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?

Direct statements

We all have things we wish we could come right out and say, but often don’t for our own reasons. We may want to preserve a relationship, not hurt someone’s feelings, or reveal what we truly think. We beat around the bush hoping that they might pick up what we’re trying to say. Usually, this strategy does not work. 

The problem is that we want to communicate something but we have fear or uncertainty in our head or heart. We feel a sense of pause and we don’t say what we wish we could. So we either say nothing at all, aka silence, or say a bunch of stuff to lighten the blow.

Adopting a shared language

One of the tools that can help us grow as leaders and with our teams is adopting a shared language. What’s cool about working with a small group is that you can set rules for that specific set of people. While you can’t control everything in your life, organization, or larger structure, you can control your direct circle of influence. An easy way to do that is to develop a shared language that your group understands and can use when needed. 

No one is going to assign you the task to “develop a shared language.” This is something that you must take ownership of and make happen the next time you gather. It’s kind of like a more serious version of an inside joke. Your group gets what you’re saying, but if you weren’t a part of that group, you might be a little confused. Of course, as your group grows, it’s important to share the shared language, just like a nice friend will explain the inside joke to you.

Shared language solutions

Brene Brown has a phrase in Dare to Lead that goes like this: “clear is kind, unclear is unkind.” This is kind of a mantra or anthem to say that unclarity is not going to be tolerated. By beating around the bush, you may think you are being kind, when in reality, your lack of clarity is damaging the group. Better to be clear about what you think than bury your true thoughts deep down inside you.

Henry Cloud in Boundaries for Leaders notes that a Fortune 500 business uses the phrase “just give me the 10%.” This is a way of saying, “can you please skip the BS?” In a situation where someone is obviously hedging around an issue, you can give them the freedom to be clear and kind by asking them to give you the 10%, or what is really on their mind.

The David Allen Company used to say “Silence means we are OK with what’s going on.” Silence can be a terrible thing to deal with in leadership and in relationships. But who said silence has to be miserable? Declaring that everyone is going to agree on what silence means helps everyone. This comes with an implicit expectation that people WILL speak up if they have an issue. Otherwise, the silence communicates approval and support. The trick is to practice this and to ask people to speak up, otherwise, their silence communities they are OK with what’s happening.

Communicate early and often

I’ve experienced it and I’m sure you have too. You’re getting close to a deadline for a project and you’re waiting on 12 essential details to complete everything. 

You’re so close to the deadline that having any conversations or communication will KEEP you from completing the project

So what do you do? 

You skip them... and get to work. 

Seriously though... who has time to communicate early and often when you have a deadline to meet? 

It’s easier to go silent and communicate less when there’s a big event or deadline right around the corner. However, one of the strategic behaviors I want all of us to consider as leaders is this:

We communicate EARLY and OFTEN.

Part 1: Communicating EARLY

This means we talk about stuff while we can still make plenty of adjustments. When you communicate late, there’s often no time left to make changes. On Nov 13, I wrote about how we plan in advance so that ‘lack of time’ is never an issue. Around CFC, we don’t want to fall into the “I didn’t have enough time” trap. That’s not a good excuse! By communicating early, we can keep each other in the loop before it is too late.

When you communicate early... you can let your team know about stuff while there’s still time to figure out key details and other solutions. 

When you communicate early... you allow time for proper planning. See my post from Nov 13 for more planning tips and tricks:

Part 2: Communicating OFTEN

This just means we’re in the pattern of a consistent conversation — not a irregular monologue

So far my personal attempts to achieve this have been:

  • Monthly volunteer training meetings (Saturdays) 
  • Weekly(ish) posts here in Basecamp (like this one)

But I’m sure there’s more I could do and that we could all do... 

Next steps...

  • What, if anything, do you have to communicate that would be better for your team to know SOONER than later?
  • How often have you communicated? 
  • What can we do better to make sure communication is happening EARLY and OFTEN?