Consider asking the simple question “what should this look like when it’s done?”—then step back and what what happens. You may find that clear expectations are communicated. More often than not, you may find that their expectations are too much or not possible. In this position (on the front end of a project before the final hour), you have the opportunity to negotiate. You have the opportunity to disagree. You have the chance to agree on what is realistic for the time needed to complete the project based on the resources you have. 

This last part is the key. In these discussions, you are setting yourself up for success, even if you can’t do what is being asked. This is your opportunity to say “while I can’t do that, I can do this.” You must be clear and up front with what you can realistically commit to based on the other circumstances and commitments in your life. Think about your family, your free time, your personal goals. Think about the other “work things” already on your plate that you’ve agreed to. Then talk with your client about what you can agree to accomplish with full energy. 

Variations on the question…

  • What does done look like?
  • Paint done for me” (Brenee Brown)
  • What does success look like?
  • What does wild success look like?

The Focus Tool: Attend, Avoid, Access

If you are feeling distracted and like you need to get focused, you need the right tool to help your brain work better. You need to rewire your brain back to how it is supposed to work.

By default, our brains don’t function in the most useful way possible. We fall into old patterns, begin worrying, and fear sets in. If you’ve ever talked yourself out of doing your work, you know this is true...

The focus tool works like this:

  1. Attend — you attend to, or focus your attention on something super specific
  2. Avoid — you deliberately avoid doing other things 
  3. Access — you access the relevant information to make progress

1. Attend to a specific result

Attention and attendance are closely related. Attending is about showing up. Whatever it is that you are trying to do or accomplish, you must attend to what that is. In other words, you have to go to that place in your brain. It is easy for us to attend to the WRONG things and be driven by what is in front of our face or what is bothering us. But if we want to accomplish our big goals, we have to go to that space. 

2. Avoid distractions

To keep our attention fixed, we must actively avoid information and activities that are not relevant to the goal. In other words, we must make a decision to say “no” to interruptions and other “emergencies” that show up. If you don’t decide ahead of time to actively avoid anything that’s not directly related to the result we are working on, we will get caught up in whatever someone else is deciding is important. 

On the practical side, this means closing your email application and not checking it for hours. It means leaving your phone in a different room with the ringer OFF. It means isolating yourself from activities and conversations that will pull you off track. 

3. Access key info

The third part is to access the relevant information to make progress. In front of your face or at the top of your mind, you must remember or access what is going to help you keep going. 

Some of us work well with a deadline to motivate us. “Access” in this context looks like keeping that deadline front and center while we work on the project. 

Some us work well with some kind of visual prompt. “Access” in this context looks like having a real picture of what you’re trying to create in front of you while you work. 

Brain science: executive functions aren’t default

This is my take on how psychologists and neuroscientists talk about how the brain works. Henry Cloud uses the terms attend, inhibit, remember to describe the same thing. The key is to remember that our brains naturally deviate to a “fear” mindset where we are not operating at our best. 

Are difficult people following you everywhere you go?

Wherever you go, you will always deal with difficult people. 


Many of us buy into the myth that at another job, in another organization, things would be so much easier. 

The truth is there will be difficult people there, too. But we don’t let ourselves believe that. 

We buy into a myth that it can’t be like this at Disney, or Apple, or Pixar.

You don’t want to believe that difficult people is actually the same thing as “people.”

You don’t want to believe there are difficult people everywhere because you want an excuse. You’d love to leave where you are now. So why don’t you? If it’s that bad, then you should get out of there.

Except, you know deep down that you could do something. Except you don’t want to put the time into figuring out the dynamics of how to survive where you are now. You don’t want to lead. 

That’s ok. If you don’t want to step up and lead, then you’re stuck. But here is your new rule: you can’t complain.

Complaining means you don’t want to be the one to solve the problem. You can solve your problem by moving to a new job, setting appropriate boundaries, and to level up. 

You can solve your problem by setting the expectations for what you can tolerate and what you can’t. You can solve your problem by taking 5 minutes to have a conversation that will give you so the peace of mind you need. You can solve your problem by taking a moment to pause, reflect, and respond.

Leaders don’t react, they respond. Just like your body responds to good medicine (see Henry Cloud’s Boundaries).

Leaders solve problems. The problem you’re in right now can be solved — and it starts with you.

Managing your negative inner voice

It’s 6:55 am. You just woke up and realize you have a meeting at 7:30 am and agreed to grab coffee for your coworkers. The line at the drive-thru is always wrapped around the building by 7:00 am and the slow barista is probably working today, but you think you can make it.

You spring out of bed, jump into the shower and do the abbreviated version of your morning routine. You run through the events of your day and it dawns on you that you are having your in-laws over for an early dinner tonight. You agreed with your spouse a few days ago to organize the mess in the living room before they arrive at 5:00pm, but you have a work-related call that’s going to end 30 minutes before that — at the earliest. You devise a plan. As you finish pulling on your socks, you realize: you haven’t yet said a single word today. All of this thinking has happened in your head.

Has anything like this ever happened to you?

Most adults have an inner voice that narrates, reasons, and strategizes all day long. Psychologists call this internal monologue or self-talk. For most adults, the inner voice could be what causes stress in your life.

How you talk to yourself impacts your quality of life and well being.

We all deal with this inner voice differently, but what if managing your inner voice could help you become more productive and pleasant in your life and work?

What if managing your inner voice could help you become more productive and pleasant in your life and work?

Negative talk

Your inner voice is what interprets your boss’s latest comment. Why did he say that? Am I going to get fired? Was it the expression on my face? Why is he always like this?!

Positive talk

On the other hand, your inner voice is what brings meaning and understanding to your life. Oh yeah, I remember why I took this job. I can put up with this. I’ve got this!

We talk to ourselves all the time. You may have heard of the phrase “positive self talk!” — a chant that sounds nice but can seem a little weird. Here’s a different way to think about it: telling ourselves stories.

Telling ourselves stories

We have the ability to tell ourselves stories in our lives. Jonathan Gottschall illustrates how we tell ourselves a stories in his book, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human:

We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories . . . The storytelling mind is allergic to uncertainty, randomness, and coincidence. It is addicted to meaning. If the storytelling mind cannot find meaningful patterns in the world, it will try to impose them. In short, the storytelling mind is a factory that churns out true stories when it can, but will manufacture lies when it can’t.”

Jonathan Gottschall

Even if you don’t remember your dreams, you may have experienced the joy of waking up and being able to see something so much more clearly. You may have also experienced the opposite: waking up and feeling fear or anxiety about an issue, only to find out later, everything was ok. This is because our brains continue to work while we are sleeping: solving problems and bringing meaning to our lives, even when the meaning is wrong. This can become problematic when we have a negative or wrong mindset regarding issues at work.

Our inner voice intersecting with our work

Many of our jobs today are knowledge-based positions. We make sense of information and make decisions based on inputs. You know this is true because if you’re reading this and following, you probably don’t work in a factory every day. Peter Drucker called this knowledge work. Merlin Mann simplified this by saying we bring value to information.

Bringing value to information in our work requires our brains to be functioning at their best. Too often, as you probably experience, our brains are not at our best. Quieting the negative voice in our heads could be your path to doing better work in your job and making great contributions in your family.

How we talk to ourselves is directly correlated to how productive and pleasant we will be. In other words, managing your inner voice is something you will always have to deal with and it will always impact your working mindset.

A possible solution....

Dr. Neil Fiore, author of The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play explains that many adults bring over a I have to inner voice from childhood. This “have to” voice leads to procrastination and stress. An example would be I have to do my taxes or I have to attend this event.

According to Fiore, the “have to” voice creates stress and frustration because it reminds us what it was like to be a helpless child when we could not control our schedule and assignments. The reality is, we are no longer children, and while we do have obligations to our families, job, and country, making ourselves do stuff creates a sense of overwhelm and make ourselves feel like a cog in the system.

His solution is to use a “I choose to” voice, which reminds us that we have agency, we have control, we are adults. When you tell yourself I choose to do my taxes (or whatever), you remember you have control over when it gets done and how it will happen. You may not control the deadline, but you do control how you can manage it. This can apply to other tasks in your job and family such as organizing your files, sending an email, or cleaning the toilets.

The secret to managing your inner voice is to remember it needs to be managed. Just like a good manager would do at a great company, consider how you may be able to play the role of the manger for your thoughts. Remind yourself that you have the ability to CHOOSE what to focus your attention on, you can CHOOSE what to ignore, and choose what things you will allow to loop in your brain as you operate in your daily life.